How much of our past life is made up? How much pure fiction sits in our minds masquerading as fact? This has been puzzling me today. Not just today, actually, but for a long time. I remember hubbie watching some TV drama about a device you could wear that recorded every detail of your life. He thought it was brilliant. Disputed conversations would be a thing of the past. You could relive your best moments. I thought how awful.
I believe humans have a unique way to rewrite the past and, on the whole, that’s a good thing.
Most of the time.
That said, the ability to rewrite our memories can also be dangerous to ourselves or upsetting to others. Dangerous if, like me, history is written as seen through a dark cloud. I remember the last four years as mostly struggle and sobbing. Even today, when I met a friend and her kids at a new farm and then took my two to see their Grandad: A great day. But my memory is of me sobbing from tiredness and frustration, of the long traffic queues and being late. Of always, somehow, getting it wrong.
I also remember that I stopped crying and turned a disaster into an adventure, that the kids were super-happy to see Grandad and sat beautifully quiet in the traffic jam watching TV programmes on the iPads. Both stories are true. I need to make sure the right version of events gets written to the hard drive in my brain.
I found out about the upsetting part of invented memories at the weekend. Mum was talking about holidays we went on as kids in the South of France. I only have a few scattered memories of those holidays and it turns out even those are garbled. (For example I remember ridged tents, Mum says we stayed in caravans).
Mum got particularly upset when I didn’t remember it was her who took us on a particular day trip – in my mind it was Dad. I can understand why she was upset, as my parents split in an acrimonious divorce. And because every mother wants to think her efforts are remembered with gratitude. Or at least remembered accurately.
I think the problem for me – the reason I have few memories of childhood – isn’t because it was all awful (as I used to think must be the case) but because the memories weren’t consolidated with repetition and evidence.
Memories are only stories we tell ourselves about our lives. Snapshots, Flash Fiction. If we remembered every minute of every day our brains would explode. So we tell ourselves stories, and share them with others. I often sit with the kids and go through photos, reminding them of things we’ve done. At bed time we talk through the fun bits of the day, or those events are retold to Daddy or the staff at nursery. In that way we write and rewrite the memories until it is the re-living rather than the event that sticks.
Old memories can be rewritten in the same way, I think. Our past edited, touched up, like an Instagram photograph. My grandma apparently did nothing but moan about my grandpa while he lived. After he died she rewrote her memories and made the man a saint. I think, eventually, she came to believe her rewritten stories, however hard it was for others to hear her fictions.
Hopefully that means one day I’ll sit with a photo album and remember happy childhoods – mine and my kids’ – and I’ll rewrite or erase the dark parts. What’s the point of being a writer if you can’t write your own stories with a Happy Ever After?
Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:
Claire pulled the steering wheel down and negotiated the roundabout, trying to ignore the horns that accompanied her journey through rush-hour traffic. Oh do shut up. So I don’t have power steering, or turbo, or anything other than five gears and a steering wheel. You’re not going anywhere; the average speed is twenty miles an hour.
She looked at the satnav and cursed as yet another roundabout appeared on the screen. You’ve got to be kidding. What’s that now? Five? Six? What is it with this town and roundabouts?
Either side of the Skoda silver executive cars jostled for position, ushering her forward like a lamb being escorted to the altar. Claire cursed her impromptu decision to leave the Peak District and head south. The morning trip to the Tourist Information hadn’t revealed anything to rouse her interest and all the hostels in the area were either bunkhouses or ones she had already visited.
It seemed strange, travelling south. It wasn’t as if she’d never been further than Leicester before. Work had involved visiting nearly every county in the UK and she’d spent more than her fair share of time in London.
This is different, though. Whatever lies Carl is telling the rest of the office, I’m no longer Claire Carleton, Associate Director. Now I’m just plain Claire, backpacking round Britain. What does she know about being this far from home?
A knot twisted Claire’s stomach as, at last, the satnav ran out of roundabouts and led her off the dual carriage way. The roads had been flat and uninteresting up until then, but familiar, with the ribbons of tarmac and the towering motorway lights. Now, she drove into what looked like a housing estate, only to drive past the houses onto a country lane.
Goodness, Milton Keynes is a place of surprises. Oh look, another bloomin roundabout. At least this one is only tiny, even if there is a tree in the middle of it.
Ahead, indigo and grey storm clouds built on the horizon, while the sun shone briefly behind her. The tree-lined lane was suddenly illuminated, as if God had turned on the studio lights. The contrast of storm and sun took Claire’s breath away.
I didn’t expect to see anything beautiful in this concrete jungle. Isn’t Milton Keynes only famous for roundabouts and concrete cows?
The road meandered past an old red-brick wall framing a white five-bar gate, then red-brick cottages, huddled by the road like old men on a bench watching the world go by. Claire drove past two village pubs, facing each other across the road, before the satnav finally announced, “You have reached your destination.”
In front of her, overlooking a green, was a charming old farmhouse surrounded by a smart black iron fence. Claire drove through the gateway and came to a halt on the gravel.
“Well I never.” Looking up at the old building, Claire thought how little you could tell about a place from its reputation. If you’d have asked me whether I would rather stay in Milton Keynes or put pins in my eyes, I’d say ‘pass the pin’. How wrong can you be?
With a broad smile, Claire pulled her rucksack from the back seat and headed into the hostel.