Deja Vu

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We glimpse some common object
or catch a stray scent,
and we are hurled back,
arriving in our past
the same instant we are retrieved,
as if the mind,
noting the discrepancy,
corrects itself.

Memories are not snapshots
waiting for us in the brain’s dark folds.
We live them again,
one neuron sparking another
and another, the original band
reunited, setting a flimsy stage
on which we reappear.

This happens so fast
that sometimes we don’t know
where we went.
All we are given is the receipt:
a teasing brush of joy
we try to keep
and lose at once.

 

 

Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

Past Lives

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Past Lives

Sometimes they are not dead.
Sometimes they just live far away,
and even if you stopped by for a visit
what words would persuade them
of your betterment, the worth
you finally achieved?
What could they do but listen and nod,
knowing what they know?

 

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Love and Lilacs

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When I smell lilac blossoms, I am fourteen again and lying in tall sweet grass with my boyfriend. His hair is blonde and curly, and when he smiles, which is often, his blue eyes turn into twin crescents. There are summer cottages just a few yards away, and people moving back into them, but we are tucked behind a tall hedge and no one can see us. We kiss one long last time before getting to our feet and then, laughing, we brush the telltale grass off each others’ back. At the end of my street he pulls me close and kisses me again—this boy loves to kiss—and then he turns and starts walking down the dirt path along the railroad tracks. I do not take my eyes off him. Twice, maybe three times, he turns and waves, and though I can’t see his face, I know he is smiling.

Back east, where I grew up, lilacs grow like weeds. Each spring their branch tips burst into bunches of light lavender flowers that droop and nod in the breeze. On warm days, you live in their perfume. Tender and persuasive, the scent is like no other. There were roses in my youth, big dew-covered blooms lolling over white fences, but smelling them now does not take me back in time. Roses are not lilacs.

We were fourteen and in love. While I appreciate nature now, back then it was clemency, a place to disappear, and this boy and I were as much a part of it as the plants we hid among, all of us getting the same sun and rain and wind.

Scientists tell us that memories are stored at the connection points between neurons in the brain. The brain has approximately 100 billion neurons, each one potentially connecting to 10,000 other neurons. As information moves through the networks of the brain, the activity of the neurons causes the connection points to become stronger or weaker in response. This process, synaptic plasticity, is how the brain stores information. Once a memory has been created, aromas are potent triggers for recall.

This boy lives in me, my memories of him clear and true because they are welded in place. His wife has him now, but his boyhood belongs to me, as I presumably live on in him. I only need lilac blooms to bring him back and give our sweet youth another moment in the sun.

Photo by Breelynne on Foter.com / CC BY

All At Once

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Most of the time our feelings are produced by our thoughts. We think of a person or situation, and our bodies respond with love, anger, fear, regret, despair, disgust—there’s no end to the places our minds can take us.

But sometimes the obverse is true. For just an instant, we are brushed by a fragment of memory. We pause, transfixed, thrilled not by the memory itself, which never coalesces, but by our closeness to it. We scramble after this phantom, try to fix it in time. Too late. It was gone as soon as it arrived, like the rainbow flash of an abalone shell before the dark waves rush over.

For me, these sensations occur most frequently in the spring, as if the earth, in her exuberance, is churning up my secrets along with her own, reminding me that nothing is lost. Akin to deja vu, this experience involves more certainty than suggestion. We are not stirred by a sense of the familiar but seized by our own lives, summoned to wakefulness. For a second or two, we exist in a portal, the distinction between past and present indiscernible. That fragment of memory was not an idle daydream; it was a clue, a means to the truth. We live all at once and probably forever.

Photo credit: Doreeno via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

 

Our Younger Versions

Recently I watched a video, a movie my brother-in-law made of a family reunion three decades ago: my sisters and I, along with our partners. The video lasted about an hour. I did not take my eyes off it.

