The Wisdom Of Trees

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For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by trees. Our yard has at least seven grand old oak trees that I often like to stand underneath and look straight up at the branches so high above me. These oaks were here before our house, which is a little over a hundred years old. These trees house birds, including our beloved owls, squirrels and even a raccoon. Sometimes I will lie on the grass of our backyard and just enjoy their shade and be amazed at how much history they have survived, including ice storms and hurricanes. When there’s wind, the branches move rhythmically, the leaves rustling. In the early morning and in the evening, they are filled with birdsong.

The Lorax

I’m not sure where my love of trees came from. Perhaps from reading books like The Lorax or The Giving Tree? Perhaps it was from all the time I spent exploring the woods as a boy? As a child, I used to go out into the woods behind our house with a field guide to trees of North Carolina to see how many I could identify.  I would spend hours out in the woods during the months of summer vacation. Or from the small apple orchard on my grandparents’ farm. My cousins and I used to love climbing, picking and devouring apples until our tummies ached. If we weren’t careful and because we were barefoot, we sometimes got stung by bees that had gotten in the apples that had fallen from the branches and were rotting on the ground. There was also our neighbor’s weeping willow tree that my friends and I used to lie beneath its drooping canopy and we would talk about what our lives might be like when we grew up or we would make up stories (usually a patchwork of stories we’d read in books or heard told to us).

To me, the trees seemed magical, as if they could have woodland spirits living in them.  Fairy tales are filled with forests of trees. The woods were always magical and mythical. Those stories helped to fuel my interest in nature. Certainly I couldn’t help but picture trees through the eyes of the fairy tale illustrations of Arthur Rackham, with his gnarled and twisted dryads. Trees seemed fairy-like and full of secrets that they would remain silent about. Perhaps if I listened closely enough to their branches and leaves rustling in wind, I might hear them whispering to each other?

Arthur Rackham

Yet, even as I grew older, I never lost my interest in trees. Since I loved to draw, I often used to take my sketch pad out and draw trees, sometimes focusing on only a small section or trying to get the texture of the bark right. I would later learn that I was not the only one, as Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks were filled with sketches and notes on trees. da Vinci also was the first to  note that, as trees shed their foliage in the fall, they revealed a nearly universal growth pattern; in that there was a simple yet startling relationship that always holds between the size of a tree’s trunk and sizes of its branches. As he wrote in one of his notebooks, over 500 years ago, “”all the branches of a tree at every stage of its height when put together are equal in thickness to the trunk.” Essentially what this means is that, if a tree’s branches were folded upward and squeezed together, the tree would look like one big trunk with the same thickness from top to bottom.

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I also loved studying the moss and lichen that grow on the bark of trees.  There is an interaction and beauty that resembles both art and poetry between the moss, the lichen and the tree itself.

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There is something magical about the way moss in the forest grows on roots. One fully expects to catch a glimpse of a fairy flittering about in such a way as to be mistaken by a butterfly.

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On my walks, I stop often to just observe and notice (much to the chagrin, sometimes, of anyone walking with me). I bend down and get a closer look, to examine and see the amazing balance and to touch the softness of the moss with my fingers – gently – so as not to damage the mossy bed itself.

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In her book Gathering Moss: The Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “One gram of  moss . . . about the size of a muffin, would harbour 150,000 protozoa, 132,000 tardigrades, 3,000 springtails, 800 rotifers, 500 nematodes, 400 mites, and 200 fly larvae. These numbers tell us something about the astounding quantity of life in a handful of moss.” When I read that, I was amazed and delighted by the idea that there is so much life going on in such a small bit of moss. Is it any wonder, then, that I love looking at and taking photos of mossy tree roots? Or simply of the roots themselves?

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“To be rooted,” Simone Weil wrote, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” This quote always comes to mind when I am looking at the root systems of trees.

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We live in an age where people prefer to move every few years and there is more uprootedness than with previous generations. What are we losing because of this? A sense of community? We have lived in our house for over twenty years and yet I am constantly amazed by what I discover by simply walking in our backyard. By looking at the trees and their branches reaching skyward at different hours of the day or by season.

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“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers,” wrote Nobel prize winner Hermann Hesse, “I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farm boy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.”

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I could not agree with Hesse more. Whenever I walk in verdant forests, under the canopy of their leaves, I feel as if I have found sanctuary. There is something ancient and wise about trees and there is a truth hidden deep within them. I cannot help but touch their bark and feel its roughness on my hands.

