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On Memory

In my anxious or scary dreams, I am ignored by people I know. Even when they are discussing what I should do, or I am being chased by a killer. I am always apart, and on my own. When ancient memories of stressful or unsettling times come up, they usually are like that, too. I don’t feel like I’m in them; I observe them. Maybe I don’t cross the threshold so I will be able to close the door quickly if I need to.

When I was in my teens, I had a recurring dream of a simple, stark room. It had a metal crib on one wall, and windows on the other side. A woman would enter, smile and leave. Sometimes I was hovering above the scene. Sometimes I was in the crib taking it all in. When I finally mentioned the dream to my mother, she told me it was a memory of when I had my tonsils out at 18 months. My description matched the hospital room set up. Once I knew this, I never dreamed of it again. But the memory stayed.

I always knew memories that seeped into my dreams. This still happens often. But unrecognized memories in my dreams? Do I have other memories that I only know through my dreams? What part of my dreams are actually memories? Or are dreams just dreams now?

Sometimes I embrace memory and cross the threshold to participate. Those memories are more enjoyable, solitary, sensory, and plotless. I’m on the beach on Ship Island. The towel presses into my legs, butt, torso and head. Sand cups my heels. Sunlight diffuses through my sunglasses and eyelids. Birdsong and surf come in out of my conscious hearing. The wind soothes my skin, and tickles the hairs on my legs. Maybe memories like that are safer to open the door to and submerge myself in.

In life, I am often an observer, which could be why I recall more complex memories in a detached way. As a kid, I would try not to bring attention to myself because our household was tense and my parents were both easy to anger. I learned to watch for signs and symptoms of something going bad, and how to diffuse, avoid or wait out what would come next. I set myself apart for self-preservation. My memories from my younger days maintain the distance I was trying to create in life.

My adult work, social science, also is based on standing on the threshold looking out the door to observe the real world. I must keep emotional distance from my observations. I must not allow my own views and preconceived notions get in the way. There is even a term for when you screw it up–bias. There are many kinds of bias: confirmation bias, selection bias, observation bias… It’s when what you know, think you know, or feel gets in the way of your objectivity, and you unconsciously veer from the truth of what is there.

Maybe that’s why I signed up for a memoir writing class? I get to revel in my biases. Accuracy is not tied to the external, unless I choose to ask others or look for more information. It is my chance to make observations with whatever filters I have acquired over time. I get to trust my own memories in whatever form they take. Will the process lead me to a new way of experiencing memory?

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