Metropolis

We Can Get Back One Thing the Pandemic Took Away

Our memories are stored up in the places we couldn’t go.

A traveler with a backpack explores an urban street. There are lots of parked motorcycles.
Photo by Steven Lewis on Unsplash

I realized recently that I’ve been telling the same stories over and over. There’s a lot of time to talk these days, but I haven’t had too many opportunities to do anything. I think this is a common feeling, since most of us have spent a year living a reduced version of our lives. Personally, I’ve had enough reminiscing about the same old stuff. As Tony Soprano said, “ ‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.”

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Typically, what happens at the end of a recession is a spike of pent-up demand, as families who couldn’t afford sneakers, guitars, and washing machines complete deferred purchases. Can the same thing happen with travel after a pandemic? With concerts, with parties, with the stuff that stories are made of? Can a year’s worth of new experiences be put off and then had all at once, in a world-hungry binge?

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One answer is: We’ll know soon enough. President Joe Biden said last week that every American who wants a vaccine will have one by the end of May, which means that the country is about to break its pandemic fast in a big way. Household balance sheets are in pretty good shape, and that’s before the Democrats’ huge COVID bill has even passed. The cup of vacation days runneth over, and the open road beckons.

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On the other hand, there’s no making up for a lost year—for all that time we could have been doing things together. Either way, we can regain something the pandemic has kept from us.

I’m exaggerating about 2020’s blankness. It’s not as if the year was uneventful. But I think our collective experience of the blurry “long March”—as if the month of the first lockdown never ended—is related to how little we’ve moved. So many meetings, classes, birthday parties, milestones, and disappointments have occurred in the same physical space, on the same cramped screen, seen from the same warm chair. As a result, these happenings aren’t just less interesting to remember—they’re actually harder to remember too.

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Writing in Wired last month, Paul Ford yearned for the office as a “continuum of memories,” where past achievements and embarrassments are as tangible as the carpet in the corridors. I don’t know how much most Americans long for their offices, but my desire to travel is as much longing for familiarity as for difference. Instead of going someplace new, I want to go back. Visit parents and grandparents. Curl up on a friend’s couch. I’m desperate to go to a baseball game—to rediscover something that, like the commute, was once routine.

There, I like to think, even something as commonplace as my footfall on a concrete ramp will shake old parts of myself to life, things that could only have been rustled up by this prolonged absence. Churches and corner bars and childhood bedrooms are not just the places we’ll go to catch up on social life; they are also little storehouses of memory, annexes where forgotten fears and desires can only be accessed on-site. Such place-thoughts are just a vaccination away.

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Neuroscientists call this contextual-binding theory: Re-create the context, and it’s easier to find the memory. The context can be something as simple as the taste of a cookie or the smell of Old Spice, but places, with their fixed sets of smells and sights and sounds, offer a package-deal memory trigger. In a foundational 1975 experiment, divers learned words underwater and on land. They had an easier time remembering the underwater words underwater, and vice versa.

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In memorization contests, competitors try to harness this phenomenon by taking imaginary journeys, building a shuffled deck of cards into the rooms of an architectural fantasy called a “memory palace.”

In real life, we each have something similar, a thousand pieces of our past stored on the streets where we used to live, in the smell of highway rest stops, in the sound of water clapping against a dock. A year spent at home hasn’t just been lonely; it’s also been a year without these enlivening encounters with ourselves.

Blow the dust off the world. The release from the pandemic will bring us back to the people and places we love. But there will also be value in that lost year, in memories that have been left to steep so long.

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