Describe Your 8 Year Old Self. Can You?
It’s the question on my mind this week, now that I’m several chapters into reading Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming.” She describes her early childhood vividly, her family and the people of her community, in rich detail that is at once interesting and I’d say enviable. She relays stories which reveal her to be a child who was earnest, competitive and assertive. And most of all she had the riches of strong family ties and a sense of belonging on her way to becoming.
The prompt, “Describe yourself at eight years old,” is one I always present to clients when working with them to help create family stories that are key elements for a legacy book project. And once we dig in and use memory triggers, I’m amazed by the stories and memories that flow.
However, secretly I think, “Do I remember stories that I could also tell?” The short answer is not so much. Remembering one’s childhood for some people requires effort—the careful extraction of bits from the sands of the past. Like an archaeological dig we all draw on a myriad of stories, snippets really, and sometimes we pull in the anecdotes of others to compile a working memory of childhood. Some people, however, just have an easier time of it all. And I wondered why.
THE MEMORY TRIGGERS AND MEMORY ISLANDS
My spouse David, for example, remembers lots of facts and old stories remarkably well. I figured this was akin to his capacity for remembering facts and figures, which has always been better than mine. Then when I quizzed my son Oliver with this question and found his memories to be rich but he pointed out several things I had not considered.
In interviewing David, Oliver, and my daughter Alex for this post (a perk of blogging on the subject) I recognize they have memory triggers constantly tripping in their brains that enhance their ability to remember. David and Oliver presently live exactly where most of their formative years occurred.
Today David lives only a couple of miles from his childhood home, with all the schools he attended from 1st grade through graduate school nearby. My son lives only blocks from his childhood home, and is surrounded by the places of the past which frequently reminds him of his history.
And both retain strong connections with lifelong friends who live in town, with whom they reminisce together. The activity of storytelling shared memories helps solidify a “remembrance” that wedges into the memory archive. However, the overlay of perspective is also a shape shifter; both David and Oliver express surprise when their memories don’t mesh with others. But over time even these details often can coalesce into a memory.
As an adult, my daughter lives further away but she has strong bonds with her brother and shares a natural love of the family history and of personal reflection. She comes home to visit to the same house and the same neighborhood she grew up in and connects with the friends of her youth as well.
A PRODUCT OF MY PAST
I was an only child. When I was 8 my genetic mother and I lived in Dubuque, Iowa, and I think she was married at the time, or maybe getting married, or perhaps just getting divorced. That was her constant status during the first 12 years in my family life. We moved almost annually. So I don’t have many “home” or neighborhood stories that shed light on my personality, but I do have a sense that I was gregarious. I didn’t have siblings or the connection to extended family or the bonds to a community, because it was just my mother and I, always on the move.
What I do recall is that my childhood was influenced by the societal changes of the early 1970s. In fact, I turned 8 in 1970. This was during the time of the influential book, “I’m Okay, You’re Okay,” which ironically is about childhood and memories. Go check it out.
When I played with the little girl in my apartment complex, we both had dolls (mine was called Linda) with no fathers in the picture of our imaginary lives. We used to scurry to the pay phone stationed nearby the apartments to play “calls to deadbeat dads” who owed us child support and alimony.
If I was sassy and willful, I don’t remember it that way, and there is nobody in my family picture of that time to query. What I do recollect is that I was verbal and had a strong vocabulary. I also liked to process thoughts out loud (I still do). I overshared and was socially awkward—strange with my peers and precocious with adults—and I think becoming strong-willed posed a problem with my mother.
WHAT DOES YOUR 8-YEAR-OLD SELF SAY ABOUT THE ADULT YOU ARE TODAY?
When we reflect on our childhood, we connect dots and do a little in-house psychotherapy. Through this process we can identify some of our knee-jerk thinking, that is perhaps associated with our childhood.
Joshua Becker over at “Becoming Minimalist” offers a solid dozen points to consider in pondering our past and its implications for our present. The first two involve assessing weaknesses and strengths. There is no need to qualify our skill sets as “bad” or “good.” Rather we should simply acknowledge strengths and weakness so that we can work efficiently at what we do well, and outsource what isn’t our forte.
Becker mentions learning styles that suit us as essential. Again, we tend to think in stark terms regarding our intelligence, based in large part on how we learned as children. This judgement about our capacity to learn and our intelligence also can become baked in over time. However, with reflection we can realize how we learn best and enjoy more success in our present.
I don’t know why I select the 8-year-old child as the point for my clients to consider, but it does seem to work nicely. The process of childhood reflection can be scary, but most of the time I am amazed by the level of discovery that takes place when people take the time to tap into that child they recall. The very good news is that we need not be tethered to our past as all-defining of our identity. Rather our past experiences may help shape our present behaviors where we can exercise choice and reconsider our feelings.
ABOUT STORIED GIFTS
Sherry is the founder of Storied Gifts a personal publishing service of family and company histories. She and her team help clients curate and craft their stories into books. When not writing or interviewing, Sherry spends loads of time with her grandchildren and lives in Des Moines, Iowa.
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