My face is red. I misspoke and must set the record straight. As you can see from the two photos above, the skies are not always white in China as reported in my last post. Flipping through some of the thousands of photos I took on our trip, specifically to find pictures of some of the stunningly beautiful high-rise architecture we saw (my title for the trip is China: Under Construction), I was shocked to see several consecutive pictures taken in Shanghai that featured blue sky. At first I thought that was caused slightly tinted bus windows, as in the first shot, but the second one was shot in the open air around noon.
How could that happen? How could I fail to remember the mild sunburn I got that day as we walked through a park and along the streets of a part of town that has been preserved as a living, fully functional museum of a historic Shanghai shopping district?
I share this story with you for three primary reasons. First, to set the record straight about China’s air and weather. But more than that, this incident reflects the way memory works. I began the trip noticing the white skies, and I can truly say this sunny day was an anomaly. To my mind, this beautiful sunny day was comfortably “normal,” like I’d expect at home, so to my programmed perception for the trip, it was hardly worth noticing. It did not stick in memory.
Ordinarily, the unusual does stick in memory, but for the purposes of this trip, my perceptions got turned around. The white skies that would be unusual at home became the norm for China, and that norm, being unusual in my overall life experience, is what stuck — not the single gorgeous day that lulled me into a sense of familiar comfort and knocked the sky out of awareness. (I hope you follow that!)
The third point is the value of having multiple modes of capturing your experience. If I hadn’t had those photos, I never would have remembered the sunny day. And ... if I hadn’t been focusing on white skies, I never would have noticed that one day was different. More about this in another post.
Our minds and memories are amazing things, as are the functions that focus what’s in them. I don’t want to turn this blog into a dissertation on brain function, fascinating as the topic is. If you want to learn more, specifically about the reticular activating system that continually scans our input for relevant information and helped me notice that blue sky when I saw it this morning, I recommend two books. The first is Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain , by Sharon Begley. The second is Liberating Greatness, by Hal Williamson and Sharon Eakes.
Was I untruthful in my earlier report of white skies? No. That is my primary memory, and although it’s not entirely accurate, it was my “personal truth” when I wrote it. It’s also generally true. In this case, writing about a country I’ve come to care about is not so different from writing about a person I care about, and I felt obligated to set the record straight. I can do this in a blog. It’s not so easy in print. I would not lose sleep if I’d immortalized that impression, but this is a good reminder to me and others to double-check what we can, if there is a way to do so, without becoming obsessive about details we can’t check.
Write now: about a time when you discovered a memory error, or remembered things differently from a family member or friend. Or maybe nobody called you on the error, but you found it yourself. How did you handle this? How do you feel about literal accuracy in your writing? Are you fact focused or impressionistic?