References and resources
Read John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding
Fascinating program from Radio National on the benefits of forgetting: Forgetting, not memory, moves us forward
From The Scientific American: Morals, not memories, define who we are
This episode’s stories:
Interesting Girl by Anonymous
Rhythms by Mary Lou Haberman
The Audacity of Men by Nomyezo
Yes, Babe by Pal
First things first. I acknowledge the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the land on which I live, work, and record Pillow Talking, and invite you to do the same on the land where you stand. For me, in the lands of Cardinia Shire, it is the Bunurong and Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. I recognise their connection to and care of this land, which was never ceded, and as a migrant I thank them for the space I share with my family. I pay my respects to Elders past, present, and still to come, and extend that respect to all First Nations people who may be listening.
Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.
Please keep in mind that Pillow Talking contains adult themes and sometimes strong language, so use your discretion for where and how you listen, and who you listen with.
Close the door and dim the lights. Let’s talk. I’m Violeta Balhas and this is Season 2, Episode 19 of Pillow Talking – Stories about the stories we tell each other when there’s no one listening . In this episode, I REMEMBER.
I’m at an age now where the ads for games that my phone serves me are for improving my memory. Block puzzles and virtual versions of matching pairs games; sudokus and brain training; word puzzles… They all promise to revive my sluggish, slushy middle-aged brain and wind the clock back so that it’s as sharp as it was in my 20s. And although I’m seldom tempted, I have to admit I never miss my morning Wordle, which I usually manage to do in under a minute. Take that, 21-year-old Violeta! You failed your first driving test because you forgot to give way at the intersection of Main and Service Streets!
For most of us, remembering equals good, forgetting equals bad. Remembering that a child needs to be at school half an hour early: good. Forgetting that it’s book week and they had to go to school in costume: bad.
But you know… not all forgetting is equal, and not all forgetting is bad. Imagine remembering every single thing. Could you function optimally? No, you could not. Although having a photographic memory is like the dream, people with true photographic memories find life incredibly difficult. Not every little detail is worth holding onto, not everything is so important that’s worth remembering. You need to make room for the new stuff. There is such a thing as remembering too much. There’s emotional memory, and psychologists consider PTSD a disorder of too much memory; feeling the same pain, without any easing, is distressing to say the least.
And forgetting is crucial to creativity. While of course you need memory – I certainly need memory of things like story structure and language in order to write – you also need the ability to forget.
Psychologists say that what characterises creativity is the unexpected association between memories. Maybe you forgot to wash the knife that you used to chop up basil. And then you used the knife to cut up a pear. You forgot that pears and basil are not things you associate together. And then you taste those pears faintly flavoured with basil, and… WOW. Those unexpected associations are what makes the creative spark seem like magic, and you need your memory to be loose and playful. And that’s one of the beauties of forgetting: the gifts of looseness and playfulness.
And of course forgetting has another gift. That of forgiveness. We try to forgive and forget. Or we may say, “I can forgive, but I can never forget”! Which may literally be true. It’s hard to forget something on purpose! But if we think of forgetting as an act of hierarchy, where we decide that certain memories aren’t important, that some details are not worth holding on to and we won’t pay them much attention, then we can not only give someone the gift of forgiveness, but also give ourselves a gift as we forgive. Maybe it can make room for other things. Different memories. Other unexpected associations.
But embracing forgetfulness in general, as either a habit or a problem, is hard. We are worried about losing our memories. When we’re young we cram for tests and fill every available surface of a piece of paper with notes written in the tiniest writing you can write but still read – and that’s after you’ve studied a subject all year and are pretty sure you know all about it. When we get older we joke about having a “senior moment”. Older still, as our own parents start on the last stretch of their journey, we’re terrified of diseases like Alzheimer’s. When they’re diagnosed with it we ask ourselves, “Are they still with us? Or are they gone?
We fear we’re losing them. Just as much if not more, we fear they’re losing themselves.
And this is the rub. We link memory to identity.
Back in the 17th century, the English philosopher and physicial John Locke wrote something he called An Essay Concering Human Understanding, which connected identity with memory. It became known as the “memory theory of personal identity” and it took hold.
Basically, the idea is this: our identity only reaches as far as our memory. In other words, who we are critically depends upon what we remember. As the Scientific American magazine puts it, “autobiographical memories create a continuous first-person narrative that helps form a sense of self.” So when we lose our memories, we lose our identity.
