HOFFSTEDT: My thoughts on the process of memory

As I approach my 80th year on this incredible planet, my mind began to reflect on the beauty and uncertainties of life — not just for me, but everyone.
Aug 13, 2013


If someone lives to be 80, for example, they will have lived 29,200 days. In all those days, how many in their entirety can be remembered hour by hour? Not very many. 

If anyone can remember 292 extraordinary days out of that total, they will only have remembered 1 percent of them.

Our memories do not work that way. We don’t remember our lives in an exact sequential order. Our memories jump around from here to there to everywhere. There is no rhyme or reason. Your memory doesn’t proceed along a pre-recorded path.

So, how does it work? As my granddaughter stenciled on a “gadget” box for me, “Life Is a process.” 

Webster defines process as “a natural phenomenon marked by gradual changes that lead to a particular result.” Let us examine the first part of that definition: something natural (regarding nature) marked by gradual changes. Does the mind really capture something that happens naturally and by slow degrees? Maybe in hindsight, like reading a history book, but not exactly when they’re happening. The mind cannot absorb evolution as it is taking place, but it can and does absorb snippets.

For the past four or five years, I have been involved with a writers group at Four Pointes Center for Successful Aging in Grand Haven led by a most able, published author. Some of our focus has been to write a life’s journal that we can pass on to siblings, children, grandchildren and perhaps beyond. This journal is not to be written in any kind of sequential order such as, “I was born on, I was married on,” etc. Instead, it is much better to write your life in anecdotes — again relying on Webster, “a short narrative of an interesting, amusing or biographical incident.”

So I think this is how your brain really works. It stores up knowledge in the form of anecdotes or, as I said before, snippets. It doesn’t measure days, months or even whole years — just moments or maybe just a minute, maybe two minutes or perhaps an hour.  

It’s a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. Some are positive, some negative, and some totally neutral. 

Keep in mind, the memory can play tricks on us. It can embellish a true event or eliminate what it has long buried for many reasons. We can never know the exact truth of one of our memories.

So, when we write a short story of something that happened in our life, just grab the memory and get it down on paper. It doesn’t have to be exact. Write it like you’re simply relating this story to someone who has never heard it before. Again, make it interesting, amusing or biographical — an anecdote.

You’ve all heard the Latin expression, “Carpe diem (seize the day).” I think it would be more interesting if we could seize the moment, and lock it up in that marvelous vault. Would it be difficult? Maybe, but it can be a lot of fun. 

Even more fun if you can unlock that vault and tell your tale. Someone, somewhere is going to like your story. 

— By Richard Hoffstedt, Tribune community columnist


great lakes chick

What a wonderful thing to do, not only for yourself, but many others as you have mentioned. I'm genuinely interested in the stories that my elders have to "talk" about or recall. It's so fascinating what you're doing and I can only thank you for sharing your memories. I only wish my grandparents had done that, but I have become very close to my Gram in the past several years. It's been a complete blessing to learn about even the simplest of tales, like what they would do as kids when they got home from school.

I hope to come across such a wonderful gem such as this. I know I'll like your story. Many Thanks.


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