Monthly Archives: July 2017

The (Sort of) Persistence of Memory

My family knows me very well. I have always been quite open about both my emotions and opinions (I’m going with “open” as opposed to “an over-sharer”), and I feel like I’m relatively easy to figure out as a person anyway. However, there are some (very minor) misconceptions that have worked their way into the things people believe about me. I’m not talking about misjudgments of character or anything like that. I’m strictly speaking about the completely innocuous and at most mildly annoying assumptions that people make. I’m sure everyone knows someone who once expressed mild fondness for an animal/flower/band/etc. only for the world to decide that they are OBSESSED with that animal/flower/band/etc. and to make it the theme of every gift forever. That person then goes on to politely accumulate like 8,000 peacock figurines, which they now regard with an air of grim resignation.

For me, the strange mythologies that have sprung up around me are “Kathleen is never cold” and “Kathleen remembers everything about the books she reads.” As for the former, just because I like cool weather doesn’t mean I’m not cold in the dead of winter. (Also, the reason I wander around the house barefoot when it’s cold out, Mom, is that my feet are literally always cold and I just don’t notice it anymore. Also we’re inside.)

I realized recently that even I had fallen for the latter misconception, though. My memory is indeed very strong in some regards. For example, I have some memories from a weirdly early age. My earliest is from around 18 months, when my mom EXTREMELY ACCIDENTALLY hit me in the face with a seat belt. I don’t blame you if you’re skeptical, but I’ve corroborated specific details that were never part of a story about it, such as what side of the car I was sitting on and details about the car seat. (Also, can I just reiterate how much my mom did not mean to do this? She cried way harder than I did.) I have multiple memories from ages two and three, as well — bouncing in the stroller with my sister over a cobblestone road is a particularly fond one.

Then when I started to read, I was never content to only read one book at a time. Once I discovered The Baby-Sitters Club, I would have a stack six- or seven-deep beside my bed at all times, with a bookmark in each one. (I probably would have had more if I’d been allowed to take more out from the library.) My parents would marvel aloud that I could keep all of the stories straight, and lo, a personal legend was born.

I definitely cultivated this perception of me as a Reader Extraordinaire. I was deeply protective of and arrogant about this aspect of my identity, as I think many bookish kids are. I remember having “quote competitions” with my best friend circa eighth grade, in which we would quote the most impossibly obscure lines from Harry Potter at each other, trying to come up with one that the other person wouldn’t recognize. (I think we stumped each other once each.) Obnoxious performative bookishness aside, I genuinely could rattle off a great deal of detail from the books that I read and loved.

As I look at my bookshelf now, though, I find plenty of books that I know I enjoyed, but can barely remember anything about. I mentioned that I was rereading one of these forgotten books several months back, and my mom teased, “I didn’t think you ever forgot a book.” My arrogant child self experienced a brief moment of panic. I looked over the shelves and realized that details about characters and plots from books I had read only in the past few months now escaped me. What had become of my amazing book memory?

Well, my memory probably isn’t actually as good as it was when I was a kid. I definitely don’t read seven books at once anymore. But also, it was probably never actually that amazing, anyway. I’ve never been all that great with names, and even less so with dates. (Minoring in art history was a bit of a challenge.) The books I remember the best from childhood are either the ones that I read for school or the ones that became all-time favorites. The connection? Conversation. I never immediately stored the information I read in my long-term memory the way I’d proudly assumed that I did. I just talked about books literally all the time, and the repetition drove the details home. The books on my shelves that I don’t remember as well are the ones I’ve never had an in-depth discussion about.

I’ve always had a vague hypothesis that being a twin has a lot to do with my long memory. My sister also remembers our adventures in the stroller. I don’t know if she remembers the seat belt incident, but she does remember me falling down the stairs at my grandparents’ house when we were two. (I didn’t actually get injured all that often.) Our parents and other adult relatives obviously spoke to us all the time, but we also spoke to each other. These were conversations between cognitive equals, so we probably had to work harder to understand and be understood. I wonder if there was something about our communication skills growing in tandem that helped us to store our shared experiences in our memories. Of course, I know very little about the science of memory, so I could be entirely making this up. (It’s possible that my sister, who does know about the science of memory, will yell at me after I post this.) But I do have a good memory for conversations I have had, and it seems probable that my “good memory for books” had more to do with that aspect of my cognition than it ever had to do with actually reading.

