The Things I Don’t Remember
We drove to Bentonville, Arkansas, this past week. It’s an eight-and-a-half-hour drive, which means we had 17 full hours to listen to podcasts. We listened to podcasts about the year 1995. We listened to podcasts about almond moms. We listened to Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, and music podcasts about new releases. It was … a lot. A lot of podcasts.
- “Lonesome Street” — Blur
- “Rip Her to Shreds” — Blondie
- “Outside” — Parquet Courts
- “Didn’t You” — Lettuce (w/ Talib Kweli)
- “Part 3” — Sixtoo
- “Blazing Arrow” — Blackalicious
- “Too Real” — Fontaines D.C.
- “Respond/React” — The Roots
- “2:1” — Elastica
- ”Presumably Dead Arm (617 Sessions)” — Sidney Gish
- “Things I Don’t Remember” — Ugly Casanova
- “Cold Clouds” — Partial Traces
- “Kill Me” — Indigo De Souza
- “Bad Company” — Yazmin Lacey
- “Git Along” — Butcher Brown
- “LOVEHAPPY” — The Carters
- “9–9” — R.E.M.
- “You Can Have the Crown” — Sturgill Simpson
Podcasters ask a lot of questions. That’s kind of the thing with interviews, you know. But I feel like I became hyperaware of one specific question that was asked several times across all of those 17 hours of podcasts — a question that, to me, seems impossible to answer.
“Do you remember when you first … [INSERT TOPIC HERE].”
Like, “Do you remember when you first learned about R.E.M.?” The answer would always be a thoughtful memory. A recollection that the podcast would hinge upon; a crux, perfectly rolling into the next topic.
But I know that those answers were always blatant lies, because I cannot fathom any universe in which these kinds of things are remembered in the detail they’re remembered. According to the podcast industrial complex, there are thousands of people who can accurately answer “Do you remember when you first…” questions, as if some kind of weird memory boxes; as if they include a kind of archival recording feature that helps index and recall the most minute of memories. I obviously know the truth: if you say you remember the first time you learned about anything, you’re probably lying.
I’m fascinated by people who can recall details. Details like dates, or where they were when a specific thing happened, or how a specific food tasted. I’m fascinated, because I rarely can. Dates are blurred, and my memories of specifics are clouded. In fact, the only things I remember with confidence are:
- My friend walking in our front door and telling me Kurt Cobain had died.
- My first Indian food in Canterbury, England.
- The classroom I was helping as a student teacher on the morning of 9/11.
That’s probably it! And even then, I can’t … really remember with any clarity. I can remember the front door of my childhood home being open when my friend walked through, but I can’t remember which friend. I can remember what a spinach balti tastes like, but I couldn’t find that restaurant again if I tried. I can vaguely remember the room I was in when I ate lunch as the news ran 24/7 updates, but I can’t remember which teacher I was working with.
Yet, that’s what I have. Meanwhile, I can easily list the number of things I’ve lost over my 44 years:
- Middle school is nearly completely lost. (I think this one is for the best.)
- I am unsure if I was ever formally introduced to most of my past girlfriends’ parents. I assume I wasn’t, because I don’t remember any of their names or what they look like.
- My freshman year of college is a blur with the exception of about ten specific moments. I don’t know the names of anyone I had connected with, with the exception of my roommate who has, since then, also disappeared from the internet.
- My last two jobs feel as if they barely existed, with the exception of a few moments of success.
This is the life of a memory, really. We think about memories as documents that we can pull up from a folder, when in reality memories are loose approximations — they’re vague, smashed-together concepts, and not always accurate. They’re an Unsolved Mysteries reconstruction — a little hazy, poorly acted, and only representative in that it gets us close to the original feeling.
So, I like to pretend to remember the first time I listened to certain R.E.M. songs — I believe I can accurately remember the first time I heard “9–9,” but not because I actually remember those moments, or those songs. It’s because I know the details of a specific mix tape I received in 1994. I remember the names of the songs on that mix tape, and so I deduce that I must have first heard “9–9” on that tape, because I had never owned the original album and it wasn’t a song that was played on the radio.
These wide gaps in knowledge — in our ability to hold tight to anything really — are natural defenses against the past. Sometimes they work, in the way that the difficulties of pregnancy are delivered with a bit of amnesia in order to help further the evolutionary process. Sometimes they don’t, in the way that certain traumas can persist long after the expiration date of the danger they’re meant to protect against.
In this way, memories aren’t perfect. They can’t be. There’s an entire episode of RadioLab about this — every time that memory is recalled, it’s being recalled not from the original source, but from the last known recollection. Things shift, adjust, change. The balti is spicier, the restaurant larger, the weather drearier. Our minds fill in those gaps with what it assumes is real memory, like the demented AI-image generators they are, and our memories become nothing more than an over-copied recipe, each blemish becoming more pronounced, each word becoming a bit more smeared.
Anyway, it was a long drive, and I was worried I didn’t remember things very well. I’m not worried anymore. I just know that’s how minds work.
I guess what I’m saying is that we don’t get to choose what we keep with us, as much as we hope we do. The things we might try to capture owe nothing to us. They do not feel obliged to stay. They’ll move on when they’re ready, and if we’re lucky they’ll leave a friend to fill in. To remind us of the feeling. The detail lost, the moment remaining. It doesn’t matter if I can’t remember that balti as exactly as I’d hoped. It just matters that I recognize the importance of those feelings while they’re happening.