“People forget years and remember moments.”
– Ann Beattie
That quote becomes ever more germane to my life. I cast my mind back in time, and a torrent of memories flows, almost never in chronological sequence. Some memories evoke visceral responses. Some make me laugh. Others can make me bawl like a baby. While I can easily affix years here and there, quite a few exist in hazily delineated categories like: Before Dad’s Death, Before Music, Before NYC, Before Marriage, Before Fatherhood, Before 9/11, Before Phoenicia, Before Uncle Rock, to name a few. Clearly, in years to come, God willing, there will be Before Pandemic and After Pandemic categories.
While it appears my memory for some things is better than most, I occasionally misfile. This becomes clear when I commiserate with a person with whom I am in a long-term relationship – friend, loved one, acquaintance.
One of the riches these relationships afford is a communal sense of history, memories kept like treasures in a box, shared visions connecting us, making us feel less alone, more safe. Religions and countries are, in fact, built on such agreed-upon stories, just like relationships.
Of course, inevitably someone remembers something differently, sometimes very differently, or recalls something featuring you, something of which you have no recollection. At all. While this can be helpful, and entertaining if it involves, say, toddler time, or perhaps that time with the single malt, it has caused friction in my life, and in everyone’s lives. Sometimes this friction is very destructive. People cling to their stories, to their versions, despite protest. This is a peculiar human trait, from children to the highest halls of power, this doubling down even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Although, to be fair, I’ve held to my version, and still sometimes do, though I’ve gotten better at adhering to the twelve-step adage: “What someone else thinks of me is none of my business.”
What becomes ever clearer is the extent to which others have stories they hold as true about me, about you, about everyone. It’s not paranoid to think that. It can actually be quite humbling when the opposite proves true, as when you realize someone is not thinking of you at all, or something cataclysmic left no mark on someone you presumed connected to you through memory, through story. That can be heartbreaking, but instructive. It can also be freeing.
I’ve been on both sides. I have compulsively created stories, both consciously and otherwise, of everyone in my life. How they feel about things, about the world, about me. Sometimes, when we talk, it appears I am spot-on with my story, though certainly not always. And sometimes I misjudge wildly, piloting myself through a complete fantasyland I took for a consensual reality.
I recently came to the conclusion that a relationship’s health is directly proportional to the degree one accepts another’s story of them. We’re talking the flaws, the inaccuracies, exaggerations both slight and wild, judgments, underestimations. All of it. Or at least all of it that can be remembered.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.