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Or to find joy in the way light comes through their leaves: a chiaroscuro of light and dark. And to realize that no two leaves are exactly alike.

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And to think that each tree grew from a small kernel or seed or acorn. That such immense and grand life started from that small spark, as if to remind us that we all did. That we are all of us made up of the stuff of stars. One can see life in these trees just as we can our own children. We can see the veins in leaves just as our own bodies have veins.

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Yet how often do we pay scant attention to the trees around us?

Most barely do – unless there is a coming storm and we fear that these trees branches might come crashing down on our homes or that the very trees themselves will be uprooted in heavy winds and smash down on our cars or our houses.

“A few minutes ago,” John Muir wrote, “every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their song never cease.”

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There is such strength in trees.

They should teach us that, like leaves in autumn, we must let go of things and, that with each spring, new life begins within us. Is it any wonder so many cultures view trees as sacred and holy? If only we did, instead of tearing down such forests to make way for another grocery store or subdivision or, in the case of the woods I played in as a child, soccer fields for the local school. How much is lost by children no longer being able to explore and be within those glorious woods, amidst the wonder of its trees? Unsupervised and unscheduled play and delight and finding connection to the very trees themselves.

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I want to quote from Hermann Hesse again, as he writes, “When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.”

Stop wandering. Be still. Be present to these trees. Be silent among them. Forget your smartphone or your iPod and listen to the sounds they make. This is not escaping, this is more than existing, this is being and living as we are meant to live. It is to  understand the memories of our ancestors and of the metaphors that trees so often offer us. Trees remind us of birth and life and death and we must think on all of these things because they are interconnected and natural as the woods themselves.

Be among the trees. Listen to the long-breathing, rustling leaves. Hear the voices of the trees. Do not rush through the woods, but walk without hastiness. In his book The Tree, John Fowles wrote, “I cherish trees because of their natural correspondence with the greener, more mysterious processes of mind – and because they seem to me the best, most revealing messengers to us from all nature, the nearest to its heart.”

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The poet William Blake wrote, “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”

Be one of those people who are moved to tears of joys by trees. Be a person of imagination, as Blake suggests.

Take time to dwell in the woods. Be like children in the Hundred Acres Wood or the one from The Wind in the Willows. Listen to the song of the trees. Know that within those trees stirs the sap of life. See the woods and forests and trees for more than mere scientific knowledge or for their utility (timber and fruit) or for landscaping purposes but see trees as poetry, necessity, and as beauty beyond mere aesthetics.

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As the French author Marcel Proust wrote, ““We have nothing to fear and a great deal to learn from trees, that vigorous and pacific tribe which without stint produces strengthening essences for us, soothing balms, and in whose gracious company we spend so many cool, silent, and intimate hours.”

Take the time to spend “intimate hours” with such “gracious company.”

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To plant a tree is to offer hope, to believe in a future.

To walk among great, grand trees is to be filled with awe. We must learn from the trees: learn to be rooted in silence, to find strength in stillness. May we all cherish the company and wisdom of trees.

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Puzzle Pieces

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In his beautiful poem “Saint Francis and the Sow,” Galway Kinnell wrote:

The bud

stands for all things,

even for those things that don’t flower,

for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;

though sometimes it is necessary

to reteach a thing its loveliness,

to put a hand on its brow

of the flower

and retell it in words and in touch

it is lovely

until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing

The lines that struck me upon first reading it were, “Though sometimes it is necessary / to reteach a thing its loveliness…”

How many of us need to relearn that we are lovely and that there is beauty in us? It can be so easy to see the loveliness of a flower and just accept that it is without question. A field of wildflowers or an immaculately tended flower garden can nourish us in ways nothing else can. Yet how seldom do we look at ourselves as something as lovely as the daffodils that William Wordsworth wrote about in his poem? How many of us struggle with identity and self-hood and self-worth?

My younger son was adopted from Ukraine. Though he has been with us nearly five years, he wrestles with his identity. He still sees himself through the lens of his past experience and has trouble accepting that he’s accepted and loved. Since he loves to put together puzzles, I used what he enjoyed doing and understood to give him this analogy:

Picking up a small, not very pretty piece of a puzzle he was working on, I asked him, “Is this the whole puzzle?”

He gave me a look like: Are you crazy? It was obvious to him that it wasn’t the whole puzzle and he told me so.

