Memoir reclaims fading memories

by Jerry Waxler

I’ve been misplacing my car keys for years, but lately I’ve been noticing a more disturbing problem. I keep forgetting where I put my life. I have to think before I remember where a past event fits into the scheme of time. And I’m not alone. Most people older than, say, 50 have to struggle to remember all their vacations, jobs, homes, kids, hobbies, illnesses, friendships. After decades there is just too much information to keep straight. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a big deal. Who cares if I forget when I started singing in a choir, or how many times I saw Close Encounters, or if I can only remember glimpses of the summer I spent in Europe during college? Perhaps I ought to just accept a disappearing past. But I think it’s a worse problem than it first appears. So much of who I am is built from the story of how I got here, and losing the story makes me feel like I’m losing me.

I don’t remember when I first noticed my memory was getting tangled, but I do remember being surprised by it. I didn’t see it coming. I never heard my parents or grandparents complain about feeling confused by too many memories. I’ve never seen it pointed out on television, movies, or the hundreds of self-help books I’ve read. It’s an invisible problem, or at least it was until I noticed. Now, I see how hard it is for anyone over 50 to maintain an organized understanding of their journey. The more I think about the problem, the more it makes sense. The past fades because we let it. When I was young, I didn’t ask my parents about the old days. Since they never talked about their past, they forgot it. And the cycle continues. As I grow older, no one asks me about my past, and now I’m forgetting, too.

It looks like post-modern philosophers like Jacques Derrida are right, that our identity is becoming lost in modern times. But unlike other ills, I believe we can fix this one without waiting for a social upheaval or the discovery of some new medication. We can reclaim our lives by writing about them. Writing lets us revitalize our sense of who we are and how we got here. However, few of us have been trained to write our story, and so we may not believe we can take advantage of the benefits of life story writing. But once you get started, you’ll find it’s really not that hard. As soon as you look, you’ll discover memories, piles of them, like the pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle spilled out in a heap. For most of our lives, we’ve picked up a piece of the puzzle, noticed where it fits, and then tossed it back in the pile! Of course we’re confused.

The key is to snap them into place, and you can do that very simply by writing them along a timeline. Writing anything helps you remember it. This is true with phone numbers and to-do lists. And it’s true for your life story. It seems so obvious and yet it’s a revelation for most people. When you line up the events in order, the sequence starts taking shape.

That’s just the skeleton. Now add flesh. As you review your list of events, watch for ones that jump out. Check to be sure you are comfortable going deeper. If so, jump in. While you’re in the scene, look around. Touch a wall or a table, describe hair styles, dreams, fears, or anything else that you experience while inside the scene. Write it all down. What do the characters say? Were they sitting or standing? What do you smell? Through this window, you begin to make more sense of what happened. In fact, it’s almost magical. You not only regain the memory. You go deeper, revealing more now than you knew when you first went through it.

Some people fear that if they delve too deeply into their memories they might get pulled back into the past. But I’ve found the opposite to be true. As I learn to tell my own story, I have become more curious about the people around me. Rather than pushing me into the past, my life story yanks me into the present with a renewed passion to learn the longings, the patterns, and the relationships that transform this sequence of events into the never ending drama of life.

2 thoughts on “Memoir reclaims fading memories

  1. Timelines rock. It took me a considerable amount of time to create a complete timeline for my life, spanning fifty-several years when I first worked on it. Fortunately I had an extensive collection of old calendars that helped a lot. On other things I asked family members things like “how old were you when we did the Yellowstone trip?”

    Now that I have the timeline, I use it often, to be sure which year we did the Yellowstone trip, among other things. Sometimes I even use it in connection with writing a story.

    One thing I’m diligent about is taking a few minutes around New Years to update the timeline for the year just ended.

  2. This is a fascinating idea, working with a timeline. It just seems like such a big thing, almost overwhelmingly so. Like you have said, so many of my memories seem to be just little bits that float around without the anchor of a specific place in time. I shall think about this some more, for sure.

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