What You See Is What You Remember

When I was small, we ate dinner in my father’s study. This room was also part of the living room, the house library,  and next to the kitchen. There was a deep pocket door that held a huge table, and each night, we pulled the table out of the wall, attached the legs, set it up and then set it for dinner. After the meal, we packed it away again. It was my father’s time to study and work. We did our homework in the kitchen, at the table there.

I remember the table as being huge–at least eight feet long, and the legs must have been four feet tall. I adjusted the memory slightly when I realized that the legs would not have been that tall–we used regular chairs to sit at the table.

When I traveled back and saw the table, it was much smaller than I had remembered. Well, of course, I was a short child, so the table seemed huge. And I laughed and easily adjusted my memory.

There are other things that we don’t adjust easily. The brother who was a bully. The manipulative friend who got us to say something, then turned on us and broke our confidence. The histrionic mother who flirted with our boyfriends and refused to give up any of the stage, much less the center of it.

We hang on to memories that diminish us. Make us small. Slice us open for all to see and gawk at. The more we believe those stories, the more they become true. The more they become true, the bigger they grow. We give these hurtful memories importance they don’t deserve, inflate them to huge size and vivid colors, add a sound track and march down our life’s path with the sad circus band of our past hooting and jeering at us.

Statue of Alice passing through the Looking Glass from NorthStandChat.comband in the distance

No wonder we can’t sleep. Turn off the TV and you hear the sound of the circus in the distance.

You cannot change the bully brother, the manipulative friend, the histrionic mother. You can, however, give them far more importance and power than they ever had. You can use Life Photoshop and add shadows, sharpen contrast until your whole life is layered between these memories.

Or, you can try something else. Write down the story as you see it now in your journal. Use those filters of memory fully. Make the story as bad as your memory will let you. Immediately afterwards, pretend that you are walking into that situation now, as an adult, when the dinner table is normal-size and the chairs are normal height. Look at the hurtful situation again now, as an adult. Then re-write it with less color and more understanding. Because this time you are in control of what happens.

Allow the omnipotent power of others to drain away. Take back some of your own confidence. Your own tolerance. Your adult wisdom. See the bully brother as threatened. See the histrionic mother as unloved and fighting for attention. See the manipulative friend as weak. Then write a few concluding sentences about taking your own power back. About the perspective you have now, as an adult who can see life in real-size.

You cannot change the past, but you can surely go back and take another look at it. As an adult, you are in control. Those memories live on the power you give them. Don’t waste your power. Claim it back.
Your journal will let you shrink those memories down to size.

-Quinn McDonald keeps several journals. She’s working on another book on confronting the Inner Critic.

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18 thoughts on “What You See Is What You Remember

  1. Powerful advice! I need to give this a try and force some demons from my past into submission. The only purpose they serve is to give me some images for darker pieces of art, but I can live without that kind of inspiration.

  2. Quinn,
    I love how you used the Alice in Wonderland visuals to enhance the telling of your own memory-related story. You have hit on such a profound topic of writing what you remember and how you see it now, in connection with getting your personal power back. This can be a life-changing exercise, in addition to getting a change in your personal perspective on the smaller scale. When we see things from a newer, more enlightened perspective, our whole world and how we see it changes.

    I have chosen your post, What You See is What You Remember, for the #JournalChat Pick of the Day on 9/18/12 for all things journaling on Twitter;
    I will post a link on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, my blog and website Refresh with Dawn Herring, and in Refresh Journal, my weekly e-journal: http://tinyurl.com/9te3lev.

    #JournalChat Live is every Thursday, 5 EST/2 PST, for all things journaling on Twitter; our topic this week is Your Journaling: Word Power.

    Thanks again for this enlightening post on personal power and our point of view.

