The Failings of a Digital Memory | Reflections on I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron

Recently I have had the opportunity to search through, (and chuck out) quite a few items that were somehow saved from my childhood. It’s interesting to see what makes it into our present existence. It’s also strange to come to terms with the fact that we hang on to a lot of, well – let’s be honest – crap, simply because it reminds us of a bygone era.

I’m not necessarily referring to photographs or family videos. I’m referring instead to the trinkets and scraps of your life. I’m referring to the letters written to us by best friends during biology classes about whether or not your crush – a boy you can barely recall at this point – is in fact lovesick and swooning for you. I’m referring to the concert tickets for bands you have long since become annoyed with, because the singer is far too nasally to your grown-up ears. 

I’m referring to the empty picture frames, the English class notebooks with the horrid drawings you thought at the time were the promising sketches of an artist yet to be fully-formed, to the cheap friendship necklaces purchased at Claire’s even though you can’t recall which friend has the corresponding piece. You keep said necklace, because it could be one of the friends in your present life as well, and the idea of trashing the trinket seems like bad luck. I’m also referring to the mixed tapes with the first few seconds of songs missing as you recorded them directly from the radio, because you loved the song so much you couldn’t wait for the weekend when you’d have enough money from babysitting to purchase the album.

Most people have no emotional tie to their stuff, and for that I commend them. I would love to say that I’m the type of person for which things don’t matter. On some level this is true. I realize that should my possessions spontaneously combust, I would be able to get over the loss of their emotional value. But most people also have an amazing memory, and therefore don’t need their trinkets to trigger and sharpen moments of the past. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people.

I Remember Nothing

I recently read Nora Ephron’s new book, I Remember Nothing and found much of what Ephron writes to be completely true for me. Like the author, I am constantly bewildered by all that I do not remember, especially when those around me seem to have such a keen sense of the past.

I feel incredibly lucky to live in the digital age, in which I can call up a person’s Facebook profile on my phone when I see them at the other end of a bar and know, simply know, that there is absolutely no excuse not to remember their name. For instance, when I forget the name of someone I went to school with for ten plus years. It’s a panic I feel far too often for a woman of 26. Should someone have merely described the person, I would recall their name and various facts about their life, but in the door they walk and suddenly I’m perplexed in the brief moment before that app loads onto my phone screen, confirming their identity, and saving me from embarrassment.

But living in the digital age is much more convenient than merely relying on social networking to prompt our memories. You can catalog your life through photographs, videos, letters you write to yourself and store for later recall on your hard drive.

Still there are things we will lose that cannot be replaced or managed by the digital world. Upon reflection – and I mean that literally, I was sitting near a mirror – I realized that one element I have lost is my posture. I can recall sitting in classes and suddenly hearing my ballet teacher’s voice in my head reiterating the great need for excellent posture. I used to self-correct all the time, and somehow I have lost this internal reminder.

The digital world allows us to update our grocery lists as a family via various apps, alert us when it is time to pickup a prescription at the pharmacy, and remind us of a friend’s birthday. Still, there are failings of digital archiving practices.

Videos can be archived of a dancer’s performance, but muscle memory cannot be electronically preserved. A chef’s exact recipe specifications can be saved, but the savory taste of their creations cannot be digitized except in print, just as photographs of my deceased grandfather can hang on the wall, but the precise combination of peppermint gum in his pocket mixed with his aftershave and sweat cannot be recreated.

I also wonder if I would gladly trade the ability to archive our visuals and acoustics for the chance to archive our scents and tastes. After all, they say that scent may be the strongest trigger of memory, and who wouldn’t want to call up the taste of homemade ice cream without the need to grind away?

Because I cannot faithfully recall every moment of my childhood, nor do I have a digital record of that period, I find it hard to discard the cheap jewelry boxes with the twirling ballerina or the spiral-bound notebooks with lists of items requested from Santa Claus.

I wonder too at the people identified and featured on the shows about hoarders. Though my collections are tiny in comparison, (also under control and organized, I assure you), I often wonder — beyond psychological help — if some of those individuals, like me, fear the risk of forgetting. Similarly, when watching footage of people interviewed following a natural disaster and hearing them lament over ruined photo albums and wedding dresses, I understand it’s not the item they’ll miss, but the fear of forgetting the individuals and experiences which have shaped their lives.

We cannot take our possessions with us from this life, but I would like to think that near the end, surrounded by trinkets collected at random throughout my time, I will be able to recall the trials, tribulations and joys of my existence. I guess that means I’m keeping a lot of crap with me and that moving to a new place will always be that much more difficult, but for me, it’s worth it in the end. Hopefully I’ll remember that I decided it would be worth it. Hopefully.


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