I’ve been fascinated with the concept of ‘Flashbulb Memories’ since I first read about them in my Introductory Psychology class in my first year of University. The idea that a moment in time is so emotionally important to us that they're laid down as vividly, completely and accurately as a photograph. Effectively, these moments are etched into your brain able to be recalled in vivid clarity years later.
I haven’t done extensive research on Flashbulb memories, and am aware of the critiques against them but think often of the power of my own flashbulb memories. The ability to be taken back to that very moment regardless of the time that’s past. The taste, the smell, the very visceral feelings all come back. This could be a good thing if my flashbulb memories were positive or happy experiences that one would want to remember, however the funny thing about the brain is we seem to be more vividly effected by those moments of crisis or trauma.
I remember getting the call from Meghan to let me know that Steve K. and his mother has passed away the night before in a car accident. I remember I had been getting ready for school that morning happier than usual for a Tuesday morning. I had a crush on someone and wanted to look extra nice for physics class still elated from a great weekend celebrating Kory’s birthday. I remember not believing her. I remember calling her a liar and collapsing onto the floor, crying so hard that I felt like my lungs were going to escape my chest. That pain, that raw emotion comes back whenever I recall the memory. In the years following I would be reduced to a crying ball in a heap on the ground. Now, nine years later I don’t cry. I don’t lose my footing, but my skin tringles remembering the feelings that day.
I remember the coldest I’ve ever been. As I think about it goose bumps are growing. It was 2008 and the first day of planting in Quesnel Alberta at the start of my second year as a tree planter in Northern British Columbia. It was late May and it seemed like it was going to be a mild but sunny day judging from what I gathered from the balcony of our hotel room I was sharing with Francis and Felicity. That was fine by me. I had forgotten my rain jacket on Manitoba and it was currently somewhere in between Beausejour and my hotel room with expected arrival the following week. I pulled on my Hele Hanson thermal underwear and a long sleeved shirt, covered by a pair of loose fitting shorts, thick socks, my trusted Asolo boots, and tied my hair back with a bandana. On the way to the block I remember feeling excited and exhilarated by the day head, riven by challenge and happy to be back for another season of hard work and high reward. I taped my right hand with duct tape. Covering my fingertips, knuckles and fingers with a practiced technique I had perfected the year before. We arrived, I took a look at the map, loaded up my bags with ~500 trees (as was my preferred strategy) and shovel in hand set off to the back of my piece.
The day started slower than I would have liked. My muscles adapting to the steep inclines and elevations that my prairie body had forgotten about during the year at University. I slogged away finding my rhythm and appreciating the intoxicating smell of earth and pine that I had missed. It started to rain. Slowly at first. I wasn’t worried. This was common place. I actually enjoyed rain days. It was easy to push harder knowing that it was likely a rough day for everyone else as well and if you could remain positive you had a better chance to come out having planted the most trees. I found the competition motivating. I planted on.
As is common in Northern BC, the temperature dropped. The gentle rain turned to frozen snow and began to blanket the ground. I planted on, feeling the layers nearest to my body stiffen as the water that had collected within the fibres froze. My hand started to lose the ability to move as the duct tape gathered ice particles from being slammed repeatedly into the frozen soil. Visibility became difficult. I was unable to see more than a foot in front of me, my freshly planted trees disappearing under a blanket of white powder. A fire had been set up near the road where we would have grabbed more trees, but I had grabbed enough to keep me busy for at least 2 hours under the best of conditions, and never made it there to feel its warmth. My foreman, an experienced planter names Dale, came on to my piece to give me a hand. We began to plant together, something we did regularly, but were unable to fall into the comfortable waltz of working together as we had in the past. We double planted trees unable to see anything. I stopped shivering. We planted, Dale cursing under his breath, until Zap, the lead foreman yelled at us to pack it in. Dale and I slid back to the truck. I asked Zap if we needed to load up the trucks and he looked at me, drenched with blue lips, called me insane and ordered me to get into the truck that he had put the heat on full blast. I started viciously, afraid that I would shatter my own teeth. It took me hours to warm up again.
Two memories etched into my memory with visceral clarity. I like to think that these Flashbulb memories shape who we are because they’re the memories that stick most strongly. One day I may write a book…