Soaring Through Darkness by Paige Leland

Nothing improves the memory more than trying to forget.

– Unknown

Since the 2000s, researchers have been studying the storage space of the human brain. According to Paul Reber—a professor of psychology at Northwestern University—if we were to measure how many gigabytes of memory our brains can store, the answer would be over one million, which is equivalent to over 250 million songs. Our capacity for memory formation is endless, vast. We won’t run out of storage space in our lifetime. But to put a number on exactly how many memories we can hold onto is difficult. How does one measure the size of a memory? My memory of a week at a summer cabin where the willows dipped over the lake and kids swung from a rope swing is surely a bigger memory than the conversation I had with the cashier at the gas station three days ago. And if our capacity to store memories is that big, I wonder how some memories wash away, even when we try with white knuckles and tired wrists to hold onto them.

*

If I were a bird, I would probably be a chickadee, like the nickname my grandfather gave me when I was a child. I’d be a feathery ruffle of red and brown and white, chittering back and forth with any other bird that would listen to me. And if I were a chickadee, I could soar above my childhood home—above the crusted metal shed with the leaky roof, above the swing set and sandbox full of moldy dirt, above the tracks left in the grass from the rubber tires of my Malibu—and rest on the broken branch of the tree where my father hammered marble eyes and a wooden nose into the bark. In a moment—in the simple flash it would take for my empty bird eyes to blink—I could capture the entirety of my life. I could see it all in one outstretch of my feathery wings or a single twist of my head.

If I were a bird sitting on the broken branch outside my childhood home, and you were a bird with your claws digging into the bark beside me, it would only be polite for me to show you around. I don’t remember certain things, like the day my family moved from the house where I spent the first eight years of my life to the one where we live now. But my parents told me that I cried, begged to go back to see my friends and ride my bike in the quiet suburban street. I also don’t remember waking up one morning and driving to Detriot to see Barney Live in Concert! But I cried then too, afraid of the fog machine, forcing my parents to remove me from the theatre. I don’t remember falling headfirst into a toy box at age three, or how my mother ran to grab a camera to take a picture, rather than helping me get unstuck. I don’t remember what those memories were like. But when telling you who I am, I wouldn’t leave them out. I’d sing them to you how birds sing to one another in spring—excited, remembering, reborn.

*

You might wonder then why I wish I were a bird. To fly away, I would tell you, to be small. To live out my existence in darkness. Flying is much faster than running. There is a certain distance between the sky and the ground. But birds have excellent memories, you’d say to me regretfully. They remember like you do.

*

If we were two birds sitting on a branch and I sang to you about everything I’ve ever forgotten, and I knew that you understood the consequences—how if we can forget ourselves, how will anyone ever remember us—then I would show you around. I would take you first to the windowsill of the kitchen. We would press our beaks against the screen and watch my mother kneading her fingers in sticky dough and my father mixing ingredients in a plastic pink bowl, with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” dancing out of the speakers in the background. We would see my little brother’s feet pad across the kitchen floor, dribbling a nerf basketball and dunking it into a cardboard hoop. I would be there too, sitting at the oak kitchen table, slathering fresh sugar cookies with frosting in red, green and yellow.

*

For ages, the use of the idiom, “bird brain,” has been used to label people who always forget, those who can’t seem to store memories, who regularly misplace their keys and forget to turn off the lights in their cars. Yet studies have shown that birds have exceptional memories, forming them quite similarly to humans. In one study, birds could memorize over one thousand pictures, days after first viewing them. Though birds and humans diverged in evolution millions of years ago, birds’ capacities and abilities to remember remain intact.

*

Next we would flutter around to the front of the house, past the nests settled in the crooks of the trees, to where we buried my childhood best friend—a black lab and Newfoundland mix—the first living thing outside my parents to ever teach me about unconditional love. He’s beneath a dead apple tree, under a knotted dirt pile, and even when my friends and I would play hide and seek in the yard, I never felt comfortable stepping over the plot of land where the grass has gone missing. I would take you to the shed at the edge of the property and show you the dents in the metal where I used to pitch softballs into the steel. There’s a grid made of black tape that still lives there, an imaginary strike zone my dad created for me to practice. The door still doesn’t shut right, but I don’t think there are plans to fix it.

