Time and memory

Time is a strange elastic thing.  A day at home pottering through the domestic routine just whisks away,  and in no time at all we are sitting by the woodburner and then going upstairs to bed.  Two days away in London and time seems to have stretched.  Driving back from the station on Friday afternoon it felt as if we had been away all week.  If you want to get more time out of your life do something different.  I can sort of understand that one.

Time and memory though, that's a strange fluid thing, not the elasticity of stretching out the moment but instead a fluidity, moving, changing, like rushing water.   And just like water,  memory is sometimes cloudy and dark, sometimes pellucidly clear.  We spent Thursday morning last week in the Courtauld Gallery.  This was absolutely my territory when I was at university, forty years ago now.  Somerset House and the Courtauld are right next door to King's College where I studied, and failed to study, English Literature in the seventies.  The Courtauld is a smallish gallery with a fantastic collection of Impressionist paintings.  I used to go to the gallery by myself for an hour or so in the middle of the day to escape a noisy commonroom or to remove myself from sight when there was a lecture I didn't want to go to.  I know I did this, with the intellectual part of my memory, but I can't feel it.  That girl from forty years ago doesn't feel like me.  She was another person.

This is not the case with all the different parts of  my past.  Much of my childhood and adolescence is vivid to me.  The period when my children were very young feels as if it only just happened.  Then much of the time when my first marriage broke up and I struggled with money has slipped down under the water, as has quite a bit of my working life.  Occasional bright memories leap up like a salmon: with my children on a beach in Cornwall lighting a fire in a small stone lined pit  and cooking sausages as the sun went down,  climbing Blencathra in the snow with Ian, the sun setting over the sea in the far North West of Scotland, achingly clear the births of all six of the grandchildren.  Then there are more prosaic but still vivid memories: speaking at a conference in Las Vegas, learning how to plot a course without GPS in a room full of would be sailors in Hoylake, painting a window on a shaky ladder.  But whole tracts of my life seem to have happened to another person, someone I have read about, so that I know the facts but can't recall how it felt or even exactly what I did and some has gone entirely, right down under the water.

I was thinking something like that as we walked along the Strand past the entrance to the college and turned into the Courtauld.  Where had it all gone, those years of my life, disappeared, down under the water.  We paid to see the Botticelli drawings for Dante's Inferno and very beautiful and moving they were.  How strange, I was thinking, that the girl with the long hair and the floaty tops and the platform shoes was me.  I had been here countless times but I felt no connection at all.  I admired the Seurats, I tried to understand the French teenagers laughing in front of me, with only partial success.  And then we went through a door and Manet's girl at a bar in the Folies Bergere looked out across the room and the moment was one of those leaping salmon.


I had been here countless times.  I remembered the tall windows and the sun striping the floor.  I remembered feeling her sadness, as she failed to meet my eye.  I remembered wondering if I had time for one more Cezanne before the bus went and my embroidered bag heavy with books on my shoulder.

And then it went again, back into the stream.  I walked.  I saw different things. We crossed Waterloo Bridge and met a dear friend for lunch.



Comments

  1. I have been thinking about time and memory myself lately. It is almost haunting. Great post.

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    1. I have always been strongly aware of the passing of time but it is only as I have got older that I have become so interested in memory and in what is remembered and what is lost.

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  2. I am grateful that we moved backwards and forwards between Switzerland and South Africa - it helps me sort out the memories, to sharpen some, and blur others.

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    1. It is good to have things like your moves to give you dates and changes to hang your memories on. I have moved house quite a bit in my life and that makes it easier for me to place my memories, or some of them at least!

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  3. Yes, yes, and yes again. For me, there's something that switched as I passed the 60 mark, although that might also have something to do with losing my mom that year as well. But having always had a good memory, I've been surprised to find that some details I never thought would get murky are almost impossible to retrieve now. And when I start to get impatient with myself, I find I'm doing a quick calculation and realising that the event or the place or the person I'm trying to remember dates back 40 or 50 years. No wonder the edges of the memory are so fuzzy. . . but still . . . if I can't hang onto those memories, part of me simply disappears, doesn't she?

