I grew up an only child in New Hampshire, in a 220 unit condo complex of Nashua called Coburn Woods. Each hilly cul-de-sac of houses was surrounded by tall, skinny pines, interspersed with small ponds and surrounded by trails to the outside. The community was safe enough for my parents to let me wander at a young age during the early 80s, so there was a comfort, even an enjoyment, in getting hopelessly lost. I would trail-blaze in new directions just so I could find myself popping up in a familiar place, hours later, covered in burrs and scrapes. These wanderings consistently widened my mental map, until I eventually knew miles of the surrounding woods like the back of my hand.
This was my nativity. The tall pines and the soft orange carpet they laid, the bright greens of the deciduous ashes, maples, elms and oaks that would morph into the most stunning myriad of brilliant glittering reds, yellows and golds that caught the sunlight and opened my soul. My stomping grounds are emblazoned in my memory, and I knew every nook and crevice of the surrounding land. I was home when I was in those woods. I still am.
I have a very distinct memory of a summer afternoon in 1989, when I was 8. My wanderings had led me into a grassy clearing, where I lay on my back on a small hill, watching the clouds pass slowly in the warm sun. The crickets in the grass trilled their high pitched mating songs, and a small engined plane droned overhead as I lay there, hands tucked under the back of my head. It was a moment of pure awareness of being.
Something about the way this memory is imprinted in my brain has changed my perception of certain sounds, especially engine sounds. Any time I hear a Cessna or other small plane passing above me, I am transported back to that sense of freedom and contentment. More often than not, I will pause whatever it is I'm doing to close my eyes and soak in that sound. It has been like a wormhole to my hippocampus, where memories are stored forever in a special little binder of wonders, always accessible with the right smell, the right sound, the right trigger.
(It really is all about memory, isn’t it? This theme pops up throughout my life, in so many ways.)
These memories are the abiding ones; the deeply etched remembrances that my neurons won't let me forget. The bad ones may cause me continued suffering beyond an initial shock of pain when triggered, while the good ones brighten our days as I go about life. But what is the most overlooked, and by far the largest collection of all stored experiences are those in-between moments: the short term memories which our brains deem forgettable, expendable. Those middle of the road, everyday incidences that seem to hold no use in the present as worth retaining. These are the vast majority of the human experience, and they are lost more often than not.
The loss of memories, big and small, troubled me as I realized the pain of forgetting. There were some parts of my life I refused to release into the whirlpool of lost memory. What was the point of living if you had to keep relearning lessons? Why bother going on if we couldn’t function beyond the small fishbowl we were trapped in, consistently being surprised at our surroundings?
If I kept forgetting things, personal evolution couldn’t be possible. Awakening, true knowledge of self - this was out of my reach if I couldn’t remember all the pieces I already had acquired in order to put the puzzle together.
So, starting fairly young, I journaled. I didn't want to lose any events, chance encounters, struggles, adventures, or passing observations that my brain might executively label as “Unnecessary for Retrospection.” I came to realize that my brain was doing a supremely crappy job with memory storage on its own, so I had decided that I would take charge of what was ultimately worth remembering.
My first real journal, besides the scraps of paper and unused small address books, was a composition notebook in fifth grade. Drama with friends, waffling about my feelings about boys, passionate venting about teachers, parents. These were all experiences I felt too important to be swallowed by the Great Pit of Forgetting. My next journal, a giant binder filled with handwritten folded notes, newspaper cutouts, cherished candy wrappers from a boy, and written paper of varying sizes and rulings, was a depository for all things Worthy of Remembrance from 1994 to 1995; my first taste of being a teen.
As I evolved, so did my journals and their contents. It was the chronicle of a lifelong transformation. Over the years, my pile of Remembrance grew rapidly: I filled journals in weeks and then days before I started buying larger and larger ones. I expanded my chronicling to other mediums as well; I was given a single lens reflex camera and eventually a tape recorder which I used to ceaselessly document experiences, conversations, moments, and thoughts. I practiced and began to master realistic drawing; I was terrible at drawing from imagination, but I could recreate very closely any image from a photo. I was a Memorialist - my entire existence revolved around the archiving of thoughts and events.
By the time I was 18, my whole life could fit onto a bookshelf of journals, photographs, mini-cassettes and portfolios. This was the culmination of Me, a manifestation of my life in physical form. I was incredibly lucky that I was never a victim of a house fire. So much paper defined me. So much potential for total destruction, a life of kindling just waiting for a spark.
I had no reason to be a troubled kid. My childhood was full of love and joy. My mother created a home with an antiquey, warm ambiance and threw small parties for holidays and special occasions, and I had an attentive father who was deeply enamored with me. Christmases were magical. The house was often full of laughter and love. I rarely remember my parents fighting, but that may be because they made me feel so secure, so safe and treasured, that the arguments never stuck in my memory. They would sometimes pick me up together, us hugging in a ring of three, and we would trade kisses; dad to me, me to mom, mom to dad. My childhood was full of hilarity and tickle fights and being tossed around merrily like a sack of potatoes.
There was no clear outward reason why I struggled as I did. I was an only child with a decisive lack of social skills, so I spent my days with my stuffed animals, reading science and fantasy books, and wandering in the woods. I had a deep connection to the land, which was something my mother nurtured. She was a woods girl, born on the coast of Maine in the 1940’s, having her coming of age in the heyday of hippie culture. Even her politics were Earth-centric. When I first began asking questions about how my parents leaned politically, she invariably said, “I always vote for the environment.” She explained to me our connection to the energy of the planet, how it nurtures us and can hug us back when we wrap our arms around a tree; how we can open our hearts to the infinite source they are a conduit to.
I loved that connection. It was an early experience of something all-encompassing, some force of perpetual love that put small troubles in a revealing light as something conquerable. I got a book at one point from the school library about space and the cosmos; a kids introduction to the magnitude of our surroundings through the lens of science. The book hoarded my attention for hours at a time. Coming to understand the vastness of our world and the universe it occupies, realizing our size in context with the immense macrocosm around us, blew my mind. In such vastness, I thought, surely everything is possible, and anything I can imagine most likely already exists.
Holding such a broad understanding could have been the key to so many doors in life. This understanding should have added up to a motivated, fulfilled and applied life. I should have grown up to be a focused and well-balanced professional, or perhaps a successful artist or some kind of positive influence in my community. I had everything I needed. I was given the right tools, the best opportunities, and plenty of love and support. I was given a perfect, shiny compass, complete with all the lessons of the generations that came before me, and their timeless wisdom and guidance. All I had to do was pick a path, and follow it.
The point of the compass is negated if you refuse to heed it. Turns out, I was more of a meandering kind of girl.
My internal compass has always skewed a bit in the wrong direction. I wasn't drawn toward the things that would improve my life or circumstances, but toward experiences that would peel back my protective layers and expose me to the raw intensity of life. All the pain of it, all the pleasure and agony and confusion and awakening I could find. Through it all, I wrote about it in journals, and this is my effort at making some sense out of the chaos.