Memories come in all different shapes, colors, and intensity. Some are wonderful, some are awful. One of the most pleasurable memories I garnered from the past thirty years of international travel was when my host in Tanzania favored me with an exotic hot air balloon safari over the incomparable African Serengeti. At 4:00 a.m. I was taken in a Land Rover across the African plains to where our majestic, glowing balloon was coming alive. Fire and super-heated gases were being blasted into the still-limp balloon.
The sky was beginning to lighten, and faint colors of orange and pink bounced from the fluffy African clouds. Once we were settled into the basket and the cotton ropes that had tethered us to earth were loosened, we began to slowly ascend above the branches of the acacia trees. The pilot took us to a height of about two thousand feet. We viewed the vast number of animals on the floor of the Serengeti: herds of wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles, prides of lions returning from their nightly hunting, cheetahs, hyenas, elephants, and giraffes.
The pilot picked out a specific herd below and maneuvered the super-silent balloon back down to below the treetops where we could have reached out and touched the animals. Of course, when the pilot decided to ascend again, the sharp blast of the hot burner scattered the herd and we arose once more, high enough to pick another group of animals to visit in the ecosystem. The thrill of the two-hour balloon ride in the early morning as the sun began to bathe the Serengeti, and the adrenalin rush from experiencing so many wild animals close at hand in their regular morning routines, filled my emotional memory reservoir to flood stage. I would never forget that October morning.
The process of our minds that encodes, stores, and retrieves such Serengeti experiences is called memory. It is a lot like the cell phone camera of your heart that makes special moments last forever. It is the way of holding onto important things you don’t want to lose. As Edward de Bono once said, “A memory is what is left when something happens and does not completely un-happen.” And the memory has a way of encoding, storing, and retrieving a bit of heaven from which we cannot be driven, as well as a hell from which we cannot escape. The non-discriminating memory function processes the bad things as well as the good things.
Shortly after making the delightful trip to Tanzania, I made an absolutely devastating trip to Belgrade, Serbia, in old Yugoslavia. I was driven to the City of Nis, where thousands of refugees were seeking protection from the Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo massacres. Project C.U.R.E. had agreed to help by donating medical goods to the refugee centers. Nis had set up fifteen refugee locations. Our first stop was at an old crumbling hotel in lower downtown. The doctor with us from the Ministry of Health succinctly warned me, “Most of these people have already died inside in order to survive.” They had walked to Nis trying to escape getting shot in cold blood during the ethnic cleansing.
We started on the top floor of the hotel. A man and his family of eight, including his old parents, lived in one small room that had been a closet. They were surviving on macaroni. The man told me that one day men with guns came to his house and told him to leave right then and take his family with him or they would line them all up and shoot them. He was instructed that he could leave his blind father and old mother there if he wanted to, and they would kill them for him because they knew the old couple would slow down their escape. As they left, the men ransacked their house for any valuables, then burned the house and outbuildings so the family could never return to Kosovo. As they walked north, they turned and watched as all their earthly possessions went up in fire. There were over three million victims. That family was part of over two hundred thousand victims from just that part of Kosovo.
As we stood in the hallway of the fourth floor level, we were surrounded by women who looked very old. I was told that some were still in their 40’s. One woman had watched as her husband and sons had been shot. She and her daughters had been raped as they fled. Through her tears and occasional sobs, she shared with me the memories of her beautiful flowers that she loved at her home in Kosovo. “They burned everything. I have nothing. Now, I write poems but there is no one left to read them or listen to me.”
On another floor, a younger woman ran to her room and brought some sort of a diploma to show me. The paper was watermarked and stained. There was no glass covering the print. Along with the framed document, she held two pieces of broken glass. She stroked the surface of the glass gently as if she were touching the soft skin of a baby’s face. As she stared at the glass, the pilot light of her memory sputtered in her eyes. “This is all I have left of my life and my family. Now, I have nothing and no one left. I am not sure how I came here. I am lost.”
Some memories are wonderful . . . some memories are awful. Sometimes we have a choice regarding memories . . . sometimes we do not. However, I decided while standing in the old Hotel Park in Nis that I would actively choose to gather and store an abundance of good memories in my memory reservoir. I needed enough good memories to far outweigh the possibility of bad memories I might acquire. I would need all the good memories possible to sustain me for the rest of my days.