It’s pitch-dark. Your eyes have opened, but you cannot see.
Piece by piece, you begin to establish your location: Bed. Yes. Home. Middle of the night. Wednesday. No, Thursday, now. Early. Chilly. Fall.
Even as, half-asleep, you’re reassembling yourself, part of you wakes up to the fact that you’ve just come from a dream: your body—abuzz, refreshed—is still in the feeling-state the dream created. Where you are, though, matters less than where you’ve been. Your body, still half-slumbering, is eager to return to the exotic land you’ve just left, but your mind can’t make out where to go or how . . . . Wait, there’s something. A boat. Your father, rowing . . . . No, not your father; some other male. You were coming from . . . a movie theater?!? Someone was there with you—to your right? Behind you? You can feel the absence of her presence. You turn back to the boat, but the guy is no longer there. Did he disappear in the dream, or did he disappear because you can’t remember the dream? And was that a boat he was in or a pickup truck?
You keep searching, as if inching your way through some unexplored cave—arms, hands, fingers, fingertips outstretched—and whenever you feel you’ve almost got a handle on something—a picture, a notion—damn, it slips away, escaping deeper into the blackness. It was right there, just a minute ago. You were living it; asleep, yes, but your body is still feeling it, yet you can’t connect the feeling to anything in particular, and you’re losing your grip on the few pieces you’ve managed to grab. They’re going. And now—wait . . . .
Just then, a heavy metal door clangs shut. Whatever it was is gone. You shake your head, frown. You’re done. Every so often, you’ve been able to hoist a dream back from the void, to bring your mind and body into alignment, but not this time. The search is over. You’ve lost it. You just can’t remember.
What’s been worrying you lately is that when it comes to remembering things, the balance of your day—the part you live in broad daylight, the part when you’re supposedly not half-conscious—is not so very different.
Thanks for the Memories
Once upon a time, you may recall, you had a ton of memories.
First, there was all that personal history, all the things you felt and did and thought: treasured successes (admittedly, a tiny handful), regrets and disappointments (regrettably, more numerous), your mother’s funeral, your first day in kindergarten, those insane-making worries and jealousies that used to go on and on, forcing you to waste all your days and nights preparing for eventualities that never came to pass, the otherworldly sight of the immensity of the Grand Canyon at night, your eldest’s first day in kindergarten, the punch your chin took in 6th grade whose sting you still can feel, unanticipated moments of inexplicable bliss (like that time in the car on that winding road in Virginia when “Eleanor Rigby” came on the radio), stuff you did yesterday, girls you kissed 25 years ago—a nearly bottomless bulk of experience that made you you.
And that was only the start of it.
Packed on top of all that, another mass: innumerable bits and pieces of knowledge of the outside world that clung to you like the nose on your face: Oscar winners and state capitals and NBA and Major League and NFL statistics and playoff results going back decades and song lyrics and social and political horrors and injustices that made you livid with rage and plays and books and TV shows and God knows what else. Once upon a time, all those numberless memories were quite content to rest quietly in the comfortable home you’d built for them, loyally waiting to be called into action whenever they were needed. And when you summoned them, they came.
Once upon a time, that is.
Things are different now.
For some time, you’ve had a growing awareness of a phenomenon that at first amused, but soon began to trouble you: those memories of yours, once trustworthy, available 24/7, have become erratic, unreliable, either fuzzy at the edges or nowhere to be found, like those barely-remembered dreams that wriggle out of your grasp. Nowadays you’re stunned by how repeatedly, how indiscriminately, forgetfulness keeps rearing its frustrating and frustrated head. It isn’t just “Hey, who did win the AL batting title in 1948?”1 or “Now, where did I put those keys?”2 but “Damn, what was the name of that company I used to work for when I was in college?”3 and, “You know what? I’m not so sure I ever really did go to the Grand Canyon. Day or night.”4
Your past, your knowledge, your you seems to be melting away, incident by incident, fact by fact, memory by memory, as an enveloping fog descends around you, thickening each day. Memories that used to stick are now slippery. What used to be Velcro has become Teflon. You get up to write something down and, by the time you reach your pen, you’ve forgotten what you were going to write. You always seem to be looking or searching for something: in your pockets, on your desk, in your head. You run into someone on the street, he looks familiar, he’s saying hello, it’s apparent he knows you, but who is he? You perceive he may perceive your non-remembrance, and out of politeness or bruised feelings or sheer sadism (or maybe you’re wrong and it’s because he can’t remember exactly who you are either and, like you, finds it too awkward to say so), he lets you hang there, twisting slowly in the wind, without identifying himself.
As one confounding blank stare after another creepily takes the place of those memories you used to rely on, a host of new acquaintances—embarrassment, apology, nervous laughter, disbelief, self-mockery, bewilderment, anxiety—make more frequent appearances in your life.
And it isn’t just you. (Thank God.)
