Memory and Place

For my nephew who can be wise without using many words.  

“Too much time on your hands – you need to make more jam”.

Well the apricot season is over and we’re now in a world where there is much more time on our hands for most of us.  Over the past weeks it become quieter and quieter in our temporary wee home, under the flight path for Queenstown airport.  The world has changed and the future world remains very uncertain.  So it seems reasonable to use this time of reduced physical contact with others to sort out a few thoughts.   In particular, thoughts about memory and the renewal of memory, the re-membering, that comes with returning to a place of a previous time.

Consider this familiar experience: 

You go into a room to get something and, right away, forget what it was you were looking for.  Go back to where you were and likely as not you remember.  Crossing a threshold from one space to another does something apparently to our brains.   A connection is needed – a re-connection that brings the previous thought together with the different space.

Returning to the place where I began has done that in lots of different ways.  Making jam is one example.   It’s probably 30 years since the last batch of jam was produced, so what to do was not front and centre in my brain.   But it didn’t take long before the memory was back and it felt good, very good.

Being in places whose familiarity is longer than my conscious memory has indeed reconnection me.  Much more quickly than moving to a new place, I am beginning to feel located again.  The connections remain with the place that’s been left behind: social media makes sure of that in a way that the interactions through comments, messages, and emails are not just holding on to the past.   It’s engaging with what is happening for friends at a distance and, in a funny sort of way, cheering them on from the sidelines.   This is become even more the case now that we are all in lockdown because of Covid-19.  I am as close for the people of Whangaroa, for example, as to the people in my street.  In fact closer, given invitations to share karakia together.

Relocated, memories of the past place are memories of people who remain part of my world.   So there is still some sadness, not to be there alongside and supporting in person, but more than that is the appreciation of simply knowing these people and calling them my friends.  Put simply, I am relocated and have kept the old location part of me, because of its people.

Recently, I was very fortunate to be in the hills (and to get there by helicopter) to help with a wilding conifer eradication project.   Last year when asked why we were leaving the north, the reply was always because the south is where our mountains are, and our rivers and lakes.   Up in the hills on that project, I knew I was in the right place. Home.  

A comment from a Northland friend has also helped me get my bearings.  “I love your total immersion attitude”, she said.   I guess that’s what the Northland experience was and this is what my returning south can also be.   When you’re in the hills, there is no need to work at it: one is immersed already.   And in the connections I’ve had a chance to make already with St John, prior to the lockdown (still keeping links of support through social media with those in the north), there’s been a sense of immersion, of simply being part of what they are doing here, listening and learning and enjoying getting to know the people.  Lockdown means staying away, for the sake of my older family members and, I guess, also me.  It’s hard not to be actively involved, supporting busy people who are even more overstretched than usual.  But I can spare regular thoughts for them and I’ve have been assured they are there for us if we need help.

Returning to a place, whether it’s returning to the room you’ve left in order to remember what you left for or returning to a place to call home, reconnects.   But not just returning to what it was before, as we bring with us the life and learning of the different places where we’ve lived.  Places and experiences that expand horizons.  Coming back is both returning to the same place and seeing it through wider eyes.  

Music connects with memory like this too.   There has been as growth in “nostalgia” radio stations in recent years.   What’s interesting is that the memories when listening to the music are mixed.  The music can bring a smile, but it also can trigger a sense of loss and sadness.  

Listening to that same music in a new context can also create new experiences and therefore new memories.