The strangeness of memory

  • Posted on June 29, 2012 at 11:27 pm

What was it I said?

Yesterday does not exist, tomorrow does not exist. There is only now.
For yesterday is just our interpretations and tomorrow is just our imaginings.

Something like that. And we all know that memories are not photographic, but filtered by meaning, so that we remember in a way tempered by significance and emotion, and that false memories can be evoked. This is why memories can sometimes be echoes: memories of memories. Do I really remember lying alone in a pram? The braiding around the hood? Or do I remember recalling this, albeit at a very early age? And it is why memories can still hurt for a lifetime. We remember the pain with the memory, and never reinterpret it. Maybe the real purpose of memory is not to have a nice mental photo album or video diary, but to retain significance as an advantage for survival. So a bird can return to its nest after migration, and an eel or a salmon its spawning ground, or a penguin find its partner after a season at sea. If so, memory is complex, involving not just the obvious cues such as visual and olfactory, but other things, such as the subtle patterns of magnetic fields. The bee’s waggle dance that directs its fellows to nectar is not exactly a satnav, but much more subtle. Indeed there are possible clues of awareness of quantum fields (read here if you want to know the mathematical trail).

So what we store, how and where, when we create memories is very interesting indeed, and anything but a simple recording of events.

Memory and time

One of the strange effects I have felt in recent months is my own memories of self, but whether it demonstrates the reliability of memory or its unreliability, I’m really not sure. Someone came up to me this week, said a very bright ‘hello!’ and shook my hand, and launched into conversation. Which was fine, except they hadn’t see me as a woman before, hadn’t been told, and showed no flicker of strangeness, despite not having seen each other for a few years. OK, I am recognisable, to the extent that I got away with a new passport photo without needing a new witness to it. The eyes, nose, mouth alignments are, of course exactly as they were. No, I wasn’t disappointed not to be complimented on my new look (and certainly not to get the usual ‘goodness, you are brave!’). Really it reminded me of my own memories of self.

Just a few months ago I was still presenting a male persona at least half of the time, and I wrote about the odd experience one day, looking at myself in the usual trousers and shirt, and thinking: ‘why am I wearing someone else’s clothes?’ That was a point at which cross-dressing meant wearing male clothes. Now, it seems my memories, like a sponge, are soaking back my feminine awareness and resolution, such that it is actually hard to recall what it felt like to ‘be a man’. It is as if I have always been this, so I expect my memories to be the memories of a woman. Certainly there is no memory of it being very different, only that the struggle has gone from those memories. Everything that felt wrong, now has meaning and a place to be. Everything that I remember of me now comes from me, not from the façade I lived behind. The little ways I was ‘different’, the inner intentions I always had, as well as the yearnings and sense of displacement or not belonging, have become rooted in my female self where they always belonged, and it is the male persona that is becoming detached. My past is becoming my past, not to change it, but to own it properly, as if it never really belonged to ‘him’ – who no longer has a purpose, served well in the circumstances, but now has long retired, remaining only in memory as a fact.


I rather like this rediscovery of self. It explains so much and takes away the crisis of becoming something new in front of everyone I know. It also means that I don’t disown my past, I don’t feel guilty, and there is no severance of self. Of course this isn’t how everyone else sees it. For the caterpillar lovers, this butterfly is strange indeed, and will be a curiosity for a while to come. It is new, previously unknown. And so they don’t know that it was me all along, beneath the male façade, that this was who was living, loving, giving, working, playing the music and painting the days. And which is why my deepest grief is that, having put matters right, having arrived at this understanding, this realisation of where I have always been coming from – I am met with lack of recognition, and all my access codes are denied, sometimes in the places that matter most.

All my memories are mine (ever bought a new computer and transferred all your creative writing, and felt the sense of relief at it all being there?). I really was there! But I was there, and now I know who I was all along. That is something I guess you can never quite know in the same way, and so to some, I am different and ‘he’ was another person. But I have the easier explanation, in which no-one dies. When Copernicus asserted that the Earth went around the Sun, he simply made the explanation, the mathematics, very easy. You can do the maths based on geocentricity, but it’s awfully complex stuff! I’m glad to leave the complexity behind, but I recognise Copernicus had a hard time of it too.


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1 Comment on The strangeness of memory

  1. diannedianne says:

    Recognition is a strange thing. I am almost 3 months in to full time transition undertaken at my job of 14 years. I’m recognized in our small downtown and have a wide circle of acquaintances. I’ve gotten used to walking by people I have worked with in the past or known at cafes or delis and making eye contact and not seeing even a tiny hint of recognition. I’ve made it a point to “reintroduce” myself to some so I can take advantage of long time associations, and maybe to educate by example. So I was stunned when I went in to a sandwich place I had frequented for years but hadn’t gone to for many months as the newly hatched Me.

    I stood at the counter in black slacks and trim jacket, coiffed, manicured and the picture of downtown office lady proper. The Vietnamese woman owner looked up and instantly said, “Oh, Hi BoyName! We haven’t seen you for a while. Want your usual?” I stammered out a weak Yes Thanks and told her that I had made some changes and now went by Dianne. She cheerfully replied, “OK, Dianne. Come back more often now!”

    Like you, I look in the mirror and see a profound change. I see a person who has been in there in the dark who is now feeling the full light of day. My sandwich gal showed me that I am still enough of the same person and that it’s just fine with her.

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