How To Time Travel

time travel, memory is time travel, storing memory, preserving memory,

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My oldest is getting married. Yes, that outs me as old enough to have become a mother the year I graduated from college.

That itself seems strange, because I feel pretty much the same as I did at 14, back when I used to sneak out of the house wearing a halter top under whatever mom-approved top I wore over it. It’s such a distinct feeling that when I walk past my reflection in a store window I don’t instantly recognize the person hustling along, the woman carrying my purse and wearing my jacket. I have to remind myself, that’s me. My skinny insecure 14-year-old self is history.

Why can I access that time in my life so easily? Because I really remember being 14. Everything was new. Testing out the forbidden, suffering daily angst, uncovering adult hypocrisy, lying on my bedroom floor memorizing music lyrics. And vivid memory is the key to time travel.

In essence, our lives are made from what we notice and remember. When you look back at any particular phase of your life what you recall is constructed from what captured your attention, particularly those times when your emotions as well as your senses were engaged.

It’s a nasty surprise to realize how few truly full memories we manage to form. That’s because we only efficiently latch on to memories when we pay attention. We’re more likely to do so when the experience is new. That’s probably why we seek out emotionally charged thrills (roller coasters or white water rafting), get so much out of travel, and remember firsts like our first kiss or first attempt driving a stick shift.

The emotional and sensory experience of one’s first baby makes for lasting memories. Ordinary moments remain imprinted on my body as well as my mind from my son’s early years: a newborn slumped against me in sleep, a toddler crouching on sturdy legs to watch a beetle, an inquisitive child taking everything apart. As I watch this tall and capable young man go through the many rituals surrounding his upcoming wedding, I feel as if I exist in multifaceted time, sensing the layers of his childhood simultaneously with the present.

I know it’s easy to miss the simple grandeur all around us. I do it all the time. I get distracted, I multitask, I’m too busy to make eye contact and when I do I might very well be thinking of something else. But we have to live in the fullness of our lives right now. That means engaging in the sights, sounds, tastes, thoughts, and feelings unique to our own experience.

This moment, this day is yours to remember. Pay attention in such a way that you can time travel back to visit it.

And if you’d care to, describe in the comments the sights, sounds, and feelings of a memory that lets you travel in time.

13 thoughts on “How To Time Travel

  1. The Great Overlord of Irony reigns supreme. This post was scheduled to be published the first week of August, only to pop up the first week of October. The wedding has already taken place. Perhaps it’s fitting that a post about memory was forgotten for two months!


  2. What a powerful, powerful post. I need to be reminde of this. It makes me think about the memories I’m creating for my kids, too. Are we doing new, and interesting things together? Are we talking, and laughing, and playing and sharing with each other every day? Sometimes I forget, but I always try to put playing with my kids at the top of my list every day. They’ll remember me playing with them much more than if I had insisted on spending the day doing worksheets and making sure they moved up a reading level. If I do nothing more than spend a concentrated hour focusing on my kids, doing what they want to do with me, it will have been an awesome day.


    • You’re right about what makes an awesome day Christina! We’ve found that occasionally tossing in the unexpected really builds some memories. You might bake cookies and deliver them to say thanks to your local firefighters, keep the kids up till the early hours to spot a meteor shower, or take a spontaneous day trip letting each child decide whether you’ll go right/left/straight at each intersection to see where you end up.


  3. Love this post. It once again reminds me the importance of paying attention and taking time to keep tabs of the wonderful experiences and memories of my time together with my little girl, who is growing up so fast!


  4. Thanks for the reminder! Put aside my ‘to do’ list to make a pumpkin family with my granddaughter, teach Nathan how to make a cheesecake, and create duct tape inventions. So much more fun than ‘jobs’!


  5. I don’t believe we age in a linear manner. I believe we layer experiences within ourselves (while meanwhile our body grows and slowly deteriorates). So I am still the wild-haired child I was, and the shy teenager, and the determined young woman, etc. Any moment I can connect with them, because they never left. It’s just that other stuff layered on top of them to create the illusion of sequential selfhood.


  6. I have discovered something similar – I try to “make” memories to save them for later. If I feel really happy or content I think “remember this” so that on a rainy day I can mentally travel back and know that I’ll be okay again. The germ of the idea for me may come from the original “Parent Trap” movie where one character buries her face in her grandfather’s shoulder and smells in, declaring that she is “making a memory.”

    You never know when a great moment will hit, we were vacationing in San Diego and my mother in law was with us so she watched our two kids (age 1 and 3) while my husband and I played in the ocean, jumping further and further into the waves. It felt like forever since we just goofed off and it was freezing cold but I ignored that and just let myself laugh. I think cold water will take me back to that time again.

    The smell of sunscreen is a vivid memory from childhood, it makes me think of swimming. The cool air of fall never fails to make me think of school.

    Great post, I always love your secular approach.


    • You make a really important point. Holding fast to good memories so we can access them when things aren’t so good is a remarkable means of boosting our resilience. Each time we pull out a memory our minds and bodies are flooded with the same emotions we felt at the time. If we tend to ruminate on past hurts our cells have to deal with stress hormones all over again. And if we keep sliding into these negative memories we actually wire our brains to keep those thoughts foremost, reinforcing the negative mindset. Of course we need to deal with sources of pain and sorrow in our lives, but making a conscious effort (as you do) to travel back to times of happiness and contentment is a greater kindness to ourselves than we know.


  7. just re-watched the beautiful movie “About Time” which reminds me of the same thing.

    frequently it’s a smell that will help me time travel, odd ones like the laurel bush travelling me back to playing ‘town’ on bikes using the leaves as money – you would always smell the laurel on one’s hands as we pulled fresh ones off the bush.

    thank you for the wonderful reminder.


    • Totally agree about smell. When they were little my kids used to collect hickory nuts in their toy wagons. The smell, which I encounter while walking in the park, reminds me of their grubby little hands hugging me and I’m tossed into happy memories in some time-space wave.

      I loved that movie too. Hadn’t expected it to be so deeply touching.


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