“Okay,” I continued, “this isn’t the whole puzzle but just a small piece of it, right?” He agreed with me. “This is Ukraine. Now it’s now the whole puzzle but one piece of it. Now it will always be a piece of the puzzle, a part of who you are, but it is not all of who you are and doesn’t define your whole life. Just as this plain, boring looking piece doesn’t define or make up the whole puzzle. If we don’t have this piece, however, we are missing a part of the whole. So it’s important to recognize this, but to not allow it to be our entire focus. There  is so much more to the puzzle than this one piece and you have a whole glorious puzzle to put together ahead of you.”

Now this metaphor is one that stays with him, though I remind him of it whenever he gets stuck with his past being his present.

Like many of us, he is being taught that he is beautiful and lovely and of value and worth. Just as Galway Kinnell wrote in his poem, my son will need to be told in “words and touch” that he is.

His past contains so much grief and trauma that it often overshadows the joy and love of his present circumstances. What is happening now is filtered through the lens of his past experience so that it, not what is really occurring, is his reality.  My own childhood was not a normal one; though I have come to realize that very people had what can be considered normal. Like my son, I, too, see the world sometimes, not as it is, but through all of the fears, hurts and losses I have experienced. One of the greatest authors on the subject of memory and the past, Marcel Proust, wrote in his monumental In Search of Lost Time, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Why?

Because so often we don’t see what’s there because we are filtering it through our past experiences. We interpret our circumstances according to how he have done so in the same way that we remember things: not necessarily as they are, but as we remembered them to be. That’s why Proust writes, “My destination is no longer a place, but a new way of seeing.”

To truly see, we must let go of our biases. This can be difficult when grief is so woven into the fabrics of our past through abuse, neglect, trauma, or sexual abuse. How much of how they see the world is through the lens of self, so that, if the self is damaged then one cannot help but view the world as hostile, frightening, dark, or overwhelming. So often how we see ourselves is how we see the world.

We build a self from our stored memories, from the social interactions we’ve had, from the emotions and experiences (positive or negative). Selfhood is created of the symbols of  the real and the imagined experiences of our memories. Both the rational and irrational forge this identity and shape how we learn to love or not love, how we trust or fear, how we raise and shape our own children, and struggle with identity according to so many social and cultural factors from social status to economic standing. How hard it is to let go of those things and tell ourselves: You are not what others say you are. You are not what we have or don’t have. Identity is an assemblage of our past: a collage of every joy, sorrow, rejection, success, failure, desire fulfilled or unfulfilled.

In his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat And Other Clinical Tales, Oliver Sacks writes, “If we wish to know about a man, we ask ‘what is his story–his real, inmost story?’ – for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us – through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives – we are each of us unique.”

Our singular narrative shapes how we interact and view others, our circumstances and how we react. Yet, what happens when the trauma of our past has been repressed so that we don’t know that it is shaping our current narratives?

Sacks writes, “To be ourselves we must have ourselves – possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories. We must “recollect” ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.”

That means we have to face the negative, to confront our pasts with all of its wounds and brokenness. We must see that that part of our lives will always make up some of who we are but doesn’t have to define all of who we are.

Mission 5

There’s a scene in the movie The Mission in which the character of Rodrigo Mendoza (played by Robert DeNiro) wants to leave behind his past as a soldier, mercenary and slave trader to become a Jesuit priest. He is made to climb the steep, rocky cliff of a mountain. It’s slippery (as it’s near waterfalls), jagged with rocks, muddy and difficult to navigate. This is made even harder by the fact that tied to him is a net containing his old life (weapons, armor). It is heavy and cumbersome, yet Mendoza continues to attempt climbing. He falls and cuts himself. He slips and struggles.

When he finally gets to the top where Father Gabriel (played by Jeremy Irons) waits with members of the Guaraní  tribe (of whom Mendoza has kidnapped many and sold into slavery). Father Gabriel tries to get Mendoza to let go of the things of his past, but he won’t let go of them. Finally, one of the Guaraní comes over with a knife. At first, one thinks this native is going to kill him by cutting his throat (And why shouldn’t he take the life of a man who’d taken so many of his tribe?), but he doesn’t. Instead, the native cuts the ropes tying Mendoza to the net, which causes all of those items from Mendoza’s past to fall back down the cliff and into the river, where it is swept away. Only then does Mendoza begin to sob in release.

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It’s a powerful scene of forgiveness and symbolic of how letting go of the burden of our past self can offer us a new life. In that act of cutting Mendoza free, the indigenous man was not only freeing someone who’d been his enemy, but was offering him a new identity of worthy and beauty.