    Be refreshed,
    Dawn Herring
    Host of #JournalChat Live and Links Edition on Twitter
    Author of The Birthday Wall: Create a Collage to Celebrate Your Child

  3. Wonderful post Quinn! Everyone has “stuff” from their past that they would like to undo but we must remember that everything that happened to us has shaped us into who we are today…given us strength, taught us how to survive difficult situations, etc. With the loss of my father recently (as with almost any death in a family), the worst has come out in many of my family members. I am finally recognizing (and accepting) unhealthy family patterns. I have accepted that people are who they are and I can’t change them but I can change how I interact with them, thereby giving them less power in my life and giving me a stronger sense of self. I agree, we can’t change the past but we can certainly change our vision of it, our acceptance of it.

    “We can’t move forward, in a positive direction, with our lives if we keep living in the past.”

    Thanks for your incredible insight, as always!

    • Very wise learning you’ve had Traci. I often say that if I’d been my mom’s favorite, I’d be a drug dealer today. Instead, I have a ton of material to work through both as a writer and an artist.

  4. “You can’t change the past.” It’s one of the things that everybody knows.

    I think it’s nonsense. Not silly, not inane, but really “not sensible”. The past gets changed all the time. The idea that you can’t change it is built on a belief that there is this “thing” out there somewhere, the objective reality of previous events.

    Humans understand things though sequential presentations that mesh with our spectacular ability to recognize patterns — that is, “stories” that we make sense of. Here I’m using “story” in the broadest possible sense, any sequence in which, for example, one thing causes another, step 2 follows step 1, the simplest explanation is the best, that sort of thing.

    Now, it’s obvious that our understandings change. Nobody today still believes that fire is due to phlogiston or that health is based on the balance of four “humors”. Some understandings have to do with “the past”. What we learn growing up is a set of oversimplified stories. Columbus discovered America, parallel lines never touch, things like that. Stories are easy for us to understand; they work. It’s only later that we learn more details (that’s not exactly what Columbus did, and the geometry in which parallel lines don’t touch is only one geometry; there are others in which they do). We learn something else, though, implicitly: that there is a sort of “narration view” of a story; a point of view from which objective reality is visible and described. That’s the key, that we internalize the belief that there is such a viewpoint for every story. From that viewpoint (and ONLY from that viewpoint) “what really happened” can be known.

    That’s the past that “can’t be changed”. It’s a point of view. It’s a convenience, but one that matches the way we think so well it’s difficult to see it’s there.

    Before this gets to be book length, I’ll just say that while the narration point of view can arguably be useful, it is also harmful. As Quinn says more elegantly than I can, people can tend to be overly convinced by their internal representations and interpretations of things. Believing in the narration view lends these representations more credence than they deserve because “they represent reality”, where “reality” is the narration view. (As an aside, I call the narration view arguably useful because I would certainly argue that it’s not useful, it’s just easy and teaching it is as lazy as thinking with it.)

    A table, to a child, looks very tall. The adult returns to see the table no taller than any other. Tell the story a bit differently and the past just changed. Or didn’t. What’s significant here is that it does not matter; if there is such a “thing” as the past in addition to the current moment that’s all we can really perceive, our only access to it is our own internal representations.

    If we had access to a narrator view, of course, it would be obvious that the adult’s table actually is a different size, but bigger, not smaller. The expanding universe affects everything, y’see, and everything today is bigger than it was yesterday and smaller than it will be tomorrow. 🙂

    • This is either very profound, or you are messing with my head. In the expanding universe, however, my brain will be bigger tomorrow and I will understand it. I think we focus on things in the past as we remember and believe them. That is our “truth,” which is different from “fact.” My brother and I remember stories differently, although they only happened “one way.” I believe they happened differently, depending on the narrator. That’s how come I haven’t written a memoir, it’s just my viewpoint and not objective.

      • The general theory of relativity is not just physics, it says there’s no such thing as the “objective version”.

        That thing about the expanding universe is completely unprovable speculation (not mine) but I’ve always liked the idea.

        (OMG I wrote “just physics”. Doh! *smacking forehead*)

  5. An interesting post. I know we’ve communicated before on the potential pitfalls of therapy. Great to connect you with the little person inside, but you can get stuck in those painful memories of experience. I remember going back to the New Forest, where we used to camp, and the swamP was just a muddy field, the highest tree in the world not to high overall. Its good to claim the memories, but I like this technique you suggest. Thanks Quinn

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