Orange juice. My first memory, for better or worse, revolves around orange juice. I’m not even the biggest fan of orange juice. I mean, it’s quite nice, as far as your average fruit based juices go but it’s no apple juice. Even pineapple juice, the juice equivalent of that distant relative on the periphery of family gatherings humbling boasting about their children all working for google, has its place. Orange juice is just sort of there. It’s the default. It’s the “Sorry, we’ve just run out of everything else genuinely interesting” juice. The David O’Doherty juice. The Hilary Clinton.
But I digress. Orange juice. In this memory there’s orange juice, and me. There’s a bed, impossibly large, and the cloudy image of my mother in a hospital gown. For some reason, there’s an overpowering brownness to the whole thing, like I’m looking at it through a paper bag. I think my Dad’s there somewhere. The general feeling I get is one of want, or need. For the juice. It’s not mine, but I want it. How little things change. I reach for it and people laugh. I can’t reach. It’s sat on a bedside table but, standing on the ground next to it, I can’t reach it.
I’m pretty sure the majority of this is rooted somewhere in reality. From what I remember (a memory of enquiring about a memory) my folks do remember (a memory of a memory concerning a memory) something like this happening; my mum had just given birth to my brother and was recovering in hospital when Dad brought me along for a visit. Of course my first instinct was to steal from her. Again, how little things have changed. So that means I was just over 2 years old. That’s not bad for someone who genuinely can’t remember what happened yesterday (something about watching movies I think).
I can’t speak for anyone else in this regard, but I find memory an essential yet extremely dangerous aspect of my life these days. I am, again for better or worse, in a position where my memories are now plentiful and varied (calling myself young seems like something of a platitude at this point). Without disappearing down the rabbit hole of Jungian analyses, it’s hard to argue against the idea that the day to day personality of a person is little more than the sum of their collective experiences encapsulated in the memories constantly tumbling through their consciousness. You could argue that all learnt behaviour, from the sequence of button pushes and lever stomps that propels your car, to the swishes and clicks of your mouse across a complex database homescreen are all, in a sense, memories so embedded in your rostrolateral prefontal cortex (apparently) that you barely register their retrieval.
Then there are memories as commonly defined: recollections of specific times, incidents or sometimes simply the remembrance of a feeling. A prime personal example of the latter is Christmas. I love Christmas. I state this every year to anyone who will listen, to the point where it seems almost suspicious. Why is he insisting he likes Christmas so much? Is he hiding something? Does he secretly not like Christmas? What if he hates Christmas? Oh god, the poor flower! But no, I do love Christmas. A lot (read: all of) this comes from my childhood memories of Christmas. But apart from one specific memory, these take the form of the remembrance of a feeling rather than a specific time and place. I remember the excitement of Christmas morning yes, but beyond that there’s a sense of warmth that permeates that whole period which is seemingly freeform, without a specific anchor to any actual occurrence. Christmas was, and is, to me a time where everything seems that much better, for no apparent reason. It’s completely illogical, and that’s why I love it. This is almost a subconscious happening. I can reach to the top shelf of my mental bookcase and pluck out a few specific Christmas memories sure, but the sum is greater than the whole of its parts. This recollection of a feeling colours every festive season for me, beyond the remembrance of unwrapping that N64 or listening to Dance Hits 94! on my new ghetto blaster.
All of which is positive. But what about bad memories unconsciously plucked from the depths of the mind? And herein lies the danger. If nostalgia is the mental equivalent of returning home to an unexpected present, regret is coming home to an unexpected unemployed, lazy housemate who swears they’ll take the bin out next week, promise, but right now they’re working on the play about a time travelling Cheese Cracker who has to save his kind from the ever encroaching threat of The Staleness. Regret is the constant and impossible wish that you had, or the world had, done something slightly different. Memories to be dusted off, analysed and lamented on until they become burning pits of anger and sadness. No Regrets. Pshaw. Anyone without regret is either narcissistic to the point of absurdity or deeper in denial than an ancient Egyptian sacrifice. Or, you know, someone who’s not me. Who knows, maybe there do exist people who believe they have lived the best of every possible life they could have, given the circumstances. Or maybe some people genuinely don’t give a shit. You know, Conservatives.
Regret is, in itself, a normal part of the human condition. I wouldn’t go so far as to say healthy, but like everything, not detrimental in measured amounts. It can teach us even, informing our ongoing decisions or improving who we are as people. It can, however, consume. There are several instances in my past where I have looked back on my memories of a certain time and wished so hard that those things had not happened. I imagined myself in an alternate reality where things did or didn’t happen the way they actually had, and these images of myself were dangerously addictive. Thankfully, these periods were brief and usually followed some other traumatic experience, but the temptation to fall into these false memories was, for a period, overwhelming.
The mind is a funny thing. Just last week I had a dream I was a space policeman patrolling a planet which looked suspiciously like my high school playground. I jump at my own shadow regularly and, entering the living room the other day, was startled by the clotheshorse. Memories, I’ve found, are becoming more important to me as I move through life. Obviously this isn’t any sort of grand revelation, the older we get the more we come to rely on the experiences of our past. One day these past experiences will outnumber the experiences I have yet to have, and will take on an even greater role in my changing personality. They will not, providence willing, become the entirety of my life. Often has been the time where I’ve reminisced about a lazy Sunday in foreign climes, a friend long since lost, or a place I’ll likely never revisit. But they are additions, pleasant but temporary distractions like a photo album occasionally brought down for an afternoon. And as with any good album, there are plenty of pages left to fill.