Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Black and white memories

The lights were bright. They blinded me, but not enough to erase the knowledge that I was standing in front of a crowd of people, performing a tap routine I barely knew. Under the harsh lighting, I stood surrounded by several other girls. We all dressed in matching androgynous outfits. White shirts, ties, suspenders, black pants and tap shoes with our hair pulled back into pony tails. I'd stolen the two former items from my father and, as a result, I looked like a pre-teen boy just entering puberty.

I don't often enjoy remembering this event. Perhaps it was exhilarating at the time, but as an unlikely dancer and a feminine dresser, it's a blunder of my youth that I prefer not to recollect.

Today, out of the blue, my best friend (and fellow tapper) texted me about the tap dancing debacle. "Hey! Remember when I bribed you with pbj sandwiches to do that tap performance with me in high school? :)" It's a thought that rarely occurs to me on its own, but with a little push - all the memories burst through my mind like they occurred last week.

Occasionally I feel like I'm in my own self-inflicted version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. What I choose to commit to memory is entirely unpredictable and gets slowly more corrupted as the years go on. Not because I've gone through any targeted memory erasure procedure, that stuff is solely for the movies and even if I could get lobotomized, I don't think I would go for it.

Like everyone, I have selective memory.

Many of my experiences in life are clouded by perspective. I can't seem to get away from my emotional experiences. They take over the past and therefore inhabit the present, coloring each and every memory with an association. Happiness, sadness, loneliness, pride, embarrassment.

I try to let go of the more negative emotions - pushing those thoughts to the back of my mind and never willingly bringing them back to the front. Instead, all the happiest memories stick in my thoughts, and sometimes that makes the sad things even sadder.

When I've quarreled with a friend, a loved one or even a complete stranger, it's not the actual spark of unhappiness that keeps me dwelling. It's the loss of life's homeostasis. If anything, I'm one to forget the petty issues. After a while of being angry, I forget why I was angry and I go back to feeling the way I always do.

My problem is that my selective memory has the ability to make me sad, but often because it remembers so much of the good and then associates those things with the bad.

I lost my mom when I was a teen and I still haven't fully accepted that fact. Letting go of someone so important is like having someone scrape out a part of your heart with a scalpel and never being able to salvage it again. You don't feel whole anymore.

But the loneliness wouldn't be there if there hadn't been so much positive. My mom played games with me, made dinner for me, comforted me. She loved me. I push the negative memories away and latch onto the positive ones, but that makes the loss even worse.

All relationships are two-fold, though. Of course, I'll never see my relationship with my mom in a bad light - even though there were moments I could've done without. But in the case of non-familial relationships, sometimes it feels like targeted memory erasure is a worthy path.

Instead of erasing all the negative thoughts, as we do naturally (thus creating a resulting longing effect), would it instead be helpful to push away the positives?

Have you ever had a best friend who wronged you terribly? Or maybe someone whom you just grew apart from?

Years down the road you become nostalgic and start wondering what that person is up to. You add them as a friend on Facebook, maybe you even try to rekindle the friendship by meeting up again. But there's nothing there, and inside your heart you knew there wouldn't be.

That friend left for a reason. They exited your life story because they weren't meant to be there. One of my favorite quotes comes from the author John Steinbeck in correspondence with his son on the subject of love: "Nothing good gets away."

Though the good memories may have you hopeful for a repetition of the past, that doesn't mean repetition is possible. People change and grow and become totally unique - you could know someone for years and after a brief separation find out their character is completely different.

It's also quite likely that you've changed and that might make the experiences you had in the past completely inimitable.

Of course this isn't universally true, and it isn't to say that we should let go of everything that isn't immediately surrounding us. In this technological age, that's virtually impossible; we're bound to become increasingly nostalgic, keeping up to date with the goings-on of people we haven't seen even for a decade's time.

What's important, though, is not to let those memories - good or bad - dictate how we feel now. The longer we live in the past, the less time we have in the present and future.

The reason I forgot about the tap dancing incident was because it was an awkward memory that brought up uncomfortable feelings for me. Looking back, I am embarrassed by how I looked that day, unconfident in my dancing. I lost my enthusiasm for performing for a variety of reasons, part of which I attribute to tap dancing in public and feeling worse for it. The memory of spending time with my best friend practicing the routine, however, was good. It was only the emotional association that soured it.

Looking back, I realize that all experiences have dual sides. When I perceive my past as being full of mindless bliss, I'm fooling myself. No experience is completely free of turmoil. But just the same, when I remember only the bad of a situation - I'm missing out on the happy moments during that time.

Knowing that I must ground my happiness in awareness of reality is part of moving forward and no longer thinking about the past in such black and white terms. In the same way, this knowledge makes it possible to ground sadness in reality and move past that as well. Romanticizing in either direction isn't healthy.

Black and white is what keeps us chained to what doesn't matter anymore. But by bringing some color into the picture, perhaps that unintentional target memory erasure won't be so necessary anymore. It is possible to understand the depths of our experiences, but only by looking at them with a discerning eye.

We all have eyes, we just have to learn to use them properly.

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