How many cannot see their loveliness because they are stuck carrying the weight of their baggage up an already difficult climb?

Galway Kinnell continues his poem with:

… Saint Francis

put his hand on the creased forehead

of the sow, and told her in words and in touch

blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow

began remembering all down her thick length,

from the earthen snout all the way

through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,

from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine

down through the great broken heart

to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering

from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:

the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

How deeply moving is it that the poet writes of Saint Francis toughing the sow, telling her “in words and in touch” blessings of every part of  the sow (from its earthen snout to its great broken heart). How many people need such a blessing over every part of their self-hood and identity: to have someone bless and tell them they are beautiful?

There is that juxtaposition of this messy, dirty, smelly image of a sow with all of earthiness and slop with the poem’s final words: the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

Would it not be easier to face one’s past, no matter how painful, if there was someone there to tell us that we are lovely and loved? That all of us is blessed and beloved?

The Proust Questionnaire

Marcel ProustSince today is the birthday of the great French author, Marcel Proust, I decided to celebrate by answering his now famous questionnaire. This began as a parlor game but has been answered by such luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, Paul Cezanne to such modern celebrities as David Bowie or Stephen Frye to anthropologist Jane Goodall. It also become associated with James Lipton asking his version of questions from it at the end of Inside the Actor’s Studio.  Marcel Proust believed that one would learn more about the true nature of a person by their answering them.

Here is his basic questionnaire and my answers to them.

  1. What is your idea of perfect happiness? Reading.
  2. What is your greatest fear? Loneliness.
  3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Jealousy.
  4. What is the trait you most deplore in others? Cruelty
  5. Which living person do you most admire? Jimmy Carter.
  6. What is your greatest extravagance? Spending hours in a bookshop.
  7. What is your current state of mind? Filled with imagination.
  8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Tolerance.
  9. On what occasion do you life? Questionnaires.
  10. What do you most dislike about your appearance? Weight.
  11. Which living person do you most despise? Politicians.
  12. What is the quality you most like in others? Kindness
  13. What is the quality you most like in a woman? Intelligence
  14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse? Apparently, apparently.
  15. What or who is the greatest love of your life? My wife.
  16. When and where were you happiest? Whenever I’m in my imagination.
  17. Which talent would you most like to have? Singing on-key.
  18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? My introversion.
  19. What do you consider your greatest achievement? My sons.
  20. If you were to die and come back as another person, who would it be? Mister Rogers
  21. Where would you most like to live? England (or Narnia)
  22. What is your most treasured possession? My autographed books
  23. What do you regard as your lowest depth of misery? My struggles with Depression.
  24. What is your favorite occupation? Author
  25. What is your most marked characteristic? Wit
  26. What do you most value in friendship? Loyalty
  27. Who are your favorite writers? Dostoevsky, Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, Italo Calvino, Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, W.G. Sebald, Annie Dillard, Madeleine L’Engle and the list goes on and on …
  28. Who is your hero in fiction? Atticus Finch
  29. Which historical figure do you most identify with? Jim Henson
  30. Who are your heroes in real life? Teachers & Librarians
  31. What are your favorite names? My son’s
  32. What is it that you dislike the most? Mornings
  33. What is your greatest regret? Wasting so much time worrying about what others thought of me.
  34. How would you like to die? In my sleep
  35. What is your motto? Take time each day to discover more beautiful questions to ask.

Those are my answers to Proust’s thirty-five questions. What would yours be?

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Memory & Identity

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The Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel said, “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all . .  . Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it we are nothing.”

What is memory?

Memory is who we are. We are our memories. They define and shape who we are, how we act and react, how we think. And memories can be triggered by something else: a smell, a taste, a sound. I can hear a song on the radio and immediately think of who I was with and what I was doing the first time I ever heard it.

When considering this type of memory, I cannot help but think of Marcel Proust tasting the Madeleine dipped in tea and how that simple act caused memories of his childhood to come flooding back. From this came his great magnum opus In Search of Lost Time. A masterpiece about what is perceived, what is remembered and the links between perception and memory.  It was Proust who coined the term “involuntary memory,” which he believed contained the “essence of the past.”

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For years I had attempted to read this monumental work to no success – until the death of my mother. It was only after her dying that I found myself drawn into this stream-of-consciousness masterpiece. Why? Because prior to my mother’s death, I had no context for searching for “lost time” or the past. I had not experienced enough to be able to fully appreciate or grasp the melancholy desire to return to the past. The older I get, the more I find myself doing this: revisiting my own childhood and having questions about memory.

