The unreliability of memory

I’m reading Jeanette Winterson’s novel Lighthousekeeping, which contains (in addition to a forlorn Scottish lighthouse, an anguished pastor, Charles Darwin, a dog with legs of different lengths and a sage orphan) ruminations on the nature of storytelling and, in a way, memory. For example:

The continuous narrative of existence is a lie. There is no continuous narrative, there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.

Memory is like that — we remember the highs, the lows, the oddities, the moment of laughter, or the moment of tears. But whole days, weeks, and months of  existence, perhaps banal, perhaps not, disappear from view. There are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.

“What is startling about memory is its willful persistence and its obsession with detail,” Robert Angell wrote in his collection of essays Let Me Finish.

This is also true.

But the details can be so elusive, and when uncovered prove surprising. My 19-month-old son has in the past few months fallen in love with music. If he likes a song, he wants to hear it over and over again, sometimes to the point where I think I cannot survive another rendition of, for example, “Splish, Splash Elmo’s Takin’ a Bath.” I am trying to expand his musical interests and tastes, both for his sake and my own. I’ve done quite a bit of browsing on iTunes. I struggled to remember what I used to listen to as a young child, thinking that Aaron might like the same. My parents listened to a lot of the folk music that was popular in their generation: the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas. Their tastes became my own preferences, for a time. I have fond memories of singing “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

At some point, perhaps in high school, I noticed that “Puff the Magic Dragon” is more a bittersweet than happy song, as I had long thought. As a kid, I imagined a dragon and a child who were friends, and that was enough.

The other day I remembered a song I used to sing, loud and full of glee. I had not thought of the song in many years, Pete Seeger’s “Garbage.” Throughout much of the song, Seeger chants “garbage, garbage, garbage” in a low, almost comical (I thought) voice. As a kid, I loved belting out that “garbage, garbage, garbage” chorus over and over again. I thought it was hilarious, maybe even a little bit forbidden.

I thought my son, for whom the weekly appearance of the garbage truck is a bit like a gaggle of pre-teen girls encountering Justin Bieber, might also like a song that reveled in trash.

I listened to a clip of the Seeger song on iTunes yesterday. I heard Seeger’s growly chant (garbage, garbage, garbage!) and was stunned to find that the lyrics that followed were not of a fun, children’s romp, but a serious, angry manifesto of sorts. A sampling:

Mr. Thompson starts his Cadillac and winds it down the freeway track
Leaving friends and neighbors in a hydro-carbon haze;
He’s joined by lots of smaller cars all sending gases to the stars.
There they form a seething cloud that hangs for thirty days.
And the sun licks down into it with an ultraviolet tongue.
Till it turns to smog and settles down and ends up in our lungs, oh,
Garbage garbage…Garbage!
We’re filling up the sky with garbage (garbage…)
What will we do
When there’s nothing left to breathe but garbage (garbage…)*

Oh, the nature of memory! So selective and so slippery. There are lit-up bits, and the rest is dark. The lit-up bits persist, stubbornly. And rest that’s dark: that part is just as stubborn in its absence. I remembered my joy in the song, not the anger or the almost apocalyptic future Seeger describes at the end.**

In the introduction to Let Me Finish, Angell wrote:

Our stories about our own lives are a form of fiction, I began to see, and become more insistent as we grow older, even as we try to make them come out in some other way.

I don’t think I quite understood what he meant when I blogged about that collection of essays a couple of years ago. I think I’m starting to.


* You can see Seeger performing “Garbage” here.
**Let’s put aside for a moment the obvious questions about what my parents were thinking, what listening to this sort of thing as a small child did to me psychologically, etc, etc.


10 thoughts on “The unreliability of memory

  1. Puff the Magic Dragon! I think I always thought that was a sad song, though I was a serious child. Dudelet seems to have gone off music at the moment, though only after ensuring that I never want to hear the Arcade Fire’s “Neon Bible” ever again. It was cute that his favourite record was a trendy indie album for the first 5 listens but after not being allowed to play ANYTHING else for 18 months…(I am NOT exagerrating!)

    I have a lot of sympathy with Angell’s view. I might blog about that.

    • Oh wow, you have my sympathy and understanding on the overplaying of the Arcade Fire album.
      Angell is a master – I highly recommend that book of essays, which is, really, a memoir, even though he says it isn’t.

  2. Child-rearing is all about selective memory, too…when I think of the first few months after having a baby, it’s just one image to me now: sitting in the dark at 3am feeding Charlotte with blankets over us both. Last summer with her is another image (or a few related images): her wearing just a onesie and us sticking together because we’re both so sweaty.

    Kids grow so fast and so much happens every day, week or month that it’s hard to capture everything–I think my mom’s brain has to work even harder to remember as much as I can, and condense the highlights into a neat package for later.

    • Hey Christine! In my case, I’m not sure whether it’s selective memory or just the ravages of extreme sleep deprivation in the first months of motherhood. That time period is really, really fuzzy. Still, I remember some really bad moments, and some amazing ones, just very little of the drudgery in between (or pregnancy, for that matter).

  3. I love that quote from Jeanette Winterson! I think it is really true.

    I also love this bit (from you): “Oh, the nature of memory! So selective and so slippery.”

    • Re-reading that bit, I think it’s possible I’ve been reading a little too much Dr. Seuss, what with the “Oh” and the exclamation point.
      I have never read any of Winterson’s novels until this point, and I’m really impressed with the language/writing. I recommend “Lighthousekeeping” so far.

  4. Yep, lit up all right: Virginia Woolf called them “moments of being.” So true, and so odd some of the things we remember. I remember one such moment from childhood: an ordinary school afternoon, nothing happened but my awareness of the the playground outside. I’m not even sure if there were other kids out there. Why do I remember it? It was some awareness of Being, per Woolf.

    • Oh, this is starting to get very philosophical. :) It is strange how some memories are seemingly devoid of meaning – and yet, like you say, they prove an awareness of existence, or maybe, as Cynthia says in the comment below, they are windows that if worked at, could open to more meaning.

  5. Elizabeth, your post is a nice counterpoint to what I’ve been writing about lately. I love the words from Lighthousekeeping despite the fact that I disagree with them. I believe that there is a continuous narrative of existence but that memory makes it difficult to access. Those lit-up moments (or moments of being) are sometimes windows into which we can look for other clues to fill in the thread that links us as all one person from childhood through adulthood. Photos can help fill in the blanks too. Last week I found an old photo of one of my counselors from camp. I had no idea what her name was. A couple of days later I picked up the photo again and there it was–Sunni Light.

    • You’re right, there are those windows — the dark spots can become illuminated. Memory is such a tricky business! Glad you’ve been able to piece together your camp memories.

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