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Our lives are knit up of memories and change.  We mark their course with the artifacts we create; paintings, poems, plays, or simple prose are the signposts we jab into the swirling eddies of our existence to mark the memory of a moment, to capture a perception that was, at that time, true.  A recent experience drove me to reconsider the nature of, and perhaps the validity of, memory.  I am, of course, playing word games to a certain extent.  Yet it is an important word game.  Allow me to explain.

It starts – as many of my reflections do – in that space between waking and sleep. In youth, it seemed, the bridge between those two pastures was short - the stream was narrow, and on a good day one could simply spring over.  Nowadays, the journey is more studied, as our perception of the world grows likewise more studied.  The waking world seems less inclined to release us.  So we create rituals of transition.  An evening glass of wine, quiet music, a book - gentle inducements to allow the rhythm of reality to recede and make Morpheus welcome.

My own ritual combines a home-grown mode of meditation, blending traditional Reike with some type of “structured mental meandering.”  The nature of the latter shifts depending upon my mood. I have written of the lake where I often take myself.  However, recently, I have been wandering the grounds of my childhood home.

I have clear memories of only one house from those years.  I lived there from a year or two after my birth until my first marriage in 1969.  I have been revisiting the days when I was seven or maybe eight years old.  Old enough to play outside unsupervised, but young and small enough to explore the secret pathways and hollows concealed among the shrubbery.  To me it seemed a world leapt full-blown from the pages of The Jungle Book.  Evergreen branches screened me from the street beyond, and stealthy creeping allowed me access to the full sweep of the front of the house. Bird’s nests occasionally grew in the branches, and squirrels scolded my intrusion.  I have enjoyed the return.  Eventually, I mapped our yard, and pushed out into the neighborhood, poking into corners of dusty memory.  Tasha, the name of the boxer who lived two doors to the west.  A bouncy dog, probably more playful than threatening, but still uncertain in recollection.  The alley to the east - did one or two houses intervene?  Relax, see it.  Ah - a duplex! No wonder the confusion.

It was a somniferous diversion that eased me into slumber for quite awhile, a green and golden ramble through portals nigh unto dreaming itself.  And then the reverie stumbled into wide-awake-world.  "Google Earth", I thought.  If I really wanted to know which lane connected to what alley and where one backyard stopped and another began, well, there was an app for that.  And I used it. It was a strangely disorienting experience that I cannot recommend - but probably not for the reason you might suppose.  For many, wandering past your childhood home will prove disconcerting because your home may have disappeared beneath a McMansion or into a Mall.  Would that were the case.  Mine had merely shriveled, dried up like the shell of cicada, still clinging to a limb but desiccated and empty.

The neighborhood was recognizable - eerily so.  The lots that had been vacant when I was a child remain so more than 50 years later.  The alleyways dissected the blocks.  Stroking the mouse allowed an Alice-in-Wonderland recreation of my bike ride to school.  Everything was smaller, lacking in mystery, devoid of wonder.  I was, at first, deeply saddened as if something quite lovely and once loved had died in my absence.  I had not known and had neither grieved nor said good-bye.  But then I realized that this was not my neighborhood, that structure was not my home.  Oh, the latitude and longitude were, no doubt, correct.  Google gets the numbers.  What the app does not understand is the transformative power of memory.  And that was when I realized that I was not, technically, talking about a memory – I was talking about a memoir.

Memory is what one is supposed to testify to in court.  I was here or there and did this or that at this time or another.  Memory can testify to behavior, just as Google can capture digital representations of the street where once I lived.  But that was not where I traveled when I envisioned the house in which I grew up.  When I lay abed, roaming the world of my childhood, I was wandering through a memoir.  The differences are, as the world of publishing occasionally reminds us, significant.  But I am quite ambivalent regarding the notion of which representation is more “truthful.”

The author who presents a memoir as “factual” is subject to public censure as a liar and a fraud.  Perhaps so.  However, I am inclined to assert that memoirs are more “truthful” than memories, than the “facts” contained in a pristine autobiography.  Memoirs define the truths we distill from memory.  After considerable reflection, I am convinced that memoir is the idealized-self interacting with the distorted-other in a way that results in a preferred outcome which increases harmony.  Memoir equals reality reconstructed.

I am aware of the problems with that assertion, particularly if it were to find its way into law or public policy: “So you see, your honor, while I did not, in the cold light of the facts, actually purchase the vehicle, don’t you agree I look great in it?”  That is not where I am heading.

I am moving more in the direction of memoir reflecting that which we should have learned from remembered events had we been more thoughtful, more attentive to the surrounding harmony.  Memories and memoirs are both the product of recollection and interpretation.  Interpretation is mandatory because no input is merely recorded in our brains.  Input is always woven into the tapestry of meaningfulness that is the ongoing product of consciousness.  Perhaps a good way to think about it is that memory is the raw clay, the actual “facts” of the event.  The lessons we learn from the experience over the course of our life, the way we fit those lessons into our chord, into the harmonic life we create, that is memoir.  Memoir is memory, glazed and fired.

Robert Schrag

Robert Schrag has been a communication professor for over 40 years. He is also a painter, sculptor, husband, and father of two.

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