New Brush Strokes on a Painted Canvas

An artist friend once told me that when it comes to paint and canvas there really are no mistakes. An unwanted detail can be altered or removed. A smudge, created through a moment of inattention, can simply be blended in with the background. Failing that, one only needs to wait until sufficient time has passed and then reapply the stroke, but this time in the correct manner. Best of all is the possibility that always exists for any of those accidents to result in an improved outcome. Perhaps the extra attention to the imperfect spot will result in finer details, better lighting or, maybe even nuances not envisioned in the original concept.

Sometimes, when we look at a recent memory it's almost as if the gate has been closed. 'It is what it is."

Sometimes, when we look at a recent memory it’s almost as if the gate has been closed. ‘It is what it is.”

So too with memory; no recollection can be considered a finished piece. Previously unrecalled details may surface, all by themselves, revealing aspects previously unrealized. Perhaps the sharing of a memory with a friend who was also in that time and place may result in additions as their details blend with yours. There’s the very real possibility that alterations to your own situation may result in changes being made to your memories. Conscious or otherwise, sometimes this just needs to happen.

Time passes. You revisit the memory. Some things are not as clear as they once were but, merged as they now are with previous thoughts, sometimes new perspectives emerge.

Time passes. You revisit the memory. Some things are not as clear as they once were but, merged as they now are with previous thoughts, sometimes new perspectives emerge.

When it comes to memory it seems that most of us find ourselves on a continuum somewhere between two extremes. At the one end are those blessed/cursed with almost perfect memories. No detail is too small to be remembered. They can often tell you much of what happened to them at any particular day! More importantly, though, the stories they relate are consistent. Ask them the day after, say, they got laid off from work and they’ll re-enact the whole event painful detail by painful detail. If you happen to encounter them several years later and the lay-off incident happens to come up, they’ll again describe the event exactly as they did before; all details perfectly recalled; the incredible sense of hurt and betrayal no less intense as it was the day after it happened.

Ask a question and get an accurate, frank response. No sugar coating. Simply put, these are not the people you tend to go to when what you are seeking is unquestioning affirmation. They are, however, the ones you seek out when frankness and accuracy are what’s important.

At the other extreme are those whose memories are completely fluid. No story is exactly the same in the retelling. Details are added here, omitted there. Sometimes it seems that for those people it’s all about suiting the story to the moment, not about accurately relating any of the events as they were witnessed or experienced. These are the people you go to whenever you want help seeing the positive side of something as they tend to be especially gifted in the art of framing; of portraying particular sides to events and issues.

The thoughts that comprise this post came to me one morning while strolling along the beach. I saw the now, almost unused fish plant (it's far cheaper to ship raw fish to China for processing and then ship it back than it is to process it here. Revisionists love to say how stupid we were to build so many fish plants. I think those people are mostly egotistical narrow minded fools... How COULD we foresee the future, blinded as we were by the present!

The thoughts that comprise this post came to me one morning while strolling along the beach. I saw the now, almost unused fish plant (it’s far cheaper to ship freshly-caught fish to China for processing and then ship it back than it is to process it here). Revisionists love to say how stupid we were to build so many fish plants back in the day. I think those people are mostly egotistical narrow minded pretenders more interested in self promotion than in portraying us the way we are… How COULD we foresee the future, blinded as we were by the present?

Most of us fall somewhere near the middle of the spectrum. We are able to recall many of the details, but by no means all. We notice this especially whenever we try and compare stories of recent events. Everyone, so it seems, remembers things differently, will emphasize different details and may attribute causes to different factors. And so it goes. Mostly it’s not much of a problem. Yes, sometimes we may argue over the finer points but mostly we find ourselves just merging “facts” supplied by others with the ones we recall. Through this, our stories evolve and drift somewhat but mostly remain true to the original.

Or so we think. (Yes–pun intended.)

Perhaps you have heard of a longitudinal study out of Harvard often referred to as the Grant study. Starting in 1938 until 1944 a group of white, male sophomores from Harvard were chosen and have been studied on a regular basis since that time. The results have been rather enlightening (especially if you are white male, one supposes) and have been often related through the popular press. If you are interested just do an internet search using the keywords grant, study and happiness and you will find loads of short articles from the popular press that outline a few key points, especially ones relating to whatever the authors have decided that happiness entails. Go ahead if you are interested…

…this little post is not about that at all. It is, rather, about memory and how recollections change over time.

Over time this fishing stage has undergone many, many changes. It's been repaired on an ongoing basis but parts of the structure pre-date WW2. Alex used it all of his life. He's retired now and none of his family now pursues the fishery so it's use is no longer for commercial purposes. Some may inyerpret this as a reflection of a declining fishery, of a way of life that has died off in the wake of the new oil-based economy.

Over time this fishing stage has undergone many, many changes. It’s been repaired on an ongoing basis but parts of the structure pre-date WW2. Alex used it all of his life, as did his father and, for all I know, his father before him… He’s retired now and none of his family pursues the fishery so it’s use is no longer for commercial purposes. Some may interpret this as a reflection of a declining fishery, of a way of life that has died off in the wake of the new oil-based economy.

