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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Memory and Imagination


We cross from memory into imagination with only a vague awareness of change.”
Simon Van Booy (The Illusion of Separateness)

My friend, Ellen, and I are working together, when we can make the time, on memoirs. I discovered very early that a memory is never the whole truth of any situation. There is much supposition and active imagination involved. And sometimes, you just have to make it up. Because to make a story complete, we have to reach back in time to when we were barely conscious beings, and imagine what the people who surrounded us meant by the things they said, or why they did the things they did. We have to make up dialogue based on that supposition, and in essence, make the characters, though they were real, into images of our own creation.

We think we know what motivated our family, what their demons may have been, and we think of them as good or bad based on our own feelings about them. Very few of us asked a parent or a sibling, “Why did you say that!” or “What made you do that?” Not because we were dolts, but because it would never have occurred to us as children, and we already thought we knew. We ourselves interpreted the meaning of their words and behavior, based upon its effect on us, and not on their actual explanation or verified motivation. Our memories of our childhood, then, are our own feelings and thoughts rather than factual knowledge.

Sometimes, we are shocked when we ask a brother or sister, if we're fortunate enough to have one, about a specific incident, and their memory is entirely different from ours. We argue with them about the facts of the situation, but rarely are two memories the same regardless of whether both were present at the time. Even with short term memory this is true, much less when digging back in time thirty or forty years. So what we truly remember is our own interpretation of the incident. As adults, we may or may not have a living parent with whom we can check out the details. When I tried that with my own mother, I discovered that she would simply not remember the things that I had experienced as bad. “Oh, Jane, that was so long ago. I just don't remember.” She had selectively forgotten, which may be a blessing when you get right down to it. Why remember things that are unchangeable? As the Taoists would say, “Let them flow away like waves on the ocean.”

Sometimes, my mother, who never strove for consciousness, was an old Buddha. Love and age had cleared the channels of self-interest and resentment. At the end, she was a pretty clear stream. But then, she wasn't trying to write a memoir. She was only trying to live her life as a good person. Maybe there's something to be said for that.

                                                                In the Spirit,


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