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By Shirlene Bridgewater
As the weather gets cooler and the acorns begin to fall, my dog, Bentley—a mixed-breed Terrier with an eight-pound bark—takes on a new job. He gathers acorns, digs a hole, and buries them for his squirrel friends. Although dogs instinctively bury things for their own safekeeping, I have declared Bentley’s acorn gifts as altruistic; even leading me to wonder how my “gatherings” have helped me and others.
Contemplating what I gather, I notice that I tend to linger on “bad” memories more than the “good” ones. They just seem to stick around longer and in greater detail. Now, mind you, I’m not someone with a sharp, photographic memory of every moment in my life, but I definitely lean toward what has challenged me the most—loss of both parents; divorce; racism; bullying; and, as the old folks say, squeezing blood out of a turnip when it comes to finances.
What if I actively changed my gaze to focus more on my good memories? Could that type of gathering be beneficial not only for me but also for others, to follow Bentley’s lead?
Where to start?
I began to read books and research articles, and I talked to friends about their life journeys. I even discovered a poem on Twitter by Nikita Gill— “When You Hate Yourself for Revisiting Old Wounds”—that suggested I not turn away from “old wounds” because healing can occur.
As I gathered this information, I learned that memories and everything I’ve experienced have an imprint not only in my mind and emotions but also in my body. So, the joyful tears I experienced in the Louvre have an impact in my body as did the anger I felt over the murder of George Floyd? Do both come with a strong emotional charge that lingers in my body?
I’m not a psychologist or a neuroscientist, but that idea feels right to me. I want to release my anger about the latter, for example, and turn it into action to help others.
I continued my research. The deeper I probed, the more I began to encounter terms such as “negativity bias,” “looping thoughts,” “neuroimaging”—too much, too technical—until I came across a term I could relate to: “memory substitution.”
So, what if I stop harping on the same old negative stories and replace them with the memory of an event that induces a positive feeling?
Let my testing begin.
For an entire week, I focused on memories as they popped up.
A “Bad” Memory: When I was twelve years old, a classmate constantly bullied me to the point that I didn’t want to go to school. I loved school. I loved learning. But my fear and my silence about the bullying caused fear, self-doubt, and butterflies in my stomach. (The full account of this story is in another essay in progress.)
A “Good” Memory: When I was in my early twenties, I remember the first time I saw the mountains of Jamaica. Spelman College had an exchange program with the University of the West Indies for a course in Creative Writing. I hadn’t researched the geography of Jamaica, and when I stepped off the plane (those were the days when passengers deplaned and walked down steps in the weather to head to the terminal), I was shocked! Mountains! The sheer beauty. I was mesmerized, and my senses were piqued. Even now I can see the vision clearly. Pure joy!
The Substitution Process: When the fearful, shame-filled 12-year-old version of me brought forth that sixth grade memory, I took several steps. I acknowledged what I was feeling and had a conversation with myself to revise the narrative.
Fear and shame from the bad memory had a lot to say:
You’re not good enough.
You don’t know how to take care of yourself.
You deserve to be bullied.
You’ll always be afraid.
Me, the seeker, as I talk to myself:
I acknowledge what you’re feeling, Shirlene.
You were a child and didn’t have the resources to know how to handle a bully.
You are safe now. I am with you.
Remember your experience in Jamaica where you felt free, alive, and at one with nature? Go there.
Where do you feel the fear and shame in your body?
Take some deep breaths.
Walk, bathe, sing, dance, journal, or put your bare feet in dirt.
Think of experiences in which you have been courageous and self-affirming.
What have you learned?
This technique does not create overnight healing, nor does it totally erase the bad memory and its resulting physical and emotional effects. It’s also not a substitute for professional help.
For me, though, it works. If I stop and acknowledge the challenging memory, what it brings up, and how I feel, I have an opportunity to rewire my thoughts about myself and feel better. Hopefully, my body will feel a sense of release.
How, you may ask, is all of this going to replicate Bentley’s giving of himself to others?
Think about it this way: if I’m feeling better about myself, then naturally I will interact more positively with other people, and not just in the fall but year-round. It’s a win-win for everybody.
So, happy memory gathering! Bentley approves.
Shirlene Bridgewater is a poet and essayist. When she isn’t working on her forthcoming chapbook of poetry, she’s adding to her collage-art greeting card line, or enjoying historical fiction, memoirs, and documentaries. Follow her on Instagram @writingreadingsoul.