Take, for example, your friend. There he is: eyes agleam, smiling, animatedly telling you a story. (Or you might be telling him one.). Almost inevitably, there comes that awfulmoment when he pauses (or you pause). Eyes lose luster, mouth slackens. He (or you) is utterly lost. It’s as if an invisible ray gun had zapped a hole in his (or your) brain. “What was her name?” “Where was I?” “What was I talking about?” he (or you) will ask, more often than not fruitlessly, because shake your two brains as you might, you’ll hear nothing rattling inside. Neither of you has any idea what the answer might be. Whatever he (or you) was about to say, is nowhere to be found.
He makes (or you make) a lame joke about his (or your) failing memory, and the story, now somewhat hobbled, proceeds, with one not-insignificant consolation: misery loving company as it does, you’re happy to find a fellow passenger in the boat you sometimes fear you’ve been drifting in alone.
Some “I’m Happy to Talk about This, But I Can’t Remember Exactly What It Is I’m Happy to Talk About” For Instances:
Exhibit A: “Margaritaville” or It Doesn’t Matter if You Write It Down.
A luncheon companion is about to tell you some story he’d heard somewhere about the guy who sang “Margaritaville” when he pauses; he’s unexpectedly seen a gap open up before him and realizes he’s stuck. He puts down his sandwich as if that’ll help him focus better, but for the life of him, he can’t recall the guy’s name.5 You’re invited to join in the search, but you’re no help. The two of you are in a name-free valley, looking up the steep slopes of craggy mountains on either side of you, searching for clues, hoping they’ll lead you to that guy’s goddamn name so you can climb out of the abyss and move on with your lives already.
No such luck.
After a minute or two of testing and then rejecting a bunch of alternative names you know are wrong, just as Freud predicted in that essay he wrote,6 the two of you shrug and call off the search. Your companion takes another bite of his sandwich and plugs on with the story, a certain incompleteness beneath the surface continuing to gnaw at both of you, but it’s an incompleteness that’ll dissipate and soon be forgotten. As he resumes his tale, you take the opportunity to jot down “Margaritaville” on a piece of scrap paper, for, after all, you’re writing an article on memory and this seems like a moment worth preserving. That irritating sense that something is missing has now been replaced by a satisfying bonus: an incident for the article.
That evening, at the keyboard, you remember that earlier that day there was some kind of incident, that you’d made a note of it, but now can’t recall what it was all about. Before you reach for the piece of paper, as a kind of experiment, you close your eyes and try to squ-e-e-e-e-eze out a memory from the sponge that’s supposed to be your brain. Bone dry. You’d hoped the act of writing might have etched a memory somewhere, made it more accessible, deposited some moisture in that sponge of yours. But it hasn’t. From your shirt pocket, you remove the note, and after a minute or two of trying to decipher your handwriting (which seems lately to be going to seed even faster than your memory), the word “Margaritaville” becomes legible. What a relief! It’s not lost. But then, wait a minute, what exactly have you found? A word on a piece of paper. Nothing more. The rest of your friend’s story has vanished.
You honestly can’t remember what he said.
Exhibit B: Who’s the Mental Patient?
You visit your childhood friend Joe and spend several hours laughing and reminiscing. As you’re saying good-bye, you enlist his help in trying to remember what the trigger was, two hours earlier, for that one particular bout of hysterical laughter—uncontrollable laughter, lasting more than a minute—that kept the two of you in stitches, like the kids you once were. But, mamma mia, neither of you can recall what was so damn funny. (This is especially upsetting since Joe, unlike most people you know, generally remembers everything.) Embarrassed and somewhat deflated (what was the point of the visit if, at the very moment it’s ending, you can’t even recall the highpoint?), you drive off.
The next day, you’re surprised (because by then, of course, you’ve forgotten yesterday) to see that Joe has e-mailed the explanation for what had set the two of you so giddily off: some months earlier, he’d purchased a painting by an artist who, it turned out, was living in a mental hospital. Grateful for the purchase, the artist had written a note which, during your visit, Joe had read aloud to you. The note managed to convey without irony such primal, rock-bottom befoggedness that you and Joe couldn’t help empathizing with its institutionalized author and laughing to the point of tears. It read in part: “Thank you for buying my painting. I think you bought the painting. I’ll have to ask Dr. Reimer.”
Exhibit C: You Do Remember Who Lincoln Is, Though
You look forward to reading the weekly book review section. Why? Partly because the writing is more gracious than the rest of the newspaper—a little more contemplative. There’s no screaming sense of urgency that you find in the news section; no hastily-constructed overnight-turnaround feel that you often get with movie and theater reviews. You find, instead, that you’re being extended an invitation to dip into something that has required and received some time and effort and thought to put together; something that feels lived in—an invitation to spend a little more time than usual pondering meaning. And let’s not forget that reading book reviews also saves you the time-consuming chore of reading actual books, which, if you bothered to read them, you’d forget you’d read, anyway.
