Objects as keys
Human memory never seems to be as good as we need it to be. Recall is fallible, or straight incorrect. Events and people we once knew dim to fog, details obscure, and time prunes our neural pathways to optimize the present. What are the memories we have lost? You don’t know what you don’t know. Until you do – until something revitalizes a long-unused connection and flashes a memory up into consciousness. That’s curious about memory: things can seem lost until the right trigger is found. Memories need keys.
Pictures help. They may be the best key, but just as with illustrations in a book, they make one cognitively lazy. You don’t have to re-experience the memory when you can consume a caricature. Sometimes with pictures I find I don’t actually remember the event, only the frozen moments.
Other things can be keys: a pressed flower from a love, a ticket stub from a concert, the smell of grandma’s perfume. Humans are sentimental, and sentimentality itself is about creating a relationship between an object and a memory. These keys tend to make one’s eyes unfocus and gaze back in time; these keys more often lead to re-experience. But sentimental objects aren’t as easy as snapping a photo.
I think perhaps my memory is not great. The past seems a contented blankness that resists penetration. But keys will unlock pathways I can travel. It may be for this reason I put more value into objects imbued with memory. When my memories are external, they do not evaporate. This low-tech memory augmentation helps me stay connected to that which I wish to keep, and also allows curation of memory in a way the biological can not yet be made to do.
I was checking out at a craft store, with 30 tiny clear boxes in my basket when the shopkeeper asked me what I used them for. I didn’t know how to answer: I had never hypothesized a thesis on what I was doing. I put random stuff in them to journal my life. I put memories in them. But that is a weird thing to say, especially casually. Being in a craft store, with its multiple aisles of scrapbook supplies, helped me see the answer. I told her I use them for 3D scrapbooking. After I said it, I realized it was true. I was scrapbooking objects.
I find I am doing something that is a mix between the casualness of pictures and the guardianship of sentimental objects. Instead of catching a photo, I pocket a pebble, a leaf, or a scrap of wrapping paper. These objects are not particularly sentimental, but they do contain the keys to memories of the experience during which they were collected. I have a tiny box of fragrant pine needles from the first Christmas with my husband, vials of sand from beaches I have visited, a box with assorted tiny artifacts from a trip to France, pressed flowers from a garden long past. When I visit these objects, they unfold themselves into nebulas of interconnected memory.
For me, I have standardized this compulsion into tiny clear boxes and vials that I use analogous to photos: I can arrange or view these items much as one would photos. I keep them in a large case that I call my Scrapbook. This predilection I have seen in others too. Cigar boxes with love letters and dried flower petals, jars of shells, jewelry cases with feathers and bones: these all share a similar root. These are memory augmentations of varying sentimentality. What makes a collection a 3D scrapbook? It must be connected to memories one wishes to preserve. Other than this, the denotation lies within your relationship to the objects. Perhaps you have a shoebox, a pencil case,, or a special box where you keep treasures – an object scrapbook is what you decide.