On memory + the power of journaling

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.

~Joan Didion

I’ve been driven to keep a journal many times in my life. And I do mean driven. I cannot imagine life where, at my most emotive, vulnerable, passionate, thoughtful, crazed, hurt, exuberant, I was unable to write. It sorts me out, and makes all the chatter in my head calm down, helping me find a single, clear voice.

This quote from Joan Didion in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook” (introduced to me by the fantastic site Brain Pickings) beautifully highlights the power that journaling has, not just as a method of expression in the present, but for relating to our memory of the past as well.

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory recently because of interviews I’m doing with my family on their experience surviving the Cambodian genocide. As I talked to two of my uncles about being starved, beaten, ripped away from their family and culture and placed in labour camps, I was struck by how their memories were factually similar but emotively different. They were near spot on about the details of what happened to them 35 years ago, but their emotions regarding survival were opposite. I asked them each (separately) the same question: did they think they were going to survive. One, answered with an unequivocal yes. Knowledge that he would and must survive was what got him through. My other uncle believed each day that he was going to die, yet he never gave up. They had very similiar technical experiences, but the way they felt and identified with survival and the way they look back on it today is wrapped up in their individual identities.

Though my uncles were obviously not journaling when they were in labour camps, asking them to re-count those memories to me now, feels like the process of re-visiting past identities that Didion refers to. Knocking on the door of your former self, who is also, of course, your current self and reminding those selves of what you shouldn’t or can’t forget is concurrently the greatest strength and weakness of identity.
In her fascinating multimedia performance on memory, Sook Yin Lee, asks the multi-layered question “How can I forget?” She explores both how to forget that which haunts you and how to recall memory that shouldn’t be lost, but is. She doesn’t really present any answers, but the performance was therapy for reminding herself of a personal identity she had lost. A very public, theatrical form of journaling if you will.

However we go about recalling and recounting the past (be it writing, creating art, replaying or repressing a memory in our minds over and over etc.), each time we do, it seems to offer a choice. To either stay there, trapped in that former identity (good or bad). Or draw on the lessons learned from those past experiences, while not allowing former emotions consume our present.

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