I’ve always found sense memories to be terribly interesting phenomena.
My most intense sense memory involves the texture and flavor of pancakes with butter and apricot syrup at a Perkins somewhere near what I think was Omaha when I was somewhere around the age of 7ish. I think we were coming home from a funeral for a great uncle and got caught in a plains blizzard on the interstate but in particular the warmth and sweet/tart/sweet/buttery flavor of those pancakes in a warm room at a table with my family is one of my most enduring and cherished memories. I often wonder if that is what I am trying to recreate when I go out with friends and family for dinner as an adult. There is something significant about the feeling of comfort, joy, and connection with my family in that memory that I can almost put into words.
While I have other taste memories (sweetbreads at Cosmos with Lauren) and certainly many visual memories (the synaesthetically “noisy” red backdrop to an exhibit at the Minnesota History Center with Heidi), many of the most emotionally intense sense memories are essentially audio cues centered around music. It’s pretty obvious to me that one of the reasons why music is associated with such strongly emotional memories is that for as long as I can remember I have always used music as a sort of proxy to structure my thoughts.
My brain, like almost anyone else’s as far as I can tell, is a fantastically active place. Thoughts do not occur in isolation so much as they occur in chains and groups alongside other chains and groups and emotion can be a component of those thoughts or sometimes more of a medium that the thoughts are moving through. When it is working well it’s a lot like a big pot of boiling pasta with the varying textures of the vaporizing water and the bobbling pasta shapes dancing around at the top of a startlingly clear medium that siphons off easily and quickly through my hands and mouth and body to manifest in the world. At it’s very worst it seems more like an impenetrable pool of magma that is painful to handle and flows exactly like the fire that it is. Searing and destroying everything in it’s path. Music allows me to sift the particulates in a cloudy medium and settles the roiling boil so that I can actually see what is going on rather than simply having to guess at the contents from the random stew at the surface.
My first music focused sense memory involves sitting in my dad’s car in the parking lot of Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids on a cool fall day with the sort of intense sun that makes it impossible to keep at a comfortable level between baking and chilled. We had just arrived but we were taking a few minutes to finish listening to one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos on the radio before MPR had separate classical and news stations. It was one of the remarkably rare times I remember my dad sitting with the car off and the radio on with the volume up. I don’t know why we where there that particular time, though at a guess it was almost certainly to visit one of his parishioners who was in the hospital for one reason or another.
That example aside, it feels like many of the music memories are related to relationships, and romantic relationships more often than not. They Might Be Giant‘s album “Flood“, the song “Birdhouse in your Soul” in particular, for the interminable week it took me to call my first girlfriend up for a first date. Public Image Limited‘s song “Rise” and The Godfather‘s album “Unreal World” punctuates everything about the relationships with old friends during the summer between high school and college and the implicit and explicit transitions that where happening. Enigma‘s album “The Cross of Changes” for the new friends found at college shortly thereafter. Morphine‘s album “Cure for Pain” as the intensely stereotypical soundtrack for the breakup with my girlfriend from college. Midnight Oil‘s song “Been away too long” and the rest of the “Capricornia” album when Betsy left me that also signaled ends and beginnings to so very, very many things.
I think I can count myself lucky that it has happened often enough that I actually come to recognize that the memory is being formed while it is happening. It’s not a conscious effort, it just seems to be something that I do. Since I use music to organize the screaming mess in my head it is a very natural event for me. This has the obvious upside of proving that I have at least a glimmer of self awareness but also has the accompanying stark terror of the absolute unknown since I do not know what will end up being frozen in that crystal of amber when the moment has completed.