Given the time at which the group was selected it so happened that many of the original participants in the study went off to fight in WW2. (I’m using some of the writings of Bessel Van der Kolk as personal references. Sample here.) Most of them survived and became part of the permanent study cohort. Shortly after they returned they were interviewed. Most related stories of the horrors of war, of how they spent so much time, scared, just fighting for survival. Overall, the dominant thinking was on how the war was such a horrific experience.

But the study proceeded, and, from time to time, the researchers would check in and re-interview the participants. In the 1990s another major round of interviews revealed an interesting item: most of the original participants’ recollections of the war had changed significantly. Rather than focusing on the horrors they’d experienced, most now spoke of how the overall experience had been one of huge personal growth. They were also exceedingly proud of the contributions they had made in the name of freedom and democracy.

Not so, though, for the ones—and this was a small minority—who we could say suffer from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. For those few unfortunates every horrific detail, every fearful experience was as vivid as it had been almost fifty years previous.

Panning just a bit further along from Alex's fishing stage reveals details not shown in the first shot. Evidence of continued, sustainable efforts.

Panning just a bit further along from Alex’s fishing stage reveals details not shown in the first shot. Evidence of continued, sustainable efforts.

It seemed that those who chose to alter the narrative they related were better able to process the events, better able to get on with it. Those that did not or could not were, it seems, doomed to relive every single grim detail and remain haunted by the terrible memories for the rest of their lives.

Turning a bit forther to teh right reveals even more. The fishery here is far from dead. It has undergone radical changes, yes, but it continues on.

Turning a bit farther to the right reveals even more. The fishery here is far from dead. It has undergone radical changes, yes, but it continues on.

Based on this it would be reasonable to assume that revisiting past events and modifying the overall story is not such a bad thing. That’s not to suggest that it’s healthy to selectively cull out the inconvenient parts of our past: the times we were less than completely honest, the times we made bad choices, reacted in anger, took revenge and so on. No, those need to remain, to nag at our conscience to the appropriate extent and, in so doing, hopefully sow the seeds of positive change.

A more realistic picture shows the old and the new living mostly in harmony. Life continues on, always changing. Who can predict what will happen? As we move forward and change with the times, so, too may our views and interpretations of the past and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

A more realistic picture shows the old and the new living mostly in harmony. Life continues on, always changing. Who can predict what will happen? As we move forward and change with the times, so, too may our views and interpretations of the past and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Perhaps they don’t need to remain as-is, though. We change and grow as we continue on this grand journey of ours. Does the bitter pain of an unpleasant memory need to remain exactly the same long after we’ve atoned, sought forgiveness or at least made it so that past mistakes won’t be repeated? That question, of course, has no single correct all-encompassing answer (except for the mostly useless “it depends”). It is worth considering, though, from time to time whenever we take the opportunity to recall and share memories of times past.

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About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
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24 Responses to New Brush Strokes on a Painted Canvas

  1. Marie says:

    I am completely smitten with the concept of memory as layers of paint, brushstrokes of perspective.

  2. Mary says:

    I also like the metaphor of memory as layers of brushstrokes. Enjoyed the mixture of reflection and photography.

  3. Tiny says:

    Interesting post, Maurice. Made me reflect on where I sit on that continuum. I’m definitely closer to the “fluid” side. I tend to focus on the more positive aspects when I recall something. The other stuff is still there but doesn’t get too much attention from me. The Harvard study is very interesting too, and I’ve participated in a few experiments about how the story changes when retold. Quite amazing. Loved your pictures as well as the parallel musings.

    • Thanks. Yes, I do believe that the best take-away from the Grant study is how it’s possible to craft a life story from our experiences and on how, perhaps, the tailoring of that story is a big part of us having “lives we can live with.”

  4. elkement says:

    This is nearly eerie – I was thinking about similar things in the past few days although not triggered by art, but by cleaning out archives of business documents and other stuff. I am rather radical in dumping stuff unless the law forces me to keep it. I have felt that every time I look at things that I had I kept following a sentimental urge I reenforce memories related to it, and other memories – (accidentally) not associated with physical items – are weakened. Which generates a weird and unbalanced representation of my own past in my mind after a while. Since I don’t like to have boxes of archived stuff locked away somewhere either I rather donate or discard those items.

    I don’t ditch old photos but I am actually reluctant to browse through them for the same reasons.

    • Perhaps it’s that time of the year; a time when we use the past as a jumping point into the future. I’m not one who just goes with the flow. While I am flexible I do always have a plan in mind and try and stick to it as much as possible. I suspect you are very much the same. This time of the year, though, is one of those in which we look around reevaluate what’s before us.

  5. Another ‘thoughtful’ post. I am enjoying your well-considered distillation from my daughter’s apartment in Lausanne. We have now returned from Bivio and will be back in the States tomorrow. I have, in the last year, struck up a fruitful email correspondence with my a older sister. This has given me the chance to see whether, and how, many of my childhood memories have remained static, which I had forgotten, and which have been transmogrified to accommodate an evolving view of my place in the world. It is interesting that the vast majority of my history has either been forgotten or modified. I hope you are well and coping with winter, up-North. This current trip of ours has reminded me of how a much I do NOT like being away from home and the farm. I truly wish I could say that I have had as good a time as you did on your recent foray to this side of the ‘pond.’

