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Category: Mental Health

Memories are like tree rings

Annual Rings / Jahresringe – Christian Schnettelker

A few weeks ago my wife and I drove our sons to my parents so they could stay a few days while we attended a foster parent training. On the way, I decided to swing through my hometown and show the kids where we used to live, work, and play. We drove through the backroads where “The slow guy” would drive 15 mph, in his little Toyota pickup, often without a shirt, accompanied by his big black dog riding shotgun. We pointed out landmarks of our lives during their childhood, like Pheasant’s Orchard, and the field where we fed llamas.
No one knew it, but this was a big step for me. I was dipping my toes in healing waters. More than a few events took place there that haunt me today. I try to put them behind me, but my mind won’t let me. Each event is stored as a memory that can be recalled at the slightest trigger.

We had a wood stove in our basement meant to be used for heat. We never figured out how to use it without smoking the house out. But one year, in preparation for winter, we drove to our church camp to retrieve firewood. The campground had cut many trees to thin the forest and reduce the risk of fire.

One thing you notice when you look at the stump of a tree is rings that spread from the center to the edge. “How did they get there?” children ask when they first see them.
Tree rings are a record of events that take place in a year. One year might have excessive rain-fall while the next has a drought. Fire might ravage a forest this year and a plague of insects the next. Each event leaves a mark on the tree; a darker circle one year, and a lighter one the next. As long as the tree still lives, it will keeps growing, forming new rings recording the events of the new year.

Memories are a lot like tree rings. They mark in our mind events that happen from one season to the next. Some years are full of love and growth. Others include stagnation, trials, pain or heartbreak.

When I become fixated on troubling memories, I am learning to tell myself that they are only rings on a tree. Those events are part of me, just as rings are part of a tree. But if I fixate on them I am staring at a stump. That is not where life occurs. Like that tree, I am still growing, meeting new challenges. Life is to be lived now.

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The soundtrack of my life

Inspired by a book I was reading, called “The Happiness Advantage,” I decided to go through my iTunes library and create playlists of albums from different seasons of my life. This turns out to be a much different experience then starting a Pandora station with “Night Ranger.” Because, back then, we bought albums and <gasp> listened to the whole thing.

The more I go through my music with an ear towards what I was listening to at different times of my life, it evokes the sense of place during those times. I am transported back to the rooms I was in when I was listening to these albums.

In the mid 80’s, I listened to a lot of Keith Green, Kansas, Petra, Genesis and Prince in my bedroom (much to my mother’s chagrin.) In the late 80’s and early 90’s it was Van Halen, more Prince, Sting, and Chick Corea in my dorm room (much to the chagrin of my roommate.). In the mid 90’s, it was Van Halen, Arrested Development, Paul Simon, and Phil Keaggy, in my music room at our first house in Ephrata (to no one’s chagrin.)

But another thing I’ve done is to cull the stuff that I really liked. There’s a lot of music out there that I just played but really hasn’t stayed with me. Some albums brings back bad memories. Others, great memories.

It is remarkable how emotive music is.

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This morning while sipping a latte at Moxie Java in Twin Falls, I decided to listen to an old concert of Vida Blue. Suddenly I was catapulted back to 9 months ago when I first discovered the band, headlined by Phish keyboardist Page McConnell. Why did this music throw me back in time? Because at the time I was living by myself in Twin Falls, waiting the sale of our home in Soap Lake so that my family could move to live with me. I was experiencing many things rather intensely as a result of the time apart from my family. I can sense the same emotional memories will be conjured up when Mariner’s baseball season begins. One of the ways that I whiled the time away was to listen to the Mariner’s on the internet.

I’ve been experiencing other emotional memories as well, of events that happened many years ago. It has been remarkable the intensity of these things, as I remember feelings that happened a while ago. Why are some memories stronger? Where does the attachment of emotions to memories come from?

Ashok Hegde, assistant professor at WFU Baptist Medical Center i Winston-Salem, North Carolina points out in this Psychology today article that

One of the hallmarks of memories that last is a close association with emotion. Norepinephrine, a brain chemical similar to adrenaline, is released in the brain during such emotional situations. Norepinephrine lowers the gate so that information can go into permanent storage.