In a Psychology 101 class in college, our teacher showed us a documentary about a man whose memory reset approximately every seven seconds.
The condition was the result of a virus, and since it had struck him, he’d been living in a psychiatric hospital.
His diary was filled with hundreds of variations of the same line: “I just woke up. I just woke up. I just woke up.” By the time he finished writing the sentence, he’d again have the feeling of just having regained consciousness and would write it down again.
The man’s wife would go visit him, and the visits, at least for him, looked joyful. She’d walk in, and he’d hop up to envelop her in a big bear hug. “I’m so happy to see you!” That was usually the extent of the dialogue of their visits since by the time the hug was finished, his memory had reset.
He did not seem unhappy. In fact, I’d say he seemed downright amazed by all the wonderful things he perceived to be suddenly before him.
It’s a story that has stuck with me for over 20 years. This is remarkable for me, as my own memory is, I’m pretty sure, extremely bad.
When things go into my head, they don’t get organized and filed away, but rather turn into little water particles that float around in what feels like a cloud of vague sensations. They’re hard to get back, and I find it ironic that words are precisely how I make my living given that both my memories and most of my thoughts are not actually in the form of words.
I only recently discovered that most people have an internal dialogue going, The Wonder Years-style. I never suspected that was real.
Ask me what I did yesterday, and I really have to think about it. I keep a diary specifically to ensure that there’s a record somewhere, and when I forget (ha!) for a day or two, it’s a real struggle to think back to everything that I did two or three days prior. I’d be useless on a witness stand.
My house is filled with calendars and to-do lists that provide various degrees of helpfulness. I open every click-baity article with a title like, “Could You Have Adult ADHD?”
Knowing that memories tend to become distorted as time goes on, I decided to see what information I could find about the man from the documentary.
His name is Clive Wearing, and while he has a charming British accent that might throw some people off (how do they always sound so jolly?), he’s most definitely not joyful all the time.
Asked what it’s like to have no memory, he says, “It’s exactly the same as being dead … You don’t do anything at all.”
Ah, memory. You have failed me once again!
The more recent documentary I found of him on YouTube led me down a rabbit hole where I found stories of people on the opposite side of the spectrum: those who could very literally remember the entirety of their lives.
The actress Marilu Henner (the redhead lady from the American TV show Taxi) is one of them. While she seemed perfectly happy and grateful to remember all the details of her life to date, others expressed the desire to give back this “gift.” If many of one’s memories are both sad and constantly accessible, I imagine it can be a real drag.
What does all this have to do with Mexico? Well, so far, nothing.
Sick of all the depressing news and not wanting to essentially rewrite any number of articles I’ve already written, I had decided to write about something much more benign: spring cleaning. In addition to writing and translating, one of my biggest passions is, well, cleaning. Or more romantically: making one’s physical environment safe, functional and beautiful.
It’s also fresh on my mind right now as I’m currently working for a friend (from a distance) to help her get her house organized and packed for a move next week. “I know!” I thought. “A nice spring cleaning guide specific to Mexican homes!”
So I got started by writing about the importance of fresh starts. I love the feeling of everything being new, of feeling refreshed, of an illuminating change of perspective brought by an adjustment, or a purge.
I love dumping out the old and the stale.
I want to feel like “I just woke up,” have my mind glistening clean before my cloud of wordless, heavy thoughts moves into consciousness. I abhor junk.
So I do in my physical space what I can’t always do in my mind: I get rid of useless stuff that’s just clouding things up; sort; organize; put everything in its proper place. (I’m still planning on writing out some spring cleaning tips, by the way, which I suppose at this point I’ll leave for next week.)
In the meantime, I’m meditating on how our memories hurt or help us along this winding path of history and how important either remembering or forgetting will be for our collective futures.
Luis Echeverría just turned 100 (only the good die young?), and I wonder: do the memories of the Tlatelolco massacre haunt him? Has he forgotten? Or has he distorted them in a way that leaves his conscience clear?
What about memories of all the COVID-19 victims who didn’t make it over the past two years as tourists continue pouring into the areas that have become the hardest hit? Are the bad times best left forgotten, or should we keep those cautionary memories on the surface even as this wave seems mercifully lighter but more widespread?
I’d be willing to bet that hospital personnel have an opinion.
Will AMLO ever let go of the actions he was sure would turn Mexico into a utopia from the 1970s, or will his insistence that those never forgotten but now outdated plans keep the country from moving forward? Is the refusal to recognize our very recent, very poor record of human rights violations a forgetfulness, a willful blindness or just plain old cognitive dissonance?
Which memories are worthy of being kept ever-present in our collective consciousness and which should simply be discarded so that we can all say, “Ah, I just woke up! It’s a brand-new day!”
Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com and her Patreon page.