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    1. I am not sure about the idea that part of you disappears Frances. I do know what you mean I think and I share your discomfort at the sense that my memories are as fuzzy and fragmented as they are but it doesn't seem to be within my control and as others have suggested in their replies some of the hard things disappear and some of the brightest moments are lodged for ever. The brain tries to protect itself I think from some of the things which are painful to recall. On a less serious note, I have found that blogging for nine years now is a wonderful jog to memory, especially memories of the every day which are less likely to cling. I think I would always want to blog or keep a diary now because I love the way that memories return when I read something I wrote a few years ago and am reminded of the way life has changed, in some ways quite profoundly.

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  4. And a lot more yeses from me! Some of my past has become stories I don't quite believe myself even though I know they're true. Other bits feel indelibly part of the everyday fabric of me. But maybe that too will change one day. And there are a few bright moments - one in particularly stands out, a gypsy afternoon on the Quantock Hills with the four children, all of us barefoot in the soft, dry dust of summer, the six month old youngest on my hip - moments so perfect I think, hope, they will be with me to my last breath.

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    1. Oh I do recognise that sense of your past becoming stories you don't quite believe yourself! And I do think the bright moments stay. I too hope that mine will be with me as long as I live.

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  5. Oh my goodness, you can write! What a wistful, melancholy post. I agree (more yeses!) about the strange fluidity of memories. Sometimes it is like looking into an opalescent pool, with an intermittent convection current underneath, bringing up some memories to the surface and then allowing them to sink away again. Like you, I remember vividly parts of my childhood, and adolescence, and much of the time when my children were small, the moment I first saw them both when they were born. Other memories I know I have probably lost for ever X

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    1. It is very interesting to read your reply Penny. I did not intend the post to be melancholy and I don't think I feel sad, more curious about the way some things stay and some things go, but I do recognise on rereading it that there is a certain wistfulness. I think it comes from how far away I feel from that nineteen year old girl. I don't think she would have expected her life to be as mine has turned out but I think she would be pleased and excited if she knew what was ahead, as well as rather terrified!

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  6. I appreciated and enjoyed reading your reflections on time and memory and imagined myself experiencing some things similarly.

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    1. Thank you. It took me a while to pin this down (and I am not sure whether pinning it down is the right phrase). It's a slippery thing!

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  7. So thoughtful and captivating. I suspect I've subconsciously blanked some of my past, and thinking about it now, I suspect it's the less happy times that have faded or dulled. You've made me think - I shan't write any more now, but I'm going to be pondering this for a while - thank you x

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    1. I do think you are right. While much that has gone under the water is the relentless every day from earlier times, the hard years when I was first on my own are very difficult to recall. That's not a conscious thing in any way. The mind protects itself.

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  8. I don't know what to say. This post really tugged at my emotions, and went really deep. As I read I could feel that I just wanted to cry and cry. Oh dear, no reflection on your post at all Elizabeth! It just made me incredibly sad for times long gone, that I don't want to slip out of memory. Things that happened that brought such joy, and those that I would have wished to be different that cannot be changed. Life is bittersweet, isn't it, so complex and un-understandable. Thank you for this post Elizabeth, very thought provoking.

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    1. Oh Helen, I am sorry if reading the post made you want to cry. For me writing this was in no way sad. I was if anything more curious about the sliding and uncertain way memory works. But you are right that the past is full of things that were wonderful and have gone and were hard or sad and cannot be changed. While we are still here we are still layering it up.

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  9. A lovely post, Elizabeth. I'm always fascinated by how strongly I feel about certain places from my own past. Living close to where I grew up, I find, for example that even a certain stretch of road can make me feel happy or I don't like it at all! Memories and the feelings they evoke are powerful things.

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    1. The impact of place on memory is fascinating. I find myself astonished that buildings and roads remain the same when so much of my life has changed and so many of the people I love have gone. I almost resent it!

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  10. Our memories are often colored with the sweet times of yesteryear and not with whole truth. Those moments, though, when we felt joy and peace stay with us so that we can recollect the person that we were without the struggles that surrounded them.

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    1. I think you are right about memory holding on to pleasant things and losing the times we struggle - not entirely but sufficiently to blur the bad times.

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  11. I was very moved by this post. It is beautifully written and reveals so much with clarity and honesty. I started writing my blog because I became aware how poor my memory is for the precious details of everyday life - it is only by writing them down that I cling on before they vanish.

