As I prepare for sleep, I lie in bed with a book and let my mind drift. It is peaceful; there’s nothing to be done, nothing to be decided. Drowsiness comes over me slowly, and during this interval between bedtime (according to the clock) and the untethered dreamtime, I often have flashes of memory that are unlike the everyday “remembering” that makes up the narrative of my life. Instead of remembering events and stories linked together sequentially, I experience memories that have no beginning or end. Perhaps they are located in space rather than in time. They are vivid impressions of a place, a situation or a circumstance from my past, with all of the vivid sensations and emotions of the immediate experience.
This is an entirely different kind of memory. It is not really like remembering at all. It is an eternal present, an unfolding moment fully realized. It is as real as now, lying in my bed with my book. Here comes a moment: In my first grade classroom, the dusty, nutty smell of the pencil sharpener, the oblique afternoon sunshine falling through tall windows and warming a corner of my desk, so many details along with the feeling of being six, forever. As if that moment, that day, never actually concluded or became another day. As if I could resume that life any time, and live into it. And then the memory flits away and another alights: A salt marsh on a winter night, cold stars, frozen tussocks of grass, reflections of silvery alder saplings in the dark water, wind low to the ground and wood smoke rising, the feeling of being twenty-five, forever. I could slip back into that life just as easily as falling asleep now.
These memory moments keep coming, almost every night. Sometimes, I turn them into more ordinary remembering: I think about first grade, the classmate who died of leukemia, my mother picking me up at the end of the school day and taking me with her to the college library where she would study while I read my treasury of Peanuts comic strips… Or I think about what happened next, after I left the rough log cabin on the salt marsh and moved to another cabin on another island on the other side of the country… But these ordinary, orderly memories are like remembering the story of an experience, rather than the experience itself. Most memories are really just the memory of a memory. By contrast, my immediate memory flashes are far richer, far deeper: I can taste them, smell them, breathe into the many dimensions of actually living those experiences. It’s better not to elaborate them, or organize them. By themselves, as impressions, they allow me to experience immortality. As if, somehow, every moment of my life is ongoing, as if every moment is a hologram containing all of my experience, and nothing can ever be lost.
I love these memory moments, these momentous memory flashes—they seem to be a gift that has come with aging and illness. When I am too tired or too ill to be somebody with a whole personal history to sustain, I can let myself be made up of moments. Just these flashes of perfect presence. Sometimes they are so poignant that they are painful, but even the painful moments are to be savored. They come and go so quickly, taking no time, lasting forever. I imagine this is what is meant by the idea that “your whole life flashes before your eyes” when you die. I’m not dying at this time (as far as I know), but I’m understanding how it might be to die—to live instantaneously and simultaneously, experiencing all possibilities as “now.”
Some of those flash memories have no context—I don’t know exactly where or when they fit into my life story: …a dimly lit hallway with a thin pink carpet, a staircase descending to the left, closed apartment doors on the right, a feeling of mild apprehension and also curiosity, the feeling of being lost… Perhaps they are moments that weren’t substantial enough to add to the narrative of my life events, or perhaps they are moments from the future rather than the past. Perhaps they are even someone else’s memories. Yet, they are real, and they belong, in a way, to me.
Obviously, the kind of memory moments I’m describing have a lot in common with dreams. Like dreams, they are filled with vivid impressions and emotions, but can be very difficult to describe, and impossible (or unnecessary) to hold onto. In order to remember dreams as stories that we can share, we generally manage to find a narrative structure that approximates the experience of the dream while giving it a linear coherence that can be followed. All the rest of our dreams are forgotten, but perhaps still present within us as moments, as flashes of experience, flashes of life being lived onward and inward.
My theory is that when we are young adults or teens our dreams often seem more like accounts of consecutive events. We fill our dream-journals with long, detailed narratives. But when we are small children or older adults, our dreams may be more impressionistic, more like those flashes of momentary memory that don’t lend themselves to narrative as readily. This makes sense because young adulthood is the time when we shape the story of who we are and what has happened to us. By contrast, when we are children or elders, doing things and describing what we’ve done may be less important than just following life as it unfolds around us and within us.
Children and elders can sometimes dream (and live) in the midst of experience itself, rather than perpetually retelling the stories that define their lives. Of course, throughout our lives, we still want to “get a handle on” our stories and make sense of ourselves, but maybe in childhood and aging we’re more willing to give that handle a twist and let it go, rather than trying to wrench and wedge it into a set position.
Perhaps this is why remembering dreams often gets more difficult as we get older, and why children’s dreams can seem so disorganized. I’m trying to understand why I, and many of my clients (who are mostly over fifty), wake up feeling that we have been completely immersed in a dream reality, yet even though we grope around in our minds, looking for that “handle,” we cannot find the faintest thread of a dream memory. The impression is strong, but the narrative isn’t there.
At this time in my own life, making a story out of my experiences seems less and less important. I’m even accepting the fact that few of my dreams can be remembered in the unequivocal way they once were. Not so long ago, I had a clear sense of the narrative trajectory of “me,” my memories, my dreams. I could tell you who I am, where I’ve been, what I’ve done, what I’m dreaming, where I’m going. But as the uncertainties and losses mount, I’m losing the thread. Yes, I still know my own story, and it still interests me… but I don’t know where it’s going, and I’m not sure who I really am or what will become of me. I’m aware of death—that stark perspective reminding me that I will eventually be forgotten—yet also more aware of life. The kind of remembering that matters is like my momentary memories, like impressionistic dreams, rich with the experience of being alive in a particular way, right now, exquisitely, eternally. My flash memories remind me that I have always been alive in this way, maybe even beyond this lifetime. Someone has been experiencing something, always. We are all experiencing. Maybe that’s the only thing we really are. Our dreams, our waking lives, all of our moments in this world—this is authentic reality.
As I write these words, I pause. The clock chimes and keeps ticking, the world is humming around me. I notice this moment. I can’t even describe it. Maybe, later in my life, this moment will come to me in a memory flash or in a dream. Maybe someone else is experiencing an identical moment right now. Maybe this same moment has been going on since before I was born. No moment is really separate from the next. Past is present, present is future, and forever is everywhere and always. Do you remember?