That is a lot of pressure to put on something so incredibly unreliable. Our memories are inconsistent. Our brains insert details that may or may not have been there. We generalise. We forget the details that weren’t relevant to us. Our memories are malleable, and can be shaped by all kinds of things like our feelings then, or feelings after the fact; by our life experiences, our prejudices, by compelling suggestion or evidence. Since the advent of DNA analysis, we’ve come to understand just how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be.
Remembering is an act of storytelling.
Is it any wonder that when we’re sharing a childhood memory with our siblings they often remember what happened in a completely different way? And it’s true for our other relationships as well. Half the arguments around here are about who put the thing away in the wrong place, and the other half are about what one of us said and what the other one remembers they said. Exhausting.
But it’s understandable. A relationship is kind of an entity too. Like I always say: there’s the you, there’s the me, and there’s the us. So of course we’d give our memories of the relationship, and memories within the relationship, importance.
And if remembering is an act of storytelling, what are the stories we tell each other about the us? Are they stories of love? Stories of war? Stories of the mundane?
John Locke’s theory has pretty much been debunked – or it’s well on its way to being debunked – but all of this is food for thought because there is no doubt of the role memories play in the story of us. Whether they confirm what we want to believe about our relationships, or what we most fear or suspect; or whether they challenge us or comfort us, they are companions. Along for the ride, sometimes long after the relationship is over.
All the stories I receive for Pillow Talking are memories, of course, but the stories in this episode are about remembering. About the act imposing itself in what is happening in the there and then. And if memories are stories we tell ourselves, then these four tales are about stories within stories. They crop up as the unbidden, unprompted, unwanted memory at the worst possible moment; as a realisation that things are always the same despite the promise of change; as what fuels long-term love; and as punctuations in the rhythm of the seasons.
These conversations all happened in the intimacy of the bedroom.
Sssh. Let’s listen.
This happened some years ago in college with my girlfriend at the time It happened really quickly, and it was one of those random comments, but (obviously) I remember it to this day.
We were in my room, in bed, and I can’t remember whether we’d had sex or what we were doing, and I can’t remember what we were talking about, but somehow or other, out of the blue, she told me I wasn’t as big as her ex-boyfriend.
She didn’t mean in the lifting department. She was talking penis size. I can’t remember what I said exactly? But it was probably something like, “Huh.” And that was it. That was the extent of the pillow talk. There was no more talk about it, it was like, bam, there’s this weird thing that’s just suddenly appeared on the bed, maybe if I ignore it it’ll go away.
It didn’t make me feel insecure. I’m happy with what God gave me, and like the saying goes, it’s not what you have but what you do with it that counts, and I’ve never had any complaints. Unless this statement was a complaint? But it didn’t sound like it, she said it in such a matter-of-fact manner.
But something else happened. It would pop into my head every time we had sex. We’d be going for it, and ding ding ding! Inside my head I’d hear a little voice go, “You’re not as big as her ex.” And it didn’t slow me down or affect me, if you know what I mean, but still – not a great thing to have pop into your head at that time. No matter how great the sex, the little voice would make sure I remembered her words.
We broke up eventually but not because of this. I forget why, probably no reason in particular, just one of those relationships of the time. And her words didn’t go on to haunt me forever or anything – I stopped hearing the little voice with my next girlfriend. But so often in the years since I’ve asked myself why she brought that up. Like what makes someone think that’s an OK thing to say, particularly as a matter-of-fact, random thing. Was she expecting a reaction? Did she confuse me with one of her friends? Or maybe she just had no filter?
Interesting girl. I hope she’s doing well.
That January Saturday in Fargo North Dakota, my six-year-old daughter, Rose and I bundled ourselves up –thickly lined parkas with padded hoods, industrial winter gloves, snow pants over flannel jeans and two scarves – one for the neck and one for the face. For the final touch, we slipped on our woolen beanies, gifts from her dad.
We picked our way carefully down the steps – being careful to not fall on the ice, climbed into my red jeep Cherokee, buckled ourselves in, and waited for a bit of warmth. How could moving air be so merciless, so slow and so sluggish?
The car heater screeched and moaned as if to say, “come on lady, give me a break, I’m doin the best I can.” I was used to practicing patience in this situation and felt grateful although the warm air came through reluctant, even resistant.
My bones shivered, my gut shivered, my lips and brain shivered. Complaining to the universe, I hollered, “It’s damn cold!”