I had never seen myself from such a distance. There I was, along with my beautiful sisters, young again. Our hair! Our skin! Along with the physical disparity between my former and present self, I was struck by the tension in my movements and expressions: the diffidence of youth at odds with its daring.

Women at thirty are powerful. We have not yet reached the zenith of our bloom and we are aware of this. The mayhem of our teens and twenties is over, and even if we have not fallen in love for keeps, or made much money, there is time enough ahead. The best is yet to come, we are sure of it. Old age is out there, inevitable but not pertinent.

Ironically, this faith in the future makes us vulnerable to the present, unable to claim it. The feeling that we are unworthy, unready, seeps in like smoke. We spend our days trying to hide our fears, from ourselves and everyone else. We can’t be blamed for these doubts, or for squandering those precious years with bad bets and detours. Youth has its price.

Examining the girl I was in that video made me more compassionate than nostalgic, and I felt kindhearted toward my sisters as well. I’ve been practicing tough love on myself a long time now, forgiving my body’s cave-ins at the rate they appear. As our spiritual leaders tell us, pain is resistance. The bloom is off the rose, time to tend other parts of the garden.

When the video ended I felt altered, agitated, a confusion that lasted all evening. I was not the woman, I was not the girl; I was caught somewhere between the two and uncertain how to proceed.

I’ve always thought of memory as a portal. Nudged by a thought, a scent, an image, we can reenter the past, if only for a second. This fusion is unmistakable, delightful, reminding us that time is only a construct, a handy device for organizing our lives. The truth of our existence lies in these fleeting junctures, when we are back at a place we never actually left.

Joan Didion wrote:  “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

It wasn’t until the next day that I understood what had happened to me, why I felt so lost after seeing my younger self. I had not stayed on nodding terms with that girl, had all but abandoned her, figuring we had nothing left in common, nothing of any use. What a surprise to see her again, not behind me but beside me.

As if I could have managed without her.

First, Do No Harm

Memory. It’s a tricky thing. I’m not talking so much about our short-term memories: where are my keys? what did I come in this room for? I’m referring to long-term recollections, those shape-shifting phantoms that cannot be validated. When I get together with my sisters, we will inevitably discuss an event from our past, each of us spackling in what we remember until a revised sketch emerges. Our memories of these episodes are often incompatible, which should no longer surprise us, but does. At last, reluctantly, we allow these collaborative versions, figuring the truth is in there somewhere.

In the beginning of her book CAT’S EYE, Margaret Atwood compares time to “…a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of the other. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that…”  What a perfect description of memory: a still, fecund pond with murky green water. In near constant succession, images float into view, displacing those around them before sinking back down. Because none of us sees the world the same way, my pictures do not look like your pictures, and what is real for me is not real for you. Each one of us is walking around with a cache of fluid memories from which we derive our identity. Who we are is what we remember.

It’s a flimsy arrangement for sure, and little wonder so many of us flock to therapy, desperate for clues to ourselves. The blurred, random images that represent our lives are not sufficient; we want verification, confirmation, something more solid to stand on than the squishy bottom of a pond. Surely a trained professional knows more about us than we know, can tell us what is wrong with our pictures and lead us out of the mire.

I recently watched a video about the fragility of our minds and how easily our memories can be corrupted, either by natural causes, like stress and aging, or by the intervention of others, specifically therapists. In some cases, I can see the value of dislodging troubling memories; indeed we probably all have painful memories we wish we could break free of. Good therapists are born healers, and I have talked to several people who are endlessly grateful for the treatment they received. Other folks have told me that therapy did not help them at all, and some even regret their sessions, claiming that therapy only made them feel worse. One woman told me she felt lost afterward, unrecognizable to others and a stranger to herself.

Our ability to remember is what enables us to learn: we need our memories to keep us alive and comforted, and to remind us where we are in this world. There are many therapists out there. The best ones, aware of their extraordinary responsibility, proceed with caution and compassion.