What do you remember from this morning? Yesterday, last week, last year, when you were thirty years old, when you were nine years old? What passes through the memory bottleneck and can be recalled with ease? Our memory capacity is finite, limited, unstable and dynamic. Witnesses to a crime inevitably report events that contradict each other. To bear witness to a crime, an accident, the shock of the unexpected is a high memory value moment. We process such moments into memory with more success than the normal, routine activities that arrange our lives like a dance card where the tunes, faces, and activities unfold as if by automatic pilot.
We have a memory carrying capacity. Beyond that point, is the well-traveled path of overload and forgeting. How many times do you wish you had a memory stick upload information? It would make learning a foreign language much easier. We are some time away from expanding our personal memory capacity. The irony is that we are drowning in a huge sea of information, most of which we will forget the next day.
Ground Hog Day is the classic movie about the repetition and sameness of life. Bill Murray the TV anchor finds himself stranded into a day that is caught in a time loop and endlessly repeats the same events, in the same order. I have that sense reading the daily newspapers in Bangkok. The stories about corruption, murder, incompetence, and lying unfold as if I am caught in the Thai equivalent of Ground Hog Day.
The spider’s web of memory stretches across our days. Sometimes we catch a fly. It satisfies a hunger. Memory, controlling it, determining the content, and ensuring the right things are remembered fall into the political realm. A great deal of vested interest is found in the way political process uses our memories often against us and for the politicians’ own interest.
There are the candlestick makers, and their vision of memory is the warm, soft glow that only lit candles can bring, the rituals of birth, marriage, graduation and death are framed in this candlelight. One day a group of electricians come to the realm. Their technology doesn’t depend on candlestick makers; indeed, the electricians have a technology that will remove the candlestick makers from their high position in society and in politics. The new elite will be the electricians. The clash between the candlestick makers and the electricians is life and death. We are reminded of those precious candle lit moments, ones that are shared with our parents, their parents, going back far in time. Candles are our memory cue. How can we turn to electricity, an alien technology, which threatens continuity and ultimately will cause us to forget about the world when our lives were illuminated by candles?
The electricians, if they succeed, will be the new elite. The candlestick makers, their wealth, status, and authority will fade into oblivion. No one will remember how powerful and important these candlestick makers were. We will remember the world of electricians, and they assume their role of the new elite. The history of technology suggests that one-day, like the candle makers before them, the electricians will be replaced—and not without a struggle. There is always a battle to win before the old memory keepers are lost to history. Except as a footnote, and demoted to a footnote is not what any candlestick memory wishes for. People rarely read footnotes and almost never remember them if they do.
We pay attention to what we are shown and to what we are told. A great deal of what we pay attention to is pre-selected. We rarely question the selection process or consider what it means for our understanding of priorities in the larger world.
I have been asked what I remember about the 2012 Olympics.
What I remember is watching the Olympics at my gym. Perched on a LifeCycle, I watched the end of the women’s triathlon. There were clips of earlier events with swimming and bicycling contest. The main event was the footrace. On the TV screen I saw athletic women from a number of countries on the last leg of the race, their arms and legs finely honed with muscle, their faces determined and serious as they found the last reserve of strength to give that last kick of speed as they approached the finish line. One of the women runners glanced behind to see how close her nearest competitor was. A moment later, arms raised, she broke the tape across the finish line.
It was a moment to file into memory.
The triathlon runner crossed that finish line as her trainers, nation, family and friends, along with the eyes of the world watched.
But the completion of the event isn’t what I have in my memory of the 2012 Olympics.
While the Olympics events were shown on a TV screen. There were two other TVs mounted on either side of TV with the Olympic programming. The TVs sets on left and right—mounted on the wall—were tuned to the CNN news broadcast. Images of dusty road winding to a low ridge of hills against the horizon flanked the Olympics. The images were on a road in Syria. There were no runners on the road. As far as the eye could see the road was choked with women. Dressed in black traditional dress, heads covered under the hot sun, they carried children, they carried the things refugees grabbed as they fled the bombs falling on their homes and as the tanks shelled their men. The black clothing blended in a sea of thousands of women, covered head-to-toe, creating a solid, moving body. They walked by the thousands along a road without end.
The sound on the TVs was turned off. But the CNN news reporter needed no soundtrack. The long unbroken line of women needed no explanation. There were no medals waiting, no tape to break, no trainers and fans to hug and congratulate them. They were alone. How does a person march along such a road for days?
That’s my memory of the Olympics. An official triathlon enveloped in celebration, congratulations, medals, pride and accomplishment, and a different kind of triathlon with only endurance and obscurity, hardship and despair, along a Syrian road. That’s when you know that Ground Hog Day is a movie about one kind of triathlon. The cozy one that happens to talented and beautiful winners, and brightens our day as we feel good to watch excellence. The memory of those refugees will be forgotten, if they were ever remembered to begin with, and tomorrow Ground Hog Day will recycle the happy moments, the dull ones, the interlude of one banal routine following on the heels of another.
Memory finds little traction in mediocrity. Most of what filters through consciousness is mediocre. It is gone like a snowflake on a warm window. We look for patterns of greatness, excellence, and the transcendent to lift us to a higher level. The arts, literature, music has long promised such deliverance as we trudge along our own dusty road. We forget movies, books, and songs.
The words “out of print” are shorthand for an author who is passing out of memory.
After awhile, we glance back over our shoulder like the triathlon runner to see if any of our memories behind us are catching up with us. Over a lifetime, we out run most of our memories—as they are lost to us as we are alive. A central feature of death is the final extinguishing of our memories; they don’t survive. Another feature of our passage—memories of who we are, what we accomplished, are captured in a memory bottleneck. That’s when we die for a second time. Like the candlestick makers, we love the life we know and fear its displacement. Not only do we forget, we are forgotten like the refugees on the road.