An unusual silence ensued. Then, Rose, who rarely seemed to shiver, echoed with the same exact intensity. “It’s Damn cold”, looked at me expectantly, and giggled.
I was startled to hear these words from her and laughed. “Yes, ma’am ‘tis!”
Life went on and we made it through another harsh and bitter winter.
Then, Spring came, and the locust trees surprised me with their captivating aromatic flowers. I’d forgotten they were not susceptible to malignant prairie winds. I’d forgotten I could depend on them to return.
Soon, Summer came and bragged, “I’m here – ha, ha!” Yes, the sun was welcome. The vicious mosquitos were not. I was shocked how it could be so damn hot, when not long ago, it had been so damn cold.
Time passed until Autumn faded in, soothed and lingered, reluctant to give way to harsh and bitter Winter. The old trees’ branches hung on to each other as they made tunnels we drove through on the way to the store. I was impressed with how they spread their branches and confidently reached toward one another other, inviting invited me to stroll and skip dance through the neighborhood.
Soon, it was damn cold again and one dreary Saturday morning Rose and I and laid together under the queen size down comforter. It was our ritual to start the winter weekends tucked in against snowstorms or blizzards and one was surely on the way.
After hot chocolate and a frosted donut (forbidden in bed during the week), we settled in, cozy. Safe. Floating in the moment. We sighed in unison. She looked at me and I gazed into her eyes – one green and one blue and suddenly knew that telling her “I love you” wasn’t enough. I was compelled to tell her, to reassure her, “If I die before you do, I’ll wait for you to come to me.”
She looked puzzled, then reached out and cradled my face in her hands. “Mommy if I die before you do, I’ll wait for you too.”
“Thank you.” I said, doubting such joy could be true.
Dozing, we melted into a pregnant pause. Then I felt a gentle nudge.
“Mommy”, she whispered with earnest, “If you die before I do, can I climb into your pocket and go with you?”
I held her small body deep into my bosom. “Yes, of course, my love. Yes, of course.”
She smiled and rolled over until we spooned while I wept, thinking if only that was possible.
Then, right before melting into sleep, I heard the universe say, “Perhaps, it is. “
There was a time where my heart would swim in oil at the thought of you. It would swell up with so much pride and love to the point where I did not even know what to do with myself. This is how you would, at times, wake up to me staring and smiling at you. This is why I would fight the urge, and fail, to just take a nibble at you while you talk or thinking deeply of something that you’re about to tell me in a few seconds. Lying in bed under these blankets was not enough, I wanted to crawl under your skin, to be that close to you. To become one. Six years of this love, floating on a cloud. Boldly and loudly in love, until you broke the news to me.
Now all I feel is a raging resentment.
I lie awake at night, the weight of my sorrow anchoring me to this bed. I’d like to think this is why I cannot leave. And all I do now is swim in my tears while I listen to you snore lightly, oblivious to how you left my heart in complete shards. You turn towards me; I turn away and curl up in foetal position, you wrap your hands around me and squeeze me tight. Is this you trying to hold me together, in the hopes that my heart might be whole again? Or is it you, now, that is trying to crawl under my skin? Attempting to comfort, or find traces of the warmth and red-hot passion I once held for you? I cannot know anymore because I no longer know you. I no longer care to. The betrayal is just unforgivable.
“Is everything okay, my love? Are you fine?”, he asks.
“I’m fine”, I reply.
I’m lying, and we both know this. But my tiny fib is nothing compared to the mess that he has brought to our lives. I close my eyes and try to imagine us beyond this dark time we are going through and I see nothing. No happy ending, no light, no reason. Well, at least for me.
“Please my love, we can get through this. This is me and you, remember?”, he pleads.
I sigh and open my eyes slightly. Its dawn and I can see the sun creep up, lining the sky in a glorious orange. I love this view. I think back to all the mornings I woke up to the perfect day, in love and in light. Never even imagining that this dream would just come crashing because of his recklessness. Now there is nothing.
“You need to hold on to the good times, babe. Think about all our plans, our future.”
I remember when I was in love. How amazing and absolutely wonderful it was. Then I remember the audacity of men, how disappointing they can be. The sun is up now, streaming strongly into the bedroom. I get up and get dressed.
“You can hold on to the good times”, I say,” but the future you should be planning is with your new family. Congratulations on the baby you’re expecting”.
Finally, I leave.