    • Now, that last bit stirs up two thoughts. One, I am wondering what this means in light of the many changes you are pondering for your future. I am wondering whether this trip has resulted in you two gaining a different perspective and look forward to gleaning hints about it in some upcoming posts from you.
      In a related way–posts–I do assume that you took a camera with you and, so, I hope to see a stream of pictures some time in the near future 🙂
      Greetings from my side. It’s -9 C today and we are expecting 25 cm of snow over the next 24 h. Generally speaking it’s a bit milder down your way. Currently I’m seeing -4C and a mix of sun and cloud over the next few days to greet you on your return. Safe journey!

  6. sonsothunder says:

    You paint a flawless word picture memory… thanks

  7. Maurice I am learning some of us have an amazing ability to paint a vivid picture of our past. Me not so much, but I have a good imagination and sometimes I dabble in a little embellishment. Love the images by the way.

  8. I’m not so sure our recollections of the past change, but with, life, more xperience, knowledge, changing values, what changes are our perceptions. What we thought was good maybe wasn’t, but what was bad, perhaps not so. Perhaps we try and reach a stage of objectivity, where the paint flows on just so.

    • I wound up reading that several times and marveling at how much you said in so few words. Perhaps you won’t think your words are brilliant–in fact I expect you would just pass it off saying, “that’s how i see it, no more, no less.”–but I do.

      • I would indeed 😀 and anyway, less words means more advertising space. Someone mentioned some brilliant prose I’d written recently. How embarrassing is that, I’m British FFS! All I can ever do is blush 😊 and say thank you for your kind words. I also do a lot of visual imagery (not consciously so) so the painting analogy was a gift horse really to finish it off 😀 thanks again Maurice.

  9. Michelle H says:

    I had forgot that I was planning to read the linked book–you shared it with me once before! I’m sorry to be so delayed on getting over to your blog, but glad to do it on a day without pressures to hurry on. First, I very much enjoy your images. Such a beautiful place, but also hints that it can be cruel for the unprepared!

    Second, I enjoyed your reflections on the topic. I like how the images weave a subtext, adding the complexities of real life to a set of ideas and exploring them as separate, but intersecting, lines of thought.

    One question I’ve wondered about trauma is if anyone’s asked the question about pre-existing mental health issues before trauma that influences the outcome. In reading your post, I can’t help but wonder again, especially in relationship to the Grant study. I truly wonder what accounts for the significant (as opposed to subtle) changes in memory–we all have our differences, but what makes the extremes?

    As for me, since we’ve shared related discussions before… an update. I also have uprooted a lot of old memories in the past year, and have wondered to what extent those experiences determined courses of action that didn’t work out. In essence, as memory has taken on different significance, I feel less constrained by the dynamics of the past. So, the question is, what will I do differently now, being free of those pressures? Lots is happening on this end, and while I’m not at a final point of decision, I have taken some interim steps that will help me gather better information–such as whether or not I can take university-level math classes without formally enrolling in a program at this time–and the answer is yes. No point complaining about the road not taken unless I intend to go down it, right?

    Also, I completed a fiction piece and submitted to a print journal. I owe you thanks for your encouragement here… to get off-line for a while and step up my game. It felt good to hit ‘submit’ and let it go. Doesn’t matter that much what happens to the story now… at least I did something!

    I hope you’re well, Maurice… and that you folks aren’t as chilly as we are here in Saskatchewan today.

    • Congratulations on the submission! Call it the first step in a renewed journey. Whatever about the past and our recollection of it, of this I am sure: our futures may be governed to some extent by circumstances beyond our control but we are still free agents in our own lives and still the most powerful actor in it. 🙂 All’s well here at my end. Haven’t been writing much lately but that’s because a lot of other necessary jobs have temporarily occupied that bit of time I have available.

  10. Wow — there’s a whole novel here, waiting to be written. I’m printing this out and putting it in a file of ideas for future themes to explore. It resonates very deeply with me….

    Especially this line: “It seemed that those who chose to alter the narrative they related were better able to process the events, better able to get on with it. Those that did not or could not were, it seems, doomed to relive every single grim detail and remain haunted by the terrible memories for the rest of their lives.”

    I always had a remarkable memory for details and facts of my childhood. I see now that it was probably a kind of post-traumatic stress reaction — I experienced a lot of grief, loss (lots of funerals of family & friends!) accompanied by ongoing bullying at school during those years, and was entirely unable to express my sadness and fears.

    For the past ten years my memory has been getting “worse,” the past is receding into a fog, and much of what I remember is funny or endearing. In other words, there has been a lot of healing.

    In some ways, we can, and ought to, change the past.

  11. johnlmalone says:

    A fine post, Maurice. Memory is a tricky thing. Reminds me of the phenomena of false memories

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