During a memoir class at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, my instructor, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, gave us a free write assignment. Imagine you’re barefoot, he said, and walked into the yard of your childhood home. What would you feel?
That early Tuesday evening some months ago, I could not recall a single instance of walking barefoot outside my family’s suburban Boston house. I sat there, pen hovering over notebook, wanting to conjure up some moment when I romped on the grass and dug my toes into the dirt. I associated bare feet with ease and play. But, even after staring at the page for a while, nothing came. Were all of my barefoot memories locked inside some neural container that had, over time, been obliterated?
Instead, I wrote about not being allowed to go outside without shoes, and then imagined what I would have felt had the soles of my feet made contact with the environment. When the exercise was over, I told Harrison what I had done instead. He seemed surprised that I hadn’t wandered outdoors barefoot as a child. Sure, I had taken my shoes off at the beach and enjoyed the sand between my toes, but I had zero recollection of doing that around the house. Was it possible that my emotional memories (that my family of origin was not terribly carefree) had wiped out any recollections of activities that might have a carefree connotation? Or did I go barefoot so rarely that no container for such a memory ever formed? Had it been my choice to wear shoes, because I was afraid of cutting myself on a rock or a piece of glass?
Recently I traveled East to attend my oldest nephew’s high school graduation. He’s become interested in hiking, so I wanted to show him pictures of his father, aunt (me), uncle and grandparents with various mountains in the background. Before I turned nine, we had spent stretches of time in Mexico, Switzerland and Colorado. Parts of these experiences, and the stunning vistas, I did remember. I spent hours late at night combing through hundreds of slides to find suitable images. And I also found pictures of me and my brothers playing barefoot on a rock slab by a river, somewhere near Aspen.
At first I was shocked. Then I wondered if, because we were somewhere other than home, the rules I remembered hadn’t applied, which might also be why the memory never stuck. That image remained trapped on a slide that was stored in a box in the back of a closet. It’s not as if I saw that scene enough to reinforce the memory. And I have no idea if, before that photo was taken, we had flung off our sneakers or if we’d had to lobby our parents to allow us the joys of bare feet. Or maybe they had to convince us to take off our shoes? I can’t be sure.
All I do know is that our current emotional state might affect what memories we have access to and how we might portray them on the page. And what I’ve noticed is that once I have written something, it becomes even more real than the memory. Having recently pored through parts of my childhood — not just the exotic locales but also some surprisingly ordinary moments — it’s been reassuring to see which of my current memories are corroborated by the camera, and very startling to see which are not. Maybe, at times, we were more carefree than I remember.
And I wonder, had these Kodachrome images vanished in a fire, and had I not seen my happy face as I walked barefoot on a rock slab decades before if, while hiking last weekend, I would have taken the time to unlace my boots, peel off my socks, and experience the chilling thrill of dipping my feet into an alpine lake.
Great post Ilona! It’s a great thing to ponder: why some memories stay and others are lost.
Sometimes our memories are like shoes left at the doorstep.
Interesting image…at meditation centers, everyone leaves their shoes at the doorstep (or outside the meditation hall)…so what would happen if a person walked off with someone else’s shoes, or memories?!
Perhaps, then, “someone else” would experience what it’s like to walk barefoot in the grass, or upon hot July cement.
I found it interesting (and a bit disturbing) that most of the fire victims interviewed spoke of losing memories in the fire. While it’s true that physical objects can provoke memories, our memories are safe inside us–“heart pictures,” to use a term borrowed from a Denver Waldorf (Steiner) School teacher. I suppose they meant ‘mementos’ rather than memories. I hope so, else I’m left with a surreal image of deaf-mute memories tied together inside a box licked by tongues of fire.
“Preserve your memories. They’re all that’s left you” –Paul Simon
That was what I was getting at …I’m not sure I would have remembered all kinds of things from childhood without being prompted by the slides. In my experience, my memories are not 100% safe inside me, and those that remain are not necessarily foolproof. Perhaps your consciousness is less fragmented than mine?
You raise an important question. What role does consciousness play in the capture of events? By consciousness, I mean to include not only simple awareness but also subconscious cognition.
It’s been said that our brains collect and store everything that happens around us. To whatever extent that may be true, this storehouse of memories is indeed affected by any number of possibly fragmenting influences, not the least of which is psychological and physical trauma. I agree that objects perhaps unseen for decades can trigger, or release, memories. The concern that all memoirists grapple with, or ought to, is the possibility we might not re-member with accuracy these stored pieces, which does not neccesarily put in question the inherent truth of memories.
We do the best we can with what we have. We explore and set in writing the truth as we perceive it. Fragments fall into place to form a coherent telling, or, as in Harrison’s book, are sometimes presented only as excerpts left for us to sort and piece together inside the reference of our individual experience.
I cross-posted to the Lighthouse blog and someone commented that her only (vivid) memories of walking barefoot are the times she was stung by an insect and stepped on glass, even though she frequently went barefoot. Even if it does store everything, the brain might prioritize certain memories that help with survival. And many powerful memories are activated through smells…so, unless you happen to catch a whiff of something from childhood, you might not be aware that certain memories even exist.