This realization actually makes me really happy. I may not have been as ~remarkable as I once thought I was, but I did have a family who let me babble to my heart’s content about the books that I liked. Later on, I found friends who were eager to do the same. I still get to talk about books that I have in common with these friends, and I cherish and remember these conversations. The fact that I don’t remember all the books on my shelf just means that I need to make time for more of these conversations. I’ve been living alone since completing my Master’s, and though I was only literally a hermit for six months, I sometimes let myself get a bit isolated. I’m going to try to stop doing that. I want to have as many memories as possible.

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Werewolves, Anxiety, and Me

I talk about monsters to anyone who’ll listen. I can figure out a way to introduce the topic into a truly impressive variety of conversations, and half the time it’ll even sound natural. I am nothing if not single-minded. As a result, I’ve had many people ask me what my favorite monster is, and of course it will come as no surprise that my answer is WEREWOLVES. I often follow this up with, “They’re just so versatile!” Depending on the audience, this is met with either a murmur of agreement or a really strange look.

Werewolves’ versatility is derived from their simplicity. They’re human ’til they’re not. They’re human ’til they’re beast. That’s all there is to it. As such, they embody some of the fundamentals of monstrosity, but what precisely it all means will depend entirely on the context of their story. You can explore just about any fear or hatred or taboo desire with werewolves. Consequently, there are countless werewolf stories out in the world. Some are terrible, some are great, but all are different. I can’t imagine ever growing bored with this monster.

One thing I have identified as an aspect of some werewolf stories that really speaks to me is the narrative of learning to embrace a formerly-rejected part of the self. I can get mad theoretical right here (and I’m currently revising a paper on monsters, so the temptation is strong), but suffice to say that when two (or more!) seemingly disparate points of view coexist within a single subject — and at least one of them is Wrong (for example, a giant bloodthirsty wolf) — that subject has a few options. The option that most interests me is the decision to embrace the Wrongness, to empathize with it, to take care of it, to expand with it. The werewolf (or any monster) who loves and is loved by their monstrosity is my entire jam.

Another thing that I doggedly insist about monster theory is that it has practical, real-life applications. Allow me to demonstrate with myself. I have OCD and social anxiety disorder. I talk about the former kind of a lot, so most people reading this probably already knew that. I talk about the social anxiety less, because it’s historically been less of a Thing (relatively speaking), but I can’t imagine anyone who knows me is overly surprised by this diagnosis. I consider my anxiety (of both varieties) to be mooooostly under control these days. This has certainly not always been the case, and I’m very proud of the work I’ve done to deal with my prone-to-screaming brain, especially on the OCD front.

Recently, I participated in an event that caused way more social anxiety than usual. It was an unpleasant reminder that general nervousness and disordered anxiety aren’t the same thing, and no matter how many times I’ve pushed through the former (and I have! a lot!), that doesn’t mean the latter can’t still knock me on my ass. It was a frustrating and disheartening experience, because I had been hoping to represent myself as a really interesting, thoughtful, and hard-working person. I am a really interesting, thoughtful, and hard-working person! (And clearly my self-esteem is fine!) So what the hell was going on? Why was I letting this thing — this anxiety, this invader — hide who I really am?

That’s when I started thinking about werewolves.

At first, I totally rebelled against the association. Anxiety disorders are medical conditions, not monsters. They aren’t coexisting points of view within me. They’re just chemicals and synapses and whatever. I didn’t ask for them and I certainly don’t have to let them determine who I am. I’m not all that unwanted stuff. I’m only the parts that I choose to be.

… Except substitute “curse” for “chemicals,” and you have the internal monologue of every newly minted werewolf ever.

And wasn’t my OCD the reason I did an AmeriCorps term? After all those agonizing months of obsessing over the effects of climate change, I chose to turn that pain into action and help actual victims of a natural disaster. I couldn’t fix all the suffering that our degraded environment has caused and will cause, but I did something, and it was something I wouldn’t have done without anxiety.

My anxiety has poured into my writing and made it so much stronger. I gave different parts of it to various characters (and all of it to one of them), and I also made these characters brave. Someday young anxious readers will read about these characters and see anxiety not only permitting bravery, but fueling it. I could not have done that without my own anxiety, either.

Hell, even my social anxiety is mostly focused on a fear of interrupting or inconveniencing people. It will make me uncomfortable, but it really doesn’t want anyone else to be. Both of my anxiety disorders just want everyone to be happy.

My anxiety is kind. How can I blame it? How can I hate it?

So all right. Come here, unwanted thing. Come here, chemicals, fear, monster. I got you. I am you. You love the world. So I’ll love you.