*

One of the most important evolutionary adaptations found in the human brain is our ability to not only retrieve memories that have been encoded, but our ability to remain aware that each memory isn’t the actual thing. If we were unable to discern memory from real life, we would become stuck in an endless loop of remembering, thinking each memory was happening in real time. And for some, that would mean the purple bruises would never heal, the carpet would always burn against skin, the sweat would never wipe away.

*

Some of my memories have no place, or they exist somewhere intangible, so I would have to take you inside to the pictures and the scrapbooks. You might worry about the inconvenience of being a bird inside a home full of people, but we wouldn’t be the first ones to ever fly around the inside walls of that house. My cousins visited us once—the ones with the annoying habit of always leaving the front door open, despite the helpful reminders from other family members to make sure it shut tightly behind them. It happened on a muggy day in the middle of summer. My two cousins, my brother and I were sucking on cherry popsicles, when a sparrow decided to join us. The bird must not have had a lot of experience with the inside world, because he smashed into windows and crunched against the drywall before finally being swept back through the front door with the bristly end of a broom. But don’t worry. I wouldn’t let that happen to us.

*

Though our hippocampus can hold an almost endless number of memories, the structure itself is only two inches long—no bigger than the end of the straw that pokes out of a plastic cup or two quarters squished end to end. This tiny structure holds our entire past. It holds every memory we’ve ever made, every person we’ve ever met and our capacity to form new memories with every second that passes. Inside the hazy brown structure is the moment we lost our virginity, the moment we watched a loved one slip into oblivion from Alzheimer’s, the moment we felt the ocean for the first time, the salt slipping into our skin and mixing with our blood and never quite washing away. But if we have the capacity to never forget, why do we still? And if we can forget, why do we forget calculus formulas on the day of an important exam and the smell of a loved one’s hair when it’s all we want is to remember, but we can’t ever seem to shake the memories we wish we could? Why are the worst, most horrifying and traumatic moments that we wish we could scrub clean, the ones that get to stay?

*

Memories are saved as groups of neurons, primed to fire together in the exact pattern that occurred during the original experience. Our brains are wired like our computer hard-drives, conserving five, ten, twenty copies of memories if necessary. As a precaution in case of trauma, our brains encode them almost redundantly, to ensure that if damage occurs, we won’t lose pieces of ourselves in the process. I should be thankful for the backup, in case my brain one day starts to wither away, synapses eroding and losing their ability to ignite one another. I should be glad to retain my ability to remember, but instead I find myself wishing we only got one copy. Shred it, and it would be gone.

*

If I sat by the pictures and stopped singing, my throat hollow and empty, you may wonder what else I haven’t told you. You may wonder what memories are seared into the smallest crevices of my hippocampus—which memories have the power of haunting me and which memories never fade away, no matter how hard I try to scrape them out.

I would start by telling you why I wish I were small again. A child. Untouched. Clean. Carefree. There would be fewer memories stored, more memories to be made. Maybe I could form them differently a second time around. You might wonder what I’m trying to escape. After prodding, I’d sing it to you—how what started as a first date turned into carpet burns that laid out in streaks across my back, bruises that lingered between my thighs and around my wrists, no’s, you want it’s, his laugh as my eyes leaked tears, more no’s, more grunts, his chapped lips on my skin, his sweat dripping down my clavicle and between my breasts, the six showers that couldn’t wash it away.

*

Because human brains are symmetrical, the structure of the hippocampus itself is a mirror—we have one in each lobe. If we experience trauma to the hippocampus on one side of our brain, but the other side remains undamaged, we can retain all of our extra copies of memories. You may think that damaging the hippocampus could make you forget. You may think that plunging a knife into your memory and cutting it out could make you lose the ones you wish you never had in the first place. But your brain would fail you. You’d still remember. They wouldn’t wipe clean.

*

If we were birds, I could share my memories with you, and later we could fly our separate ways. I’d never have to face you again. Maybe one day you could sing to other birds about me—a happy cadence with dynamic crescendos and a haunting refrain. Maybe they would feel lucky afterwards, about being a bird. Remembering the sun on their feathers. Plucking worms from the softening ground. Watching their eggs crack open to reveal new life. But never darkness. Never bruises. Never blood. Never sorrow.


Paige Leland is currently an undergraduate student at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, MI. She enjoys writing short non-fiction and prose poetry, dealing mostly in matters of childhood, human anatomy and psychology. After graduation this fall, she hopes to pursue her MFA in Creative Nonfiction.

 

 

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