The human brain is a conundrum. Memory operates under different titles; episodic, spatial, semantic, and factual. All of these things coincide and create connections in our mind, associations which, no matter the want or need to dispel them, forever exist as memory, or at least as long as our human brains can hold onto them.
Episodic memory allows you to track back through your history, a veritable autobiography of events. Spatial memory helps you align the size and placement of things within your past. You can remember the size of a table or the arrangement of furniture through spatial recognition. Semantic memory is the gooey goodness in the center of your grilled cheese-like mind. It helps you to put meaning and substance to otherwise abstract concepts and words. Lastly, factual memory deals with the basic facts of memory. You may remember an event such as a party or a confrontation. This simple memory is the factual portion, but any feelings associated with that would fall somewhere in the realm of the other three. These four concepts blend together to create a tapestry in our minds and like a big fish tale, a lot of the time we get things wrong.
It is a big word. Memory…
The connotation of that word brings to mind, redundant as that may be, sweeping images and swirls of emotion from bygone days. These emotions and images are usually tied together, strung along the infinite highway in our minds, with road signs which point to specific memories along the way.
I remember being eight and sitting in the back of my mother’s maroon Corsica, an area that was overpopulated by a grouchy sister, two years my senior, and my aging grandfather who would chuckle under his breath as we suffered in whispered arguments, trying to avoid the punishment which would surely come again from the front seat.
It was summer vacation, we were in Virginia, and the temperature had skyrocketed to a blistering 97 which doesn’t sound that horrible but in 1992, air conditioning wasn’t quite what it is now. I had delved into a new novel; one that would eventually consume me for random periods throughout the course of my life.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Still, to this day whenever I read it (or teach it), there is one associated memory which plays over and over in my head; Michael W. Smith’s “Place in this World.”
Can you believe that?
Somehow my mind draws together Dracula, a Victorian-era novel about female sexuality and gender role evolution and…a white-bread, adult-contemporary, Christian singer.
The song came on in the car on a continuous hour and fifteen minute loop so, on the long ride home to Ohio, as I sat in the back fully enthralled with my new book, I heard the song about ten times. In my eight year old mind, I connected the lyrics with the book.
I’m looking for a reason, roaming through the night to find my place in this world.
Not a lot to lean on, I need your light to help me find my place in this world.
As a child, I didn’t quite get the religious imagery in these lyrics. Instead, all I did was look at Dracula in a sympathetic light. All he wanted was a place in the world, and he lost his old life, his family, his love. Now that he had the ability to gain that again, and a foothold in a new culture, he just wanted to find and claim that place. In my young mind, I viewed Dracula as a sympathetic character; one where being a vampire was nothing but a tragic flaw.
When I read the book two years later, I saw that he was really just a monster. I mean, it’s pretty obvious, but at eight, I just couldn’t grasp that. Still, as I read the book time and again, the only thing I hear in my head is Michael W. Smith.
This doesn’t make any sense but it is forever engrained in my mind, like food poisoning and Kewpee.
Down that highway in my memory to another stop: Female trench coats.
Let that sink in for a moment. Female trench coats.
Whenever I see them, my mind obviously goes to X-Men, or more specifically, Gambit. He was the Cajun, sex-driven, rogue of the group. He wore a trench coat which was the epitome of cool when you are ten and Saturday morning brings you only gratuitous cartoon violence and mashed together life lessons against the backdrop of civil rights.
My mother had an olive green/brown trench coat, including those incredible, early 90s shoulder pads, and more pockets than anyone could ever need. Still, on Saturday mornings, I would strap that coat on, don gloves of which I had cut off the thumb, index, and pinky fingers, and grab a broom to fully become that Cajun badass.
He wore a leather trench, had fingerless gloves, and carried a staff. I had my mom’s poop green coat, butchered winter gloves, and a broom handle. I was so close I could taste it.
That’s memory for you though. You connect things together, objects and events which help to show you part of yourself. A lot of the time it is funny, but the association isn’t always pleasant.
Age eleven, I was a bullied kid who was beat up constantly, shoved into lockers in a never-ending, clichéd 80’s movie trend which would make up my life for the next two years, that is until I hit a growth spurt and outgrew the bullies. But at this age, I was miserable.
My parents had divorced months earlier, and although I was happy about the absence of constant fighting, I missed my dad. I wanted him there. I needed him there. Sadly, for that first year, I didn’t see him at all. Not once, not a phone call or a letter or a message. I blindly hung on to the idea that he was just busy while my now bitchy, mid-teens sister swore him off completely. I found out years later that dad was in Honduras, doing Black ops for the military. He never talks about it but I was told by people in his unit that it was rough for him, that he came back completely different.
The memory that sticks with me most is waiting patiently at the window for him to drive up. I think that in the back of my mind I knew that he wouldn’t, but at eleven, your dad is infallible and mine was no different.
To this day, every time I hear the old theme song for Monday night football, I go back to that time and it makes me sad, sometimes even tearing up. I remember waiting at the window in the living room, the TV on in the background as I stared out into the world for the patriarch of my family. He would be scheduled to show up at 4. The theme song to Monday Night football started like clockwork at 7 and when that happened, when I heard that sound, I knew that once again, he wasn’t coming.
That feeling of abandonment floods back before I can stuff it down because my mind keeps that wound fresh. I can’t remember any of the games or what played on the network before, but that sensation of disappointment has never left me.
Memories can bring us to our feet in reverence of the past or take us to our knees in overwhelming anger and disappointment. My memory from 2005-2010 is pretty much a blur. It is a scattered amalgam of night after night on tour. My band played all over the Midwest, three to six times a week and we drove everywhere.
