I think I can fairly say that one of my talents is teasing out memories, perceptions of the other, things that would normally be lost to other folks. It makes it a little weird to live inside my head, but it does tend to give me insights that perhaps some have lost.
The Washington Post noted a few days ago scientists think the reason why most people can't remember their childhood all too well is because it's all pre-verbal. Think about it... probably nearly all of the memories you have which are easy to recall involve some sort of internal dialogue. Humanity has language literally engraved in its genes, and without language we have difficulty even recording the world around us in our own heads.
For some bizarre reason, I don't have this problem. It's not exactly a gift. I feel my inability to work with regular mathematics, and yet still excel in geometry, is because of the strong non-verbal component I still carry within me. This led to untold misery in many a primary school mathematics class. But it does give me the ability to do this:
The summer of 77 is still vivid to me, with heat like a mallet wrapped in a wet paper towel to the face.
I get that way a lot with music. We're listening to Abba right now, because Ellen likes Army of Lovers and I insisted that AoL was in no small way an homage to that juggernaut of a 70s Swedish quartet. So she bought an Abba album. But while Ellen is listening to funky boppy silly music, I'm not. All I have to do is switch a gear in my head and...
I'm sitting alone in the middle of our the playroom in our old house, now long gone. The plastic-wrap-in-acid reek of modeling cement surrounds me swirling with the almost strawberry smell of drying enamel as I lean over my second B-17 plastic model kit. I'm sitting Indian-style on the brown/tan/white soda fountain patterned indoor-outdoor carpet I won (at age 9) in a silly drawing at the carpet shop. My legs are aching a little as the tight nylon weave scratches soft sandpaper patterns on my legs. I'm surrounded with curling Star Wars posters taped on the dark paneling of the room, and Star Wars toys, in 1977 worth their weight in gold, are scattered in the distance.
Or I'm in the back of a blue Oldsmobile station wagon, as the 8-track plays through the stereo. The morning sun is caressing my brother and me as we play with our Star-Wars pop-up out books, silent in our agreement that, at age 10 and 8, we are grown up enough to re-visit Florida by ourselves with our rather excitable mom without making her go insane with our fights. A truce is called through the chords of "mama mia" that will only last as long as the trip. A pope dies as I exit the heavy-doored motel room in Orlando with the semisweet tang of hotel soap in my nose.
History is funny that way. We only personalize what we lived through. But what we see on the television, or read in books, is just third person-- two or even one dimensional representations of things that we know in some abstract sense happened, but deep down are no different, or real, to us than watching Friends on Thursday nights.
So now whenever I watch or read anything about the past, or even the present, I try to take those nonverbal images with me when I re-create the landscape in my mind. It helps me realize these things aren't just abstract descriptions on some old book that smells like dried tea, and aren't just something you put on the tube while you vacuum the floor.
I see guys standing in trenches in the summer sun with bullets whizzing over their heads and I remember the feel of light and heat on my own face, and it becomes real to me. I watch a CGI reconstruction of an Allasaurus stalking a Brontosaur on a salt flat and I recall the caked dust up my nose walking down a dirt road and I'm there. I read about the death of a king and remember what it felt like when the towers fell, and I understand the kind of loss that yanks the world sideways.
So the next time you watch or read history, if you don't already I want you to try to literally put yourself in that place. Don't observe and be interested in what is happening... look at what is going on and step outside yourself. Find a place in your own memory that mimics even a little what you are reading or seeing.