In a critical scene of the film Memento, recall-challenged anti-hero Leonard Shelby laments the failings of memory. “Memory’s unreliable,” he says.
“Memory’s not perfect, it’s not even that good…[it] can change the shape of a room, it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record.”
It’s a dramatic scene that shows Leonard’s penchant for self-justification. It also provides a terrifyingly accurate assessment of memory which we all too often assume to be infallible and which proves time and time again to be tremendously flawed.
Ten years ago I completed my freshman year of college. The evening after my final exam, my dad picked me up from my dorm and drove me back to my parents’ suburban home. When we arrived, I carried the boxes that contained a year of my life up into my childhood bedroom. I imagine that I had dinner with my parents that night, but I have no recollection of it.
In the morning I drove to Best Buy and purchased four albums: Mae’s Destination Beautiful, Ben Folds’ Songs for Silverman, Gatsbys American Dream’s Volcano and The Receiving End of Sirens’ Between the Heart and the Synapse.
Of those four albums, I cannot remember the first times that listened to Destination Beautiful or Songs for Silverman. Those instances probably happened later that day, but I don’t remember them. I have some hazy recollection of my first time through Volcano but, as Gatsbys American Dream has since become my favorite band, I think I might be retconning my memory to fit my current preferences.
What I do remember, vividly, is returning home from Best Buy, peeling the god-awful shrink wrap off of all four albums, and popping Between the Heart and the Synapse – the album for which I was most excited – into my stereo. As I emptied those dorm boxes I let the album wash over me. I knew, as it was happening, as the intensity of ‘Planning A Prison Break’ faded into programming and harmony, that it was a seminal moment in my life. I remember that.
It’s strange to me how vivid that memory is. Given its clarity, it feels recent. But those events happened a decade ago. Other memories – memories that are much, much closer to today – are less clear and seem more distant. Why is that? Why does my 2008 trip to Spain, which was so important to me, seem ancient by comparison? How is it that traveling from the Oregon coast to Chicago in 2012 to meet my newborn nephew feels like it happened a lifetime ago? And upon further reflection, how can it be that listening to ‘Planning A Prison Break’ for the first time seems simultaneously like it happened yesterday and at the dawn of time?
I don’t have answers to any of these questions. Memory, for whatever science understands of it, is a mystery to me. It is strange and malleable and shifting. Inconsistent. To paraphrase an As Tall As Lions song (a song whose entrance into my life I cannot recall): there is nothing that time cannot change.
I felt my life changing as I listened to Between the Heart and Synapse in 2005. That album definitively shaped much of the years that followed. But my life has changed many times in the last ten years. Why are some memories so vibrant when others are not? Why, among so many memories, do I remember that album and that moment so well? Yes, I was young then and I’ve reflected on that moment a great deal, but while those factors are significant they also apply to many moments that I don’t remember nearly as well. All of which makes me wonder: what have I forgotten? What else will I forget?