I can’t quite pinpoint the exact nights but the memoires are fresh.
There is the night, in the backstage area of The Underground, a club in Ohio which was in the basement of an old wine distillery. The bar was amazing and the backstage area had couches, a computer, and some area to warm up. You would think that the shows were the most important part of these memories but it was always the time spent with my friends in between.
The computer in this instant had no filter. I cannot stress this enough. No filter, so as I was warming up my voice and tuning my guitars with the other guitarist, Matt, our drummer called us over to the desktop to stare at the screen. He was laughing to himself, almost hysterically, and he had something paused on the screen.
Dudes, you have to watch this. It will blow your mind.
We shuffled over behind him and he hit play and then the video horror in front of us began…soft serve ice cream. That’s what it was…
But it wasn’t…
It was “Two Girls, One Cup” and as that became apparent (I hadn’t seen it or even heard of it before), my lunch made a slight reappearance and burned my throat so harshly with stomach acid that I ad trouble hitting notes that night.
Another night, another city, another show. A toga party at a show, and I am draped in a blood red toga and nothing else. We walk in stage to the cheers of the two or three hundred people in attendance and I walk to the center. I scream “This is Sandusky” loudly into the microphone and then 300-Spartan kick the mic into the crowd. We were booted offstage and weren’t allowed to play until the very end.
Once again, don’t remember the shows, just the stupid things we did because although the shows were great and I loved every minute of playing, the emotional moments between my brothers and I were the most important.
The brain latches onto those emotional memories and drives the images home, forever to be kept in the vault of our subconscious. It may mix and match certain memories and add some flavor for the topping, but in the end it is nothing short of emotional importance that we remember.
The World Wrestling Federation always reminds me of my great grandparents. I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap as a very small child and watching WWF with my grandmother. These people were obsessed with wrestling and how real the melodrama playing out on screen was to them. I only have one real memory of my grandfather (he passed shortly after I turned five) and it is of watching Andre the Giant in the ring during a match with Big John Studd.
They were emphatically passionate about Andre. The big man was their child on screen and they loved him more than anything, possibly more than me, especially at this moment. Someone holds down Andre the giant and Big John shaves off his trademark hair.
The world exploded.
I’m on my grandpa’s lap and he starts screaming, his pipe still held between his teeth and spewing tobacco all over the place as he shook his head and shrieked, “THEY CAN’T DO THAT TO ANDRE THE GIANT!!!!” at the screen. My grandmother next to me, completely unhinged, is pulling at her hair and simply screaming unintelligibly, tears in her eyes.
I was young, too young to know what was going on, but I knew it was bad and Big John was not a nice man. This is the only vivid memory I have of my grandfather. I remember little snippets of him hugging me, giving me candy, things of that nature but the only discernable image I can muster in my mind is him screaming about pro wrestling.
That memory may or may not be accurate but to me, it is. It is what I think about every time I see a picture of my grandpa. It makes me smile, it makes me laugh, it bubbles with emotion, no matter the arbitrary event that it was. It is emotion, pure and simple.
Age 13, my father’s father dies. I am in the room. When I think back now, I remember only the Cincinnati Bengals. My grandpa was the only other Bengals fan in the family and so, as he choked on the cancer that would in a few hours take his life completely, he called me over to the hospital bed my family had set up in the living room of his house. I climbed up into bed with him and he smiled at me and lifted his blanket to reveal Bengals socks. He chuckled quietly and through choked, garbled breaths, said, ”You’re the only one left. Keep it strong.”
My mind gives me that so when I think about his dying scene, I remember something that we held so dearly and it makes me smile. And in return for this, when I think about the Bengals, I always remember him, not dying but healthy and screaming about how bad our team was always playing.
Smiles, tears, nostalgia. Our mind can store them all to bring out on a rainy day. I’ll see a picture of the WWF symbol and remember my great-grandparents; I watch the Bengals lose yet again and remember summers with my grandpa playing catch in the backyard; I hear the old Monday night football song and feel abandoned. These are the greatest moments and memories my mind can muster, depressing or happy and they have led me to become who I am because I am built by those memories.
This idea of identity through memory is not new. Think about an Alzheimer patient who goes through the experience of having those memories ripped away. Who are they now? They aren’t the same person you remember or grew up with and as the disease destroys piece after piece of their mind, they revert to who they used to be.
This reversion doesn’t destroy a person but it inherently destroys their relationships. Sons become husbands, daughters become cousins, mothers become girlfriends. It’s all very heartbreaking. Who are we without those relationships? They shape us into the person we are and through those memories we become an individual.
My grandmother went through this change. She approached it like an ice cream cone, positive at first but as things began to drip away, she became less enthralled and more bitter. Slowly I transformed from the dutiful grandson who would rollerblade (because we did that in 2003) to her house to visit into her son who never had enough time for her. My father, who didn’t look enough like his father, was wiped out completely. It got to a point where I couldn’t even see her anymore because she didn’t know who I was and became frightened that I would hurt her.
Unlike what Nicholas Sparks will tell you, Alzheimer’s is not a romantic event…it is world-shattering.
Memories are the oils we use on the canvas of our minds and although they can work in mysterious ways, they always leave us with some sort of feeling. It doesn’t matter the end game as the journey, cliché as it is, makes all the difference.
One more stop on the memory super highway. It is the moment I first felt as though I was truly important. It is the birth of my daughter, one of the happiest moments of my life, and what do I think of?
Ridley Scott’s Alien.