Memory, like perception, is not passive retrieval but an active and creative process that involves the imagination. We are all always reinventing our pasts, but we are not doing it on purpose. Delusion, however great, is not the same as mendacity. We know when we are lying . Lying is a form of double consciousness.– Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking: Essays
Last week at a local pizza chain, a young friend of mine asked, “Is there something going on here? Did you notice that?” Three young women were having a terse exchange of words at the reception stand. Two were customers with a baby in a stroller. The other appeared to be the host, but later seemed like she might have been filling in for the host who was on a break. My friend and I could not hear their words at first, but these became clearer as the volume increased and the communication became more pointed.
To me it looked like the customers, both White, were being officious with the host, who is Black and was not having it. For a moment the customers looked like they might go elsewhere. The host looked like she could not care less. My friend and I both saw this and, when they were out of ear shot, he asked if I noticed it. I said yes and that I would work to change the energy.
Without referencing the incident, I used a breezy, pleasant tone with the worker when she returned to find two more white faces. I asked after her day and commented on her fashion-forward headband. When she showed us our seats, she gave us choices and I thanked her for that, stating that the one we selected was “perfect.” From my perspective, her smile, her shy appreciation of my compliment, and her complete sentences delivered with warm eye contact, she looked to have put the earlier incident behind her for a bit.
I cannot know how she perceived the first exchange with the other customers or how she perceived the exchange with my friend and me. I cannot know how she will recall either one of them later either. Her perception, like mine, and that of the other customers, is “a creative process that involves the imagination.” For all I know, she might retrieve this exchange and retell it to a friend as a story about an old gay man who pathetically tried to make something wrong right or — worse yet — an old guy who totally ignored those creepy women and did a fashion consult instead.
Hell, I cannot even really know how I will remember and report this event going forward. This might end up being a story about racism, consumerism, capitalism, heroism, family values, unsupported workers, poor management, grumpy overtaxed mothers, the dangers of strollers on parent moods, a pretext for avoiding a pizza place with overpriced food… Who really knows?
If I decide to re-cast the memory of this exchange on purpose, intentionally making it a story about community, for example, does it then become mendacious? And, if it does not in the process of that creative interpretation become an outright lie, how precisely is it different than Scott Walker’s outrageous interpretation of his contributions to people in Wisconsin? Because I know my intentions to be good, when I recall events through the filters of my past are they somehow more honest than State Senator Alberta Darling’s plans to take over public schools, casting them as “Opportunity Schools.”
I find that I want these answers about honesty quite often lately. I want to clarify that my creative perceptions and my creative memories are good and correct. I want assurance that theirs are self-serving and incorrect. I want the world to have an upward trend. I want efforts at creating community to be effective. I want internal consistency in people, organizations, governments, the solar system.
My gut knows my perception is correct and my recollections cogent. My head, however, is not helping me get there without doubt.