Forgetting is Not the End of the World

An exercise in the power of reflection

Kaylan Mah
Apr 4 · 5 min read
Photo by moren hsu on Unsplash

I wish I could remember how I felt on my last day of high school.

Every other year when summer break approached, as the weather got warmer, I just wanted to be outside and free, not baking in a stuffy classroom.

But did I feel the same way on the last day of my high school career?

Even before I left, I knew I would miss high school. I had made some really great friends and took interesting classes with teachers who were, mostly, passionate about their subjects and invested in their students.

But how did that last day feel?

I can’t remember what the school building smelled like. I can’t remember the feel of my uniform on my skin, or what was going through my head as I realized I would have to spend the rest of my life actually choosing my outfit every single day.

One of the things I don’t want to remember is how heavy my backpack was, freed from all those textbooks I’d spent the year hauling around, but weighed down with the locker junk I was bringing home. Since then I’ve gotten a new backpack that is much more comfortable, with highly superior weight distribution, and I am ever so grateful for that. Good riddance to the old one.

I wish I could remember how I felt putting in my combination for the last time, dropping the lock — never to be used again — into the depths of my backpack. How it felt to look around at the faces I had grown up with, had spent most of my life walking the halls of three separate buildings with. (Our elementary/high school had a complicated history.)

I’m pretty sure I didn’t think to myself, wow, I might never see these people again. That’s too dramatic. It’s a small world, and I expected to stay in touch with many of them.

But in even further retrospect… how many people did I stay in contact with after middle school, when they went off to different high schools? I think it was three.

I didn’t realize that after the last day of high school, I would feel awkward at the prospect of reaching out on social media to people that I had seen every day for the past four to thirteen years, yet never developed a deep enough friendship with to justify typing Hey, how’s it going? And expect a conversation to ensue beyond Pretty good. How about you? Which, even if it happened, would promptly fizzle out.

Maybe I should have been sadder on that last day of high school. Maybe I should have spent more time taking in the faces around me. Taking selfies, even.

Maybe I should have spent more time in high school getting to know those faces and the personalities and stories behind them.

Maybe if I had invested more, I would remember more.

So where does that leave me now? After my four years of high school, I’m left with memories, and also the gaps of things I have forgotten.

Which of these carries greater significance?

I have a tendency to spend meaningful moments with this ache in my chest, wishing I was documenting everything happening. But then when I pull my phone out, I imagine myself becoming a target for judgment; I imagine voices saying, “Can’t she just enjoy the moment without filming every single thing?”

I just don’t want to forget! I want to live in the moment and be able to re-live each moment.

My creative writing TA, actually for the same course that this piece sprung from as a writing exercise, gave some wonderful insight into his own practices of remembering as a writer and producer.

Photos, especially now that smartphones make taking them relatively unobtrusive and don’t instantly tag you as a tourist, are a big help. The memo dictation function also serves me well, since my brain perversely seems to wait until I’m driving or out for a run to let the ideas start flowing. I text myself or create a string of emails that serve as guideposts to anchor the narrative when it comes time to write. I usually end the day with a nightcap and write down the most important bits — emotions that surprised me or snippets of dialogue that a photo won’t capture. I also tried to post a photo or two on social media along with a story in the evening which allowed me to process the day and test out what works and connects with an audience. I’ve been learning to trust the process of writing and rewriting — even months or years after the fact — to eventually call up most of the memories that matter. -David Johnston

So, last day of high school. I wish I could remember.

But it’s okay that I’ve forgotten. I know I had good experiences, and I know I enjoyed them while they were happening.

But for the future: I don’t mind being that person, the one with their phone out; or, less obtrusively, the one who ends their day journaling, or recording a voice memo or vlog, about how the day’s events made them feel.

What does my forgetfulness say about me? I guess what it says most about me is that I want to remember, and I want to live.

This piece stemmed from a creative writing exercise about forgetting, and how that ties into reflecting in creative nonfiction. That by writing this piece, I learned something new about myself, which is a testament to the power of reflecting.

Life is full of lessons, and sometimes all it takes is turning to a blank page and writing about your experiences.

Here is the prompt that the piece was based on. Maybe it will lead to your own revelations!

Think about an experience that you can’t remember clearly. Instead of writing about what happened, write about what you can’t remember, what you wish you could remember, or what your forgetfulness says about you. As you write, think about how forgetting can be a useful starting point for reflection.

Credits to Mandy Catron in her Creative Writing 205 class at UBC.

Kaylan Mah

Written by

As a passionate writer, reader, musician, and human in this world, I write about living with purpose & intentionality

ILLUMINATION

We curate and disseminate outstanding articles from diverse domains and disciplines to create fusion and synergy.

Kaylan Mah

Written by

As a passionate writer, reader, musician, and human in this world, I write about living with purpose & intentionality

ILLUMINATION

We curate and disseminate outstanding articles from diverse domains and disciplines to create fusion and synergy.

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