I am notorious amongst my friends for being forgetful. Asking me what I ate for breakfast yesterday will yield a five-minute reflection period, which may or may not result in an answer. At parties I’ve been asked my age, which most people can respond to in a blink and yet there I sit, stumped, subtracting the year of my birth from the current year, assuming I’ve remembered those two years. It seems miraculous I do well in school, studying language which is essentially a memorization game.
Until I realized that there is a distinct difference in why I remember some things, why I do not remember other things, why I most often, remember strange details.
It seems obvious why, despite my lack of information about what I did last week, I can succeed in school. When I study, I repeat everything. I put effort into making sure I can repeat certain bits of information, and I put effort into making sure I can understand that information. Studying is memorization, but it is more repetition. I love routine, so studying and repeating helped lodge vocabulary and formulas into my skull.
I don’t repeat my actions each day. I can’t remember what I did two nights ago because I made no conscious decision to remember what I did two nights ago. This is the same for much of my childhood. I played hundreds of games of wiffle ball in the street in front of my house, but I can’t specifically tell you anything about any of those games; they were all the same wiffle ball game because I let them blend into one, homogenous memory.
I have had few experiences like Proust. When he puts that madeleine in his mouth and his memory floods his every thought, with no decision to make it happen. Involuntary memory happened to me once; one time that I don’t remember. All I know is that I was somewhere, and the smell of that somewhere was the exact smell of my great-grandmother’s house in Pennsylvania. Instantly images of old lady couches, strange trinkets, and paintings of a Venetian port occupied my thoughts. Clips of my memories in that living room started to fill my brain; building card houses on the floor, watching the t.v. with my cranky great-aunts, and hiding from relatives I did not know.
Looking at pictures seems unreal. But now I have stared at so many that I’ve constructed these events to become real. I’ve memorized what the pictures look like, their details and their colors.
I was a quiet child. I’ve lived the majority of my life wallflower-style, silently observing the reality I’ve been placed in. One of my favorite things to do is remember strange things about people and places. Or, maybe “strange” isn’t the right word. Little things, things that big memory overlooks but small memory preserves.
This is how I’ve memorized the maps of the cities I visit. It is part immersion (physically walking the streets), part repetition (using the map, looking at the map) and part using your eyes and your feelings. I have a very decent sense of direction that I continue to fine-tune as I walk. Otherwise, I stare at little things.
The different types of buildings in Amsterdam, their specific brick pattern. The fabric on the seats of the buses in Berlin. How the windows open in that hostel in Barcelona.
I like to observe how people live. When I go to someone’s house for the first, and second, and third, time…I make sure to note how they organize things. I remember the knick-knacks on the bookshelf. I remember exactly how there was fruit sitting out on the table and if it gone the next time I visit. I don’t know who my friends were when I was eight. But I do know where my friends keep the coffee, in which cabinet, in which drawer.
My memory is some strange blend of observation and fiction. When I write about experiences they change. When I live them, they change how I think. I will probably never have an easy time remembering my age; I’m too busy noticing the way you’ve buttoned your shirt, or how you emphasize your words.