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    1. It is one of the pleasures of having written a blog for a while now (eight years I think) that I can go back and remind myself of an ordinary day or an extraordinary journey. My short term memory is becoming a bit erratic which is a surprise to me because I always used to have a very good memory. Now every now and then my husband and I have the "I told you about that yesterday", "No you didn't", "Yes I did", "No, oh, maybe, oh dammit..."

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  12. I was very moved by this post. It is beautifully written and reveals so much with clarity and honesty. I started writing my blog because I became aware how poor my memory is for the precious details of everyday life - it is only by writing them down that I cling on before they vanish.

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  13. Some memories are as clear as the day of the event and some seem to have collapsed with time. I am more in touch with memories of occasions or of places - the people seem to come later, with the exception of my children. I sometimes feel as though I am slipping in and out of a crack in time. I will go back and read your post again.

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    1. The image of memories collapsing with time is very vivid. Yes. Mine do. And then some don't at all. How strange it all is.

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  14. Such an interesting post and much to think about here. It's always fascinating to revisit places we knew well in another life, what memories surface. I recently met up with someone who shared my student life in Leeds, after 40 years of following our different paths, and there was so much that had simply vanished from my memory.

    Like you, I feel that the 19 year old girl I once was is not who I am now, although I am intimately connected with her. I would love to protect her from what was to come but equally I am happy with where I am now, that I survived and thrived. Complex.

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    1. Your sentence about protecting your future self and yet surviving and thriving hits it exactly. This life has been very different from the one I expected to live and yet it has led here, to a place where I am happy to be.

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  15. A beautifully written post, I often feel like this especially s y children become young adults and the person I was no longer feels like me, even the person I was 5 or 5 years ago when my life was falling apart isn't me any more! It's a funny thing life. It's absolutely true that we must always seize the moment.

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    1. You raise an interesting thought about how even in a short space of time we can change profoundly. I know I am not the person I was when I was working only a few years ago. Seven years of using my time and energy differently have changed me, even though there is much that remains.

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  16. this was lovely, I thought the image of the salmon jumping out of the water was especially exact. That's just how clear and immediate some memories seem, but then they dive back down under the waves and lose themselves in the sea of time. Perfect.

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    1. Thank you. It is interesting to find how others share our experience, not all others, but enough to make connections.

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  17. My sister remembers almost nothing of her young life, and asks me about it instead. I'm often surprised by how much I can recall - although I dislike remembering my teens and early twenties, as the sensible me that I've become was so strikingly absent in those days! I find that it's often smells that evoke the sharpest memories - school lino, city pavements just as it starts to rain, new cotton fabric. I agree with what you say about the mind protecting itself; forgetting is sometimes a kindness to oneself.

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    1. My mother had a hopeless memory too and was not the person to go if you wanted to check anything about childhood illnesses or whatever! Perhaps that was part of her ability to live in the moment. I do agree about smells. There is a smell which takes me right back to doing exams. It seems to be composed of wooden floors and ink and new paper.

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  18. Yes, i know exactly what you mean about time being strangely elastic.

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    1. It is a strange thing. We have just had a week very much at home because Ian has not been very well and it has gone as quickly as a couple of days. It seems to be partly do with not having things as landmarks in time.

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  19. ~If you want to get more time out of your life do something different~... so very true.. I find that more, as time goes by!

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    1. It does happen more and more to me the older I get. Time speeds up!

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  20. I'm another student of English literature as is my 19-year-old daughter who is home now for a short break and we've been talking and talking and I feel like I'm 19 again and I wonder where the intervening years have gone. My memory is photographic but I try to think only of the past as its remembrance gives me pleasure. Another lovely thought-provoking post Elizabeth, thank you.

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    1. I do so agree with holding those memories which give you pleasure. I have lots of those but I am puzzled by how much I don't remember when what I do remember is so vivid!

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  21. A lovely post, perfectly capturing the pull of the past. I have a strong visual memory and can clearly recall the places and events from my early childhood onwards. Now in my seventies I sometimes have problems hitting immediately on a name or a word but I put that down to the very large filing system that my brain now has to leaf through! I'm not the black and white character of my youth, now quite grey, in all senses, but still essentially the same person - still cup half full!

