Memories we choose to remember

My office was probably 10x10 and contained a very powerful air conditioner perched above my seat to fend off the West Africa heat. Here I sat, facing the door at a makeshift desk containing my blocky monitor and whirring desktop.
And sat I did. My day generally started with breakfast and coffee, when we could hear the traffic whiz by outside the 12-foot wall. My wife would hustle off to work, leaving me to my own devices.
From how I remember it, there were days I simply didn’t know what to do. Outside of some odd jobs, I was free. It was that unstructured time that got me into trouble. Sit in front of a computer, research, write and explain. Or, hit the streets and talk to the kids on that crowded and sun-bleached corner?
They each had their advantages. By researching and writing, I could move quicker, get my thoughts published faster and bounce around different topics. Talking and listening was slower, of course. Conversations and ideas must percolate. The writing would be deeper, but I had a find a theme, an essential writing device I always had troubled with.
Such was the unaccompanied writer in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
But there was always the nagging feeling: What was I going to do with this? Could I turn this into something I could sell?
You could say many things were against me. How the US media covered West Africa, which was the lowest rung on the food chain of newsworthiness. My questionable French, a lingua franca in town, perhaps didn’t allow me to get close enough to people. And, perhaps worse, the self control of the person who needed no job. I would be a warren of activity, but what did I ever get done.?

The memory that we choose to remember is what is interesting, Werner Herzog said.

But why is this important to me? Memory is never perfect. If you think of memory as a map, the geography is always changing. And there are places left blank, sort of like the ‘Here be Dragons’ sketched into old maps. Some of the time, I leave these parts alone. They must be unknown for a reason. And I’ve got to work with what information I have. That means better understanding what I already remember. 

Other times, I pore over the blank areas. Why do I have no recollection of that event? It must be repressed for a reason, right? Something juicy from my family history? It’s this type of thinking that often leads me to hope my backstory is more interesting that it actually is. 

I recently came across the above piece of writing from my days as a freelance journalist. It is a written form of a story that I often tell orally. More than 10 years ago, my wife and lived in West Africa. I was a trailing spouse who didn’t have much of a financial reason to work but wanted to be set in a career I cared about. I learned quickly that one of the great afflictions of trailing spouses is you don’t know what to do with this freedom. 

You aren’t obligated to work, so for perhaps the first time in your adult life you are free to do as you wish. Many people thrive in this reality and carve out very productive existences. I was one of those who stared every morning at the same abyss: If I could do anything, what would I do? 

This lead to a flame out of this life. It wasn’t a lack of desire that was to blame—it was focus. I would swing from one project to the next, throwing myself in the new ideas a full 100 percent. The next day I would decide my work from yesterday was no longer worth my time. So I would scrap it and rush to start  a massive project afresh. 

After a few years of this, and very little to show for free work, I decided I needed more structure in my life. 

But this may be one of the few works from that time period that addresses the problem. I edited it a little bit, but it is funny how this version and the one I tell still lines up. It’s the memory we choose to remember, I guess.

Transcience: Washing those memories right out of your hair

From Harvard Health on transcience, one of the seven types of memory loss:


This is the tendency to forget facts or events over time. You are most likely to forget information soon after you learn it. However, memory has a use-it-or-lose-it quality: memories that are called up and used frequently are least likely to be forgotten. Although transience might seem like a sign of memory weakness, brain scientists regard it as beneficial because it clears the brain of unused memories, making way for newer, more useful ones.

Daniel L. Schacter, author of the Seven Sins of Memory. on how transience may come about because memories aren't stored in our brains forever like a hard drive. Rather,  memories are most likely impermanent.

Discussions about the cause of long-term forgetting have focused on whether forgetting is attributable to actual loss of information from memory storage, to retrieval failure that can be reversed by provision of appropriate cues, or both. There is no doubt that retrieval failure plays an important role in forgetting. Some experiences may be rendered temporarily inaccessible because of interference from related experiences, and it is well-established that cues and hints can elicit recall of seemingly forgotten memories. Nonetheless, such findings need not indicate that all forgetting is attributable to access failure. The view that experiences are recorded permanently, with all forgetting attributable to access failure, is surprisingly common—even among psychologists. However, it seems likely that information is also lost from storage over time.