I don’t remember my first day of school. I don’t remember class picture day in the second grade when I did one thing or another. I don’t remember my first crush, the first goal I scored, my ex-step-siblings. There are so many things I do not remember. I do not remember most of my life – perhaps less of it than other people, or so it seems. It is not that I have a particularly bad memory; I am generally quite adept at remembering information – whether it be numbers, directions, trivia, or scholarly material. I simply do not remember my own life – or at least very large chunks of it.
Most of what I know about myself I know through other peoples’ retelling. I know I went through a phase of wearing ties in the fourth grade because my mother tells me so. But it is not just the trivia of my existence that I do not remember; it falls upon the wife to be the mental archivist of our life together.
I suppose I do not try very hard to aid my memory: I have never kept a journal, not do I feel a great obligation to photo-document the places I go, the things I do, or the people I see. Perhaps I do not remember my life because I am simply too lazy to do so. If I were to bring on board a few mnemonic devices and a better filing system for the ephemera, maybe I would cease forgetting myself. But, somehow, I have the sense that it runs deeper than that.
There are myriad equations used in psychology to describe the processes of forgetting. A German psychologist named Herman Ebbinghaus pioneered the study of forgetting in the late nineteenth century. There are products, devices, classes, and seminars by the bagful out there to improve the ways we learn and remember information, to aid us in taking tests, to retain more of what we read. But these are all of the things I am already good at. I just can’t seem to remember me.
Sometimes I do remember events in my life; it is not that I forget everything. More commonly, though, I remember things that have happened without my role within those events. I might remember a certain exit on a highway indefinitely, but could not tell you anything about what I may have done there, or why I might have been there in the first place – though I never have the sense of any criminal blackout or anything of a sinister ilk. Instead, my memories come more in the form of “We have been here,” but the “we” is indistinct. I assume I am part of that “we,” since, for some reason, I have a memory of a place, but I might as well not be, it is outside of me. This may be the defining element of my not remembering: events in my past exist as profoundly outside of me, as if of some other history waiting for me to memorize rather than remember.
It does not seem to be forgetting that I experience: the lack of memories does not feel like things I used to know, but no longer do. Instead, it seems that I just cannot remember to remember. It is not that I do not remember what I did this morning: I do not think there is any deficiency or defect. Rather, I simply slip out of the events I took part of, leaving memories experienced by some outside other rather than through a subjective lens that would be me. But then again, perhaps that isn’t quite right either. It isn’t that I remember in the third person omniscient; I do not have access to anyone’s state of mind, not do I sense any objective reality to the memories. It is more that I do not sense any perspective, no emotional orientation tied to the motions and moments. Things simply occur, as they have and as they will continue to do.
I am not sure when I began forgetting to remember myself. I used to think it was just my childhood that I didn’t remember, that I had blanked it out for whatever reason. I thought, perhaps, I just didn’t want to remember that past – though I am pretty sure it wasn’t that bad, a bit unstable perhaps, but not bad. But, as I grow older, I still do not seem to remember to remember myself very well. If I do remember something it will be just as likely be played out by Fisher-Price characters in Fisher-Price sets as by the actual people and places – this, the Fisher-Price performances, has apparently become one of my memory vessels. Most often, though, I will only remember words, simple descriptions in the form of “We went to such-and-such place,” along with an equally vague qualifier determining whether said event should be regarded as pleasant or not, essentially a rudimentary algebra of my past.
While I don’t know when I began forgetting to remember, I do know when I started trying to remember to remember. It was when I met the wife. It was from her that I came to understand that other people really do remember their past, that they can sense it as part of themselves. I began making an effort so that I would have stories to tell her, things to share with her. I started asking my parents about my childhood, scouring photo albums hoping it would spark memories. For a while it worked, I think. There seemed to be a period of active retrieval back in the nineties – so much so that the wife and I reveled in it, celebrated what we considered exciting new recollections. But now it seems more likely that I was gradually unveiling the memorized stories and images from my period of study.
I think I now remember more of what I do than I used to, though not necessarily more of myself. My memories still seem to follow the format of a vacation recorded entirely by a single photographer: that person who is implicitly there, but never quite registering as part of the trip. I accumulate greater reservoirs of moments than I used to, but still I can’t quite make myself a part of them.
Perhaps this is good enough; maybe this is all the system that is my mind needs to get by, but sometimes I still find it disconcerting, or more accurately disconnecting. This all makes some of the most basic questions difficult – I often find “How are you?” to be exceedingly problematic to answer. I don’t mean the simple version of that question, the one checking on my immediate state of health; I have problems with the broader scope of the question, the occasional query of my general sense of well-being. This paucity of remembering makes comparison challenging, knowing if I am better or worse than my historical average an impossibility. How am I to know whether I am behaving normally if I do not normally remember me?
Perhaps this is why I am so drawn to the film Memento
, why I spend as much time as I do with dictionaries looking for ways to make my words more subtle and nuanced, why I do a lot of things actually. I have never tried to court a wide range of friends – in fact I seem to cap the search for relationships in the single digits. I tend towards routine and simplicity, pattern and practice. I don’t think I do this as a repetitive aid to memory; instead I seem to keep my field of experience to a minimum so as to have less to not remember.
I get the sense from other people that I should be unhappy about this relationship with my past, that I am missing something fundamental to growing up or being an adult, that I may somehow be incomplete; sometimes I even have the feeling that they may be right. Perhaps I would be less afraid of the world around me if I remembered it better. Perhaps my life would be easier, or I would be a better person. Maybe, somehow, from the beginning, I got the whole remembering to remember thing wrong, I somehow taught myself an incomplete system just as I taught myself to write in cursive from a handwriting chart that omitted the instruction to connect the letters together [this event was repeatedly recalled for me by my mother].
In the end, though, I am most drawn to the specific grammar that surrounds my memory, the linguistic configurations I must employ to adequately describe my not remembering to remember. Saying that I forget my past too closely aligns itself with a perceived loss, a sense that I possessed something only to have it disappear, or be taken from me, at some later date. How should I best describe this, my sense of never having had much of my past, of existing in isolation from myself, or a few inches to one side or another? Is “not remembering to remember” even a meaningful concept, or does it inevitably lead me to a recursive impossibility.
Still, I have yet to find the words to fit my relationship to my history, to those strange permutations of forgetting and remembering through which I filter my past. It may not really matter whether I ever do, but it somehow seems important – not in a clinical way, but personally, as a means to making sense of myself, to reconciling my narratives. I think what it really comes down to is a desire to find the narrator of my memories since it doesn’t appear to be me.