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Forgetting to remember

I've been thinking a lot about memories lately.
The way they are formed, how we keep them, how we lose them. 
I've been thinking about the things we remember and why.
And I've been thinking about the things we forget.
I went to the New Zealand National library once. 
It was on a school trip, it had rained as we walked there and we stood uncomfortably in damp uniforms as a small grey-haired man rattled off information about the archives, about how they had a copy of every book and paper ever printed in this country, how the library was kept in a temperature controlled environment underground and ran the length of three blocks on the street. There were rooms that held collected sounds and pictures, carefully boxed and labelled, and only ever handled by white-gloved hands.
I remember it smelling like wet wool and books and dead air.
We went underground to the archives and there were just rows and rows and rows of shelves neatly filled with books, stacked practically to the ceiling. The numbered shelves were on some kind of sliding system that would keep them close together until you wanted that particular shelf. To move the shelves you had to turn a big metal crank shaped like a wheel and slide the shelves along. All of this to save space so that there was room for more shelves, more books. 
It was so very orderly and dignified. And dark.
It was so very dark and the aisles were wired with motion sensors. Halogen lights flickered on as you made your way down the rows, blinking off when you walked out of range. You could only ever see a few metres in front of you and a few metres behind.
Our small guide shone a large beam down one of the darkened rows and the light ended before the shelves did.
I don't remember much else about that trip, or even the reason for visiting, only the feeling of being in that endless room, voices of many writers captured in books now silenced and filed in slow-moving shelves underground. There are many visual metaphors for memories and how they work, but this is mine.

The thing about memory is that we want so badly for them to be selective. That we would keep the good days and that the bad ones would fade. If this is so, we want to believe that we will file them all correctly, instantly. That we can categorise and colour code them and file them in neat little boxes, able to be found for reference at a moment's notice.  
We want to keep the good ones close - easy to access and reference over and over. We know these memories well. If they were books, they would be well-loved, their pages lightly crinkled from fingers that grasp for them quickly. Dust wouldn't have a hope to settle here. These are the good ones. The family jokes, the childhood memories, things our mothers said to us, the way our best friend sounds when they laugh. 
There are rows and rows of good days. There are carefully cased highlight reels. Birthdays and family holidays and first kisses. We like to light up the dark aisles by projecting these scenes, like playing golden-toned shaky 8mm film footage onto haphazardly hung bed sheets. The particular things we choose to remember about these events are illogical as they are individual; the glow of the candles on the faces of those you love, the way you always seemed to wake up with sand on your pillow on holiday, the complete strangeness of someone else's face being so close to yours. 

I think there must be aisles and rows for things we should remember, but don't. These shelves are a little further from the entrance, a series of meticulously numbered volumes like the heavy old Encyclopaedia Britannica every household used to have in the 90's. Only there are pages missing. Torn edges and broken bindings where things once were, a sizeable chink missing from volume 13:2, chapters missing between 'Heart' and 'Heirloom'. It's hard to say if those chapters were important, for how can you remember something you have forgotten?

I'm certain that things in the archives of our minds are rarely as organised and accessible as the ones below the street. I can barely keep my own bedroom bookshelf in order, let alone a lifetime of memories I am still making. Things get lost. Mis-labelled, misplaced and missing in general. We forget details we never wanted to. 
Except sometimes we do.
Sometimes we desperately want to forget. 

For lovers spend hours making memories, folding them up carefully and carrying them close to their chest. When in love we remember everything so vividly; the way he looked at me, or the way she said my name in that particular way. The flicker of his eyelashes, the lilt of her voice. We remember it all too well, mostly because we want to. We are desperate to; we are archivists assessing, collecting and preserving these moments. We are witnesses to the extraordinarily common phenomenon that is another person's heart beating, if only momentarily, in sync with our own. It feels like our personal duty, our calling to remember, and so we do. Gladly. We remember the late night conversations and the inside jokes, the first time we saw them cry, the sound of their keys in the door. We remember their memories, their stories become stories we need to know, volumes we must acquire and file in our own archives. We build more shelves to accommodate the space they require and feel proud of the collection we are accumulating. 
Until maybe we don't. 
For love breaks and ends and we want nothing more than to forget. 
We watch as bitter tears seep though the plaster ceiling panels and soak into the collection we spent so many hours curating. Teams are brought in to assess the damage. The pages of these books are 
distorted and waterlogged and we struggle to read back words we once knew so well.

We begin the slow process of relocating these artefacts. We gather them up in tired arms and walk them down the long rows, lights turning on and off as we make our way to some back corner where we hope we will rarely need to come.

What a funny thought.
We rely on our minds to forget. We trust that there is a place far away enough and dark enough that we can hide things from ourselves until we forget.
We will ourselves not to travel down to those dark corners, we dispose of evidence, erase index cards that would point us to that department. We tidy up the other shelves, try to remove the many memories from that time, that relationship. We turn the metal crank and push those shelves far to the back to try seal them in. We will for there to be some event that erases them completely, acutely aware that there is unlikely to be.
We dedicate hours to the removal of references and footnotes, for if found when drunk or lonely, these send us running along the rows faster than the automated lights can catch us. Back to those memories we are trying so hard to forget.

An archivists job is to provide access to records determined to have long-term value.
We are far too invested in the contents of the cases to be impartial determiners of value.
We are not in full control of the things we would like to remember.
We do not have full authority on the things we would rather forget.

And so dear reader, I find myself wishing you well in the archiving of your memories. May the sweet ones comfort you and the bitter ones be buried well. May you have the wisdom to know the diffeerence. x

Images in this post are works by John Batho

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