The Greeks had a word nostos that meant “return” and another algos that means “pain or suffering.” Those two words are where we get our word nostalgia. Nostalgia, therefore, is the suffering caused by a desire to return to the past. Certainly there is a sorrow or loss that runs throughout Proust’s novels just as there is in any of our lives when we look back. We remember those we have lost. With each person that we lose who have known us since childhood, we lose a part of ourselves, a part of our story and our memory that is gone.  After the death of my mother, I have often been filled with sadness that I cannot ask her about events from my own life that I am unsure of or ask her about her own life experiences and memories.

In one of my favorite novels, The History of Love, Nicole Krauss writes, “Every year, the memories I have of my father become more faint, unclear, and distant. Once they were vivid and true, then they became like photographs, and now they are more like photographs of photographs.”

It’s true. As the years pass, I lose more and more of my mother. I have to work harder to recall the sound of her voice or her laugh. I catch traces of her in myself and, especially, in my younger sister.

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It’s interesting how I grew up in a house with two parents and a sister,  but we can recall the same event differently. Aspects that stand out to me, are forgotten or were never noticed by somebody else. My sister and I can talk about our childhoods and have completely unique versions of how they unfolded and of our parents. Part of this is due to my being older but it’s also because our memories are filtered through who we are and our own perceptions and experiences. How we perceive often becomes how we see. Whose memory is the correct one? Can both be?

Memory is malleable. We reshape our memories with each retelling of a story. Something shifts, something changes. Memory is fiction. Memory is fantasy. Even Proust wrote, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

An article in The Atlantic by Erika Hayasaki addresses this, “Memory distortions are basic and widespread in humans, and it may be unlikely that anyone is immune.” She then asks, “As our memories become more penetrable how much can we trust the stories that we have come to believe, however certainly, about our lives?”

It’s a fascinating question. What is reality when it comes to memory? How much of what we believe is memory has been changed by personal life experiences? How much of what we call memory has been reconstructed over the years until we might even be shocked by how far it is from what really transpired? How much of memory is us attempting to integrate the details we remember into a coherent narrative?

This becomes even more difficult in people with traumatic memories. Those lodge themselves in a part of the brain where they cannot be assimilated into a narrative story, so much so that, when asked about such moments, they literally can only answer, “I don’t know.” They more often feel those memories in the present when they are triggered by something that reminds them. The past becomes present. They become trapped in their memories.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

How often do we reshape our painful memories or simply try to forget them?

I cannot help but think of the brilliant film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in which the shy, soft-spoken Joel Barish (played by Jim Carey) decides to have all of his memories erased of a relationship that has ended rather than deal with the pain they cause him. The majority of the film transpires in his mind as the memories are being erased and we watch how other memories from Joel’s past begin to interweave themselves into those of his former relationship with the free-spirited Clementine (played by Kate Winslet). Slowly, we begin to see how memories from all of Joel’s past has impacted his life. We see visually how the memories we carry inside of us impact, positively or negatively, on our relationships and our perceptions of reality.

The memories we carry are tinged with emotion. As Erika Hayasaki wrote, “For all of us, the stronger the emotion attached to a moment, the more likely those parts of our brains involved in memory will become activated.”

What’s interesting is that scientists have recently discovered that the mind makes two copies of an event, it creates two memories, one for the present and the other is for the long-term version. In fact, researchers at MIT and a team in Japan discovered that two parts of the brain are involved in collecting and storing personal memories. Short-term memories are stored in the hippocampus, while the cortex stores long-term ones simultaneously.

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Our memories lie at the core of who we are. Memory is defined by the totality of the things we’ve experienced in our pasts. Two people can experience the same event differently only furthers the individuality of memory. In his work A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume wrote that our identity or our self is a “bundle” or a collection of sensations or impressions.  So what happens if those memories are erased (not by a machine like in Eternal Sunshine) but are lost through Alzheimer’s or dementia? How much of their identity is lost by the loss of memory? Or when memories from the past solely become their present? So that a son is thought of as a deceased brother? If those memories are stored for long-term how can those who suffer alzheimers or dementia become unable to access them? Can scientists discover a way to access them? Can identity be found and regained?

The more I research and study memory, the more fascinating the notion of memory, identity and self becomes. With each answer I uncover, a new question is formed.

French author Guy de Maupassant wrote, “Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.” But, after reading all that I have, I have to ask: Is it? Really?