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    1. Ah yes, I agree about the large filing system! I have a particular thing with foreign languages where the most recent attempt to learn one seems to sit on top of previous attempts so that my never very great French is now all covered up with my not very great Welsh!

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  22. How beautifully written, I understand completely what you mean about some memories leaping and some staying hidden. The leaping moments are truly wonderful, glad you had one this week.

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    1. Thank you for commenting CJ. I do like the fact that we continue to lay down memories and that some of those, with luck, will become the leaping salmon!

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  23. Gosh, what a fabulous post. You're right – a week away can feel like a month. I echo much of what's already been said above. Certain places, certain music, even smells, have the power to whizz us back to a particular moment in time. I'm always struck by how different my disjointed memories are to those of relatives or friends. My brother and I have different memories of childhood moments, for example. Together we try to fill in the gaps!

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    1. That's really interesting! I suspect that my memories and those of my brother would be very different even though we are close in age, close in love and lived the same experiences as children. He is just such a different person that what he notices and what I notice are likely to be different. I am aware of difference with my sister but she is a bit younger. I must ask him.

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  24. Oh, I loved this, and I get exactly what you mean about things seeming to have happened just a very short time ago, even if they are well into the past. As I've gotten older, I treasure those 'leaping salmon' moments you describe - those moments when the memory comes so strongly and so achingly bright that it's almost exactly as if you're reliving it. As I've gotten older, I appreciate those moments so much and try harder to consciously impress them on my mind. I still remember the first time I was really conscious of trying to create one of those memories - sitting in traffic on the way home from #2's violin lessons, fretting over supper and worrying about minutiae, and then suddenly looking at the desert sun beginning to set behind the mountains in our neighborhood in Arizona. I remember very clearly thinking, "I need to remember this, how beautiful it is, because someday I may not be living here." Since then, I've had many moments like that, and I do really try to absorb them into my being, because I somehow feel that's the best way to ensure you'll be able to get them back in those beautiful flashes you described. What a lovely post. x

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    1. I love the idea of the conscious remembering you describe. I often have it here. I look at our view and try to imprint it. I have other places too, very vividly Waterloo bridge in London. I never walk over it without seeing and feeling London. I hope it will always be with me.

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  25. I popped over for a read as I noticed you had started following me on Instagram. Then lo and behold I should find my dear friend MsCaroline commenting on your post. A sign for me to stay, I think.
    Your post certainly resonates with me - time stretching one minute and contracting the next.

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    1. It's great to meet you! Any friend of Caroline's etc! I loved reading your latest blog about skiing in the US. Almost enough to make a total non skier want to ski.

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    2. What a fascinating post. I've been thinking about memory and memories a lot myself recently. Gradually learning to be well after years of ME I am realising the extent to which I have lost whole years, with few if any leaping salmon moments. I've no idea how much of that is to do with the brain fog that comes with ME and how much was the tedium of it all, but to read you describing really quite similar experiences makes me re-evaluate again. I do love those leaping salmon moments that can transport you back. Like bursts of color in a monochrome sea. One thing I learned in those years of illness was that it is vital to seek out coloured moments and to relish them, whether lunch with a good friend, a few minutes gazing at the sea, or time gardening listening to the birds, being present. The last might not create salmon leaping memories but I think they flavour the pot, somehow. Lots to think about.

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    3. I can imagine that an illness like ME would really exacerbate memory problems because you can't do so many of the different things which help you distinguish and provide landmarks in time for you!

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  26. So in tune with this post. Wonderful writing. I know Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère but I'd never really looked at the girl. We all know that far off, I'm not here look. Thank you for stopping time.

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    1. So glad you enjoyed it Lou! I had thought I had a good visual memory of the picture but when I saw it again I realised I hadn't retained the exact expression on her face.

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  27. A truly beautiful posting. In addition to my blog (ten years come November), I still have my mother's diaries, and my childhood diaries. It is great fun to go back to the same day and see how differently she and I lived those days! My mother writes that 'Nan went to the movies.' And mine is full of who was there, who said what, who liked whom - all those intense teenage emotions.

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    1. What an amazing thing to have Nan! Two generations of diaries is really rather wonderful. I never managed to maintain a diary for very long when I was a teenager so my nearly ten years' worth of blogging is wonderful, when I remember to read it, because it lets me see so many things I have nearly forgotten.

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