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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 04-Sep-14 10:04:53

How we remember

Do you consider your memory good? How far back does it stretch, and what details can you conjure up? Tore Renberg used to panic that he was losing his own life when he failed to remember large parts of the past. Until a friend made him see things in a different way...

Tore Renberg

How we remember

Posted on: Thu 04-Sep-14 10:04:53


Lead photo

Tore Renberg

You remember by emotions, not situations, a very dear friend of mine said recently. She has luminous eyes and a very finely tuned knack for organising what you tell her. She is also the kind of person - we all know them - to whom others tell stories. What is it that these people possess? The ones we quite suddenly, even without knowing them, start confiding in? A peculiar kind of openness? The feeling of trust?

Anyway, this came about after I had been telling her one of my biggest troubles: the fact that I panic, almost daily, because I have a constant and horrible feeling of not remembering big parts of my own life. I can meet people I have spent hours, days, months in the company of, and not remember them. I can meet people, they can tell me stories, wonderful stories, gruesome stories, about what we did together that month of 1993, or 1985, but to me it’s all lost. Well, not all, of course, but way too much and very often the essential parts, while what sticks in my mind are song lyrics or movie titles.

This puzzles me gravely. Some days it feels as if I have lost my own life, and if I have lost my own life, what do I then own? Only the present. This dear, and I must add, talented and sizzling beautiful friend of mine wouldn’t let me off easily.

"I think you're wrong," she said.

"How could that be," I wondered. "I've just told you that I do not remember her or his name, nor the inside of the house I was brought up in, for crying out loud. I cannot remember my own room as a kid; wrong?"

"But you remember how you felt," she stated.

"Eh…yes," I said.

Some days it feels as if I have lost my own life, and if I have lost my own life, what do I then own? Only the present.

"You remember every emotion."

"Eh, true," I said and felt a rush through my brain, as if someone was finally about to put into words something very important that I had been thinking about for years.

"There you go," she said. "You don't remember the people's names, nor how they looked, nor where you were, but you remember the emotional essence, the felt reality."

"Yes," I said and raised my voice, "that's exactly it! I do! I do! When I meet a person from my past I always get overwhelmed with feelings, even just by seeing a half-familiar face pass me by in the street."

"There you go," she said once more, "you remember in emotions, not situations."

What a revelatory little conversation this was. After talking a bit more, after watching those eyes, and listening to her stories - she's got a fantastic range of them, because, unlike me, she remembers just about everything that's happened to her (not only faces and chilly emotions); names, where people used to live, the weather in the spring of 1976, peculiar incidents, who was dating who, names, middle names, telephone numbers.

Afterwards she rose to fetch her coat. I felt a bit sad, I must admit. I wished she'd stay longer. She turned to me and said: "This is of course one of the reasons you're a writer."

"What do you mean?" I asked, opening the door for her.

"You create life through fiction because you walk the world with that feeling of having lost it."

Once again it happened. The feeling of someone finally finding the words.

"Hah," I said, baffled.

"Don’t you think so?" she asked.

"Hah," I repeated, "I hadn't thought about it like that. I've just woken up every day since the winter of 1986 with a need to write."

"The winter of 1986?"

"Mm," I replied, a bit distracted, still thinking about what she had said. "I wrote my first poem that winter. The 26th of December, actually. I was thirteen. Thirteen and four months, to be precise. I was sitting in my room listening to The Smiths and reading Adrian Mole."

She laughed. "And writing poems?"

"Well, yes, I started there. We came home from a party that day, a Christmas party, and my father had been so drunk I just couldn't endure it any more. I had to write it out of my system."

"There you go," she said. "That's probably the other part of the reason you're a writer. You create a life you think you've lost, while writing that same life out of your system."

She kissed me on the cheek. "Got to run," she said, "meeting someone downtown."

She turned. "Don't look so worried," she laughed up at me when she'd come out on to the street, "you won’t remember this anyway, but you'll write about it. See you tomorrow!"

Tore's book, See You Tomorrow, is published by Arcadia Books, and is available from Amazon. We'd love to stories of your earliest memories below.

