COLUMN: Piecing together our past

This is my Sunday column for the Nov. 11, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. A version of this piece aired yesterday on KAXE’s “Between You and Me.”

Piecing together our past
By Aaron J. Brown

Memory reconstructs the past, rather than replicating it. There’s just no way around memory’s fundamental flaws; in fact, this almost seems by design.

To an extent, memory is like looking at a house and then trying to build that house out of LEGO blocks somewhere else. Our mind has a whole lot of LEGOs to work with, but there are limitations. Events are round but the blocks are square. Our mind glosses over tiny details, fills in gaps with imagination. There’s no guarantee that your LEGO interpretation of the house is right. Maybe you didn’t notice some of the windows, or the house reminded you of your childhood, so you build your mom and dad’s house instead.

Just like with LEGO creations, sometimes someone steps on it or it falls off the table, scattering into an incomprehensible mess. Every kid knows it’s hard to keep LEGOs together over long periods. So it is with all our memories.

There’s a reason people often prefer still photographs of their past to video. Photographs are compatible with our natural memories, while video constantly challenges them. I didn’t really walk like that, did I? Was I that awkward as a teenager? Yes? Well, I remember differently. It wasn’t that bad. Couldn’t have been. Photos let you see the world as you recall, with the voices you remember. So often I dream of people, but not in their in full form. They are hazy wisps, but I nonetheless know them well. Or at least I think I do.

Northern Minnesota native Bob Dylan gave an interview to Rolling Stone this year. Included was this gem of a quote: “We can’t change the present or future. We can only change the past, and we do it all the time.”

We don’t control the circumstances we face every day and the future is so abstract as to be impossible to even predict, much less control. But we do control the story about the things that have already happened. Human nature is such that we will often tilt the narrative to our advantage.

For instance, my wife and I grew up in different parts of northern Minnesota — her near Nashwauk, me near Cherry — and didn’t know each other until later. But we were both involved in our schools’ knowledge bowl teams. We both experienced amusing knowledge bowl escapades and tell the stories often in social situations, because that’s what knowledge bowl people do.

Sometime after we had been together a few years we were at a party and I told one of my knowledge bowl stories. A question was asked and the answer was “cotton.” The team that buzzed in first was from the small town of Cotton, Minnesota. “Cotton,” said the questioner. But Cotton didn’t know the answer, which was cotton. This was hilarious at the time.

There was only one problem. That didn’t happen to me. It was Christina’s story. But I swear to all things holy that it FELT like it happened to me. I had heard the story from her enough times that my mind had categorized it with all of my knowledge bowl stories. I could see the room, feel the table, the dull green plastic of the buzz strips. Greasy teenagers, donned in the baggy clothing of the 1990s, were all around. But that particular story did not actually occur in my life.

If you’re like me, and I know I am, you know people who twist the past to their advantage. It’s easy to accuse them of lying or exaggerating. And while, on the surface, those memories may seem lies or exaggerations, what if they actually believed them? What if that’s what we all do, all the time? What if that’s how humans handle a big world that our minds just can’t fully understand?

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes and hosts 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show on public stations. The next broadcast will be Dec. 15 from the Edge Center for the Arts in Bigfork.

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