She stands at the door of the ensuite, talking at me through a mouthful of toothpaste foam and toothbrush. I have no idea how I manage to understand what she’s saying, but I do. I’m used to it, I suppose. I remember a time when she wouldn’t have done that. The bathroom door remained firmly shut, and the vibes emanating from the other side when I tried to come in would have made Gandalf’s “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” sound like your granny telling you it’s not a good idea to go to the supermarket when you’re hungry. What happened in the bathroom stayed in the bathroom, until bit by bit, through the years, all its mysteries were revealed. I’ve seen every kind of hair removal and every kind of torture device used for it. I’ve seen just how long and how much effort it takes to put on makeup that makes her look like she’s not wearing makeup. I’ve delivered toilet paper and tampons when she’s been sitting on the loo and realised she was out.
She’s wearing an oversized T-shirt and a pair of leggings – her sleep attire these days. I remember when she wore only tiny sexy things, or nothing at all. But she’s put on a few kilos in the last ten years, most of them after having our kids, and she’s not so confident any more. I tell her I like the kilos. I like her. Like really, really like her, just like always, but she laughs it off. It hurts a bit, until I remember it’s not really about me.
So I try to work out what she’s telling me through the buffer of foam and toothbrush, opening her mouth as wide as it will go so that she doesn’t spit as she talks.
Do I remember that I’m picking up Tess from childcare tomorrow because she’s working late?
Do I remember that I’m meant to be replacing the batteries in the smoke detector?
Do I remember that we’re having lunch with her parents on Sunday?
Do I remember that I promised I would not under any circumstances engage her dad in a discussion about politics and/or climate change?
Anyone eavesdropping on this little exchange would think she’s some sort of nag.
But they wouldn’t know what else I remember.
I remember when I first clapped eyes on her. The barbeque is a great Australian institution. Everyone in Australia barbeques at least once in their lives, more usually at least once a week, and yet our mutual acquaintance decided she was going to host a “garden party”. Everyone knows what to wear to barbie but this wanky, pretentious take came with a dress code, so I arrived at this party where the women were all gorgeously dressed but incredibly stupidly for being out in the small St Kilda backyard, which was more lawn than concrete. Their stilettos sank into the soft earth, which meant that they were either standing around on tiptoe or just allowing their heels to sink in and then when they felt themselves tipping too far backwards they’d pull their heels out of the dirt and start again. At least it aerated the lawn.
Just remembered – that’s another thing I told her I’d do this weekend.
But back to the garden party. And a pair of stupid stilettos that had been abandoned by the potted cumquat tree. They belonged to that girl who was over at the far end of the backyard, barefoot, playing with the hostess’s golden retriever. Not throwing a ball or anything. Just running around. Playing.
And that told me everything I needed to know about her. I fell for her right there and then.
I remember her going without me to March in March. She refused to listen to my argument that a march that protested a bunch of issues rather than a single issue was bound to fail. She told me that if the government only had a single issue to object to she’d be staying at home with a clear conscience too. She ended up being one of over 100,000 who marched. I was as proud of her as I was embarrassed for myself. It made me want to do better.
I remember the births of our two kids. How did she do it? How did she turn into this lioness that could withstand her body being ripped apart to give me the greatest gift I could ever get and can never deserve?
I remember a few years back, when it became obvious that my chosen career was a mistake that was making me miserable every day, she said, “It’s OK. I’ve got you. You do what you need to do.” I went back to uni full time and she held down the fort. It was her wage and her economising, and her having the kids on her own after work while I did a hospo job, that kept us all going. And it wasn’t easy, but she did it. She said, “That’s what commitment is.”
And it’s the little things too. The little acts of kindness and kookiness and compassion, every day, that make her who she is. Who I love.
She’s about to remind me of something else but I interrupt her.
“Yes, babe. I remember everything.”
Pillow Talking is produced, narrated and edited by me, Violeta Balhas, from stories by you, the listeners and pillow talkers. Music is by Radovan Jekic. Additional production and mastering expertise by my audio consigliere and cognoscente, Marc Teamaker. This episode’s stories were:
Interesting Girlby Anonymous
Rhythmsby Mary Lou Haberman
The Audacity of Men by Nomyezo
Yes, Babe by Pal
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And that’s it for tonight!
On the next episode of Pillow Talking, Water in the desert. Stories about finding exactly what we need at the time when we are most desperate.
Until then, please take care of yourselves. And each other.