By Tore Renberg

Twitter: @torerenberg

janerowena Thu 04-Sep-14 10:32:44

That reminds me of the saying that people won't remember you for what you gave them, but for how you made them feel.

contrarymary Thu 04-Sep-14 21:59:24

One of my first very vague memories is of being extremely little, I think under two years old and of being in my cot in a very smokey room. We lived upstairs in a flat in London and I also remember climbing up loads of stairs to get to it with my mum. I assume that there was a fire in the flat because the next thing I remember clearly is moving to a new home and of being concerned that my little doll's pram wasn't in the van. Even then I still was sleeping in a cot and I remember being pushed about in a large pram.

It's a shame that my memory for recent things isn't as good as I often can't remember where I put my keys or what I went upstairs to do!!!!!! confused

Jaxie Thu 04-Sep-14 23:08:22

My earliest memory is sitting in a pram whose hood had a white lining, but hanging from the inside corner was something black and frightening. I can remember twisting round to stare up at it in horror. I interpret it now as black thread hanging from where the stitching had come loose. It may explain my persistent arachnophobia though.

inishowen Fri 05-Sep-14 09:56:17

I also remember being in my pram with the hood up. I could see mum's gloved hands on the handle, the belt of her brown coat, and the straps which held a wicker basket to the handle. I also recall being in my cot and trying to rock it from side to side. I was trying to get it to turn over so I could get out! I also remember graduating to a pushchair and not liking going up and down the pavement to the road as I thought I was going to fall out.

EmilyHarburn Sun 07-Sep-14 12:26:03

I want to say thank you to Tore Renberg for the short story above about memory and the importance of felt memory. My mother, aged 98 did not have much short term memory so some of my siblings felt that taking her out to places and on holiday was a waste of time. Disregarding their criticism, I took her to a number of places including to see friends in Thailand. The day after our return, full of energy she said I'll have a new hat and dress for my 100th birthday. The felt emotion was so positive. To help her undrstand where we had been I put photos on an electronic screen by her bedside. The series was called Gertrude's holidays. These pictures stimulated the care assistants to chat to her about her 'adventures'

I do hope more people will become aware of how important felt memory is for everyone.

Tegan Sun 07-Sep-14 12:36:12

Reminds me of something friend once said when she explained to me the reason why some people say 'I see what you mean' and others say 'I hear what you're saying' [she was in marketing and I suppose it's the sort of thing they need to know about people].

janeainsworth Sun 07-Sep-14 12:36:19

I am not sure that remembering emotions is always a good thing - as Jaxie has suggested, it can be the basis of phobias and irrational fears.
I'm not a psychologist though - perhaps someone else more qualified could comment?

janeainsworth Sun 07-Sep-14 12:41:17

Tegan I think that 'I see what you mean' quite often means that the speaker is coming round to the other person's point of view, whereas ''I hear what you're saying' is usually followed by 'but I don't agree with you and I'm going to do what I was going to do anyway' grin

greatmum Tue 16-Sep-14 22:46:07

i too can remember being in a large cot, and the small room; also can recall in my mind as if being there once more as in looking round a room ! --lots of events in my life before I was 2.5 yrs old. the sound of the pushchair wheels as they crossed joins in paving stones; I have a very strange feeling when climbing old steps; smells and tastes too.
but these latter few years I find harder to remember.
it would be quite wonderful if it were possible to down-.load these memories on to dvd or such, to leave to our families

HollyDaze Tue 16-Sep-14 23:11:01

My earliest memory (I'd have been about 3 years old) was being put into the inspection pit in a garage whilst my mum chatted to some mechanic. I could just about see her and it felt like I was in there for an age. She later denied this had happened until I described the inside of the garage and location of the pit - the look on her face told me I was spot on with the description.

To this day, I cannot tolerate being in confined spaces or even crowded by people. Maybe emotional remembering isn't a good thing if the memory is a negative one.

rubylady Wed 17-Sep-14 00:12:12

Does anyone think that me getting my dad a digital photo frame and putting some photos of him in it from good times will help with his dementia? I wouldn't want to upset him with it, do you think it would be a positive thing to do?

geeljay Wed 17-Sep-14 00:54:57

I think any memories with photos will contribute. Especially those of happier days. I don't think it will give help otherwise. (Unfortunately) My wife loves old musicals we enjoyed watching when we were younger, and looking through old pics of friends and loved one's weddings, also holidays enjoyed when we were younger. Your idea certainly wont have any downside I M H O. Regards, Gordon

rubylady Thu 18-Sep-14 03:07:09

Thanks Gordon, your opinion has helped. I will try to sort it out after moving for his Christmas present or birthday in November. smile