History and memory

In 2012 I took my first history course outside the confines of the NSW Modern History curriculum. It was part of the new discipline of “Big History”, spearheaded by Macquarie University’s own Professor David Christian. The scope was daunting — covering everything from the moment before the Big Bang to today in just 12 weeks.

History has always been my favourite form of storytelling, and here was a story I hadn’t heard before, huge and profound and encompassing everything and everyone I’d ever known and ever would. I fell in love instantly. So when I stumbled upon Jenny Hollowell’s A history of everything, including you, I felt giddy with the same sense of wonder and nostalgia that comes from discovering something new about an old friend.

First there was god, or gods, or nothing. Then synthesis, space, the expansion, explosions, implosions, particles, objects, combustion, and fusion. Out of the chaos came order, stars were born and shone and died. Planets rolled across their galaxies on invisible ellipses and the elements combined and became.

In less than 2000 words, Hollowell managed to capture the same sense of wonder I felt in that classroom. It was a familiar story — of stars and galaxies and planets and life and people emerging. But then, Hollowell took the history of everything one step further than any big historian ever could.

You were born. You learned to walk, and went to school, and played sports, and lost your virginity, and got into a decent college, and majored in psychology, and went to rock shows, and became political, and got drunk, and changed your major to marketing, and wore turtleneck sweaters, and read novels, and volunteered, and went to movies, and developed a taste for blue cheese dressing.

It’s the including you part of Hollowell’s story which makes it so exceptional. More than anything else I’ve ever read, this story encapsulates the total improbability of love. The creation of the universe and life and language and fortune cookies are transformed from a series of unrelated accidents to the exact combination of things needed to bring two people together. And when that love story comes to and end, Hollowell’s narrator does not underestimate the wonder of what they’ve bore witness to.

I study a photograph taken at the beach, the sun in our eyes, and the water behind us. It’s a victory to remember the forgotten picnic basket and your striped beach blanket. It’s a victory to remember how the jellyfish stung you and you ran screaming from the water. It’s a victory to remember treating the wound with meat tenderizer, and you saying, I made it better.

Memory and forgetting from Radiolab and Can you help me find by mom? from The Truth

It’s a victory to remember, but memory is a devastating thing. I’ve always thought of my memories as files in a box, all stored away waiting for me if I could just be bothered to find them. And oh boy am I good at finding them. Every conversation, even the most banal, is burned into my brain if I liked my companion enough to be listening to them in the first place.

My memories are a great source of comfort. They allow me to visit far off places when Sydney is tiresome and spend time with old friends when, for whatever reason, they don’t exist in my reality anymore. Over time I’ve amassed more and more of them, and I had become pretty proud of my own little history. But the more I learn, the more I come to understand there’s no box preventing my most treasured memories from leaving me forever.

A big part of that understanding (bigger than I’d be wise to admit) comes from two stories. The first is Memory and Forgetting from Radiolab which taught me, among other things, that the memories I sought comfort in were most likely a lie.

The act of remembering is an act of creation. Every time you remember something, you’re changing the memory a little bit. You think you’re remembering something that took place 30 years ago, actually what you’re remembering is that memory reinterpreted in the light of today.

The more you remember something, the less accurate it becomes. The more it becomes about you and less about what actually happened.

First kisses. Striped blankets and picnic baskets. The way a boy grinned and trembled in the corner of the room. All of a sudden, these moments don’t live in the mind. They’re not places I can visit when I’m bored or lonely. They’re not real. They had ceased to exist the moment after they happened.

It was no longer a victory to remember. It was an act of destruction.

But if treasured memories are nothing more than stories in our heads, then something else is true too:

The safest memories are those in the brain of people who cannot remember them.

With that in mind, listen to the second story, Can you help me find my mom? from The Truth, and remember what a fickle friend memory is.

Jenny Hollowell’s A history of everything, including you features in New Sudden Fiction : Short-short Stories from America and Beyond a collection of short stories all under 2000 words. You can read it free here, or, even better, you can listen to the whole piece read by Jenny herself on Radiolab’s The Trouble with Everything.