For twenty-five years I’ve been telling stories about the adventures my sister, Donna, and I had on our around-the-world trip. Whenever I talk about it I mention that we left right after my twenty-fifth birthday and that we were away for about a year.
I did leave after my birthday, but 33 days later to be precise. I was shocked when I opened Journal #1 and saw the date. October 2nd? Really? I could have sworn it was only days after the big party that mom organized as a combined send-off and birthday party for me. (Extremely nice of her, especially since she hated the idea of her daughters setting off on this ridiculous journey.) Would some of my other recollections turn out to be a bit skewed… or down-right false?
In my memory, and in my tales about that year, I am a savvy world-traveller. A natural adventurer and competent, mature young woman right from the outset. A can-do girl who can handle anything. When I observe “young people today” I marvel at the contrast between me at their age (so smart! so independent!) and the needy nitwits that so many of them seem to be.
Then I began to read my entries. The very first sentence on the first page of the first journal nuked my notions in no time. An excerpt:
Tues, Oct 2, 1990
I swear to God I will take this to my grave. Donna and I (I can’t even believe this… I can hardly write this down…) missed our flight. We arrived at the airport bright and early–totally organized and refreshed. But we waited at the WRONG gate. By the time we realized our mistake, our plane had taken off. I suppose one day we’ll laugh about this, but right now it scares me. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. How incredibly fucking stupid are we?!!!
You’d think that would have been my wake-up call, but nope. It gets worse. The airline managed to get us on another flight in time to make our connection, but guess what? After deplaning, I realized that I had accidentally left my passport and wallet behind in the seat pocket! Through frantic scrambling, racing though O’Hare, and shedding some tears, I did get my wallet back in time to board the next plane. Was that twit really me? Suddenly my own kids don’t seem so irresponsible and unfocussed.
As I read that first page, I recognized that I was already learning my first lesson though my journal-reading project. Maybe I shouldn’t be worrying so much about my own teenagers. They just need a bit more time to mature. They still have lots of time to get their acts together. There’s hope for them! After all, I figured my own self out eventually, didn’t I?
And as I thought more and more about how different the reality of my departure was from my memory of it, another truth became clear: memory cannot be trusted. No doubt there will be more journal episodes that don’t synch up to my memories of them. This revelation made me think about the memoir, The Night of the Gun, by the late great journalist, David Carr. (If you haven’t read it, do. He’s an incredible writer.) Without giving too much away, the book is partially about a remembered incident from Carr’s early life: during a drunken rage a close friend drew a gun on him. Except, after Carr does some investigating into his past, he finds out that for decades he’d had it all wrong… it was he who had drawn the gun on his friend!
Nothing as gritty or dangerous as a gun fight happened during my year away. But my point here is kind of the same as Carr’s: despite the popular aphorism, hindsight is not 20–20. It’s not even 20–40. It’s as cloudy and convoluted as a half-forgotten dream at daybreak.
Even before I turn the first page of my journal, I have been warned: memory is a messy thing.