You’re reading a review of a book about, of all things, Lincoln’s second inaugural address, his “greatest speech,” when you feel that pleasing shift inside: the prose is starting to do its work, leading you to some deeper place, where things are less provisional, more solid and profound. A few days later, you flip through the book section again and after a few sentences into a review of a book about, of all things, Lincoln’s second inaugural address, you feel an uneasy shift inside and pause (uh, oh; one of those damn pauses again). You metaphorically scratch your head and ask yourself: “Wait a second, didn’t I read this review of the book about Lincoln’s greatest speech already?” You’re sure you did. (You’re almost sure.) But how can that be; the text seems so unfamiliar. “I’m sure I read this . . . d-didn’t I?” You skim in vain for a passage that might bring it all back. You can’t find one. So you decide to read the entire review again, wondering as you do what the hell is the point since tomorrow you won’t have the slightest recollection of a single damn thing you’ve read.
Okay, Okay. Not Everyone Has Amnesia
Ralph Nader, for example. Yes, the aged, once-lionized, now much-maligned Ralph Nader. He doesn’t. He’s brimming over with facts and opinions that bubble up—no, pour out—at the drop of a question. Asked about the Middle East, he prefaces his answer by saying he has four points he wants to make. Then he does something that, for you, is simply unimaginable, the near-equivalent of time travel: he goes on to make his four points!
You are in awe.
First, he remembers that he has four points to make. Second, whenever he is done with saying whatever it was that he wanted to say about a point, he then remembers not only to go on to his next point, but, Third, he remembers what that next point is, and, Fourth, he then actually proceeds to make it. (While you are unquestionably awestruck, you’re also not quite sure what any of his four points are. Once upon a time you listened to the content of what public figures said; now you merely “listen” to the competency of the flow, and, if it’s unimpeded, you just float along with it, indifferent to substance, as if listening to music, or better yet, Muzak.)
How does he do it? Even if it’s all memorized, even if it’s all rote, even if Nader has turned himself into a four-(and-sometimes-even-more-than-four-) point-making machine, you’re still dumbfounded by his proficiency. Could you make four points about anything?7 Sure, it’s true, once upon a time you could (and, probably too frequently, did) recite the Gettysburg Address and “Gunga Din”8 (often doing so back-to-back), but that was once upon a time. Now you can’t even memorize a phone number. (Well, you can manage the first three digits as Information is giving them to you, but from there on out you need at least one other person close by to help you with the other four.) 9
And it isn’t just Nader. What about the fast-talking political commentators on TV (always angry) and the fast-talking sports announcers (always excited). A vast community of remember-it-alls, loaded with more damn information at the tips of each of their tongues than they can ever be allotted time to say. You hear Daniel Schorr on the radio, at 90-something, rattling off historical precedents to the week’s news. And Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Shortly before he dies, you see him on a panel. Then in his mid-eighties, the man has total recall: a conversation with JFK, the plot of an obscure film he saw in the ’30s, a passage from his father’s work. No pauses. No stumbling. Nothing escapes him. Who areplanet you’re from? How do they remember all this stuff? They’re as unbelievably flabbergasting as Michael Jordan in his prime, except these people are mental these people? Are they even from the same athletes, whose prime apparently lasts their whole lives. You watch them recite all those facts and figures and do it so jaw-droppingly coherently (you assume it’s “coherently”; you can barely listen to them anymore) that you come to the only conclusion you can rationally arrive at: they are extraterrestrials. In contrast, aging Earthling that you are, you seem unable to hold onto a thought for anywhere near as long as you did in the old days. You struggle with it, like working out with a barbell you can only do one repetition with and then must drop. Memories used to stay put on the felt board where you placed them. Now they don’t: you have to hold them there, but you still only have two hands. It’s all too much. Before you know it, they’re on the ground, along with that barbell, somewhere you can’t find them.
But if there’s one thing that’s perfectly clear, it’s that public life has recently boasted at least one Earthling. Year after year, for what seemed like an eternity, you’d watch him painfully search for and trip over the answer to nearly every question he was asked, and you found yourself identifying with and even, God forbid, almost sympathizing with George W. Bush. It was so obvious he was in way over his head, his fakery in full view. He was you. (You sometimes got the feeling that, like you, he might not even have remembered the question he was supposed to be answering, except that, unlike you, and for reasons that continue to defy comprehension—like damn near everything else about the man—he was never embarrassed, nervous, or apologetic.) Eight years of Bush so trained you for the worst that when an answer by even the silver-tongued Obama is occasionally peppered with a pause or two, you freeze, fearing some wince-inducing Bush-like bumbling and confusion is about to occur.10 But then you begin to breathe easily once more when, grateful for the memory, you recall: the reason this guy pauses is that he’s—get this!—actually thinking.
Okay, okay, it isn’t just the Michael Jordans of the mind who have a memory. Yes, you still have one, too. You’re not brain-dead, you don’t suffer from Alzheimer’s, you’re not diseased, you’re not a total loss. You still remember that Eleanor Rigby car ride, and a few other things as well. And sometimes, after you’ve given up hope, the fog does lift. What you’d thought was gone forever unexpectedly bubbles up from the darkness: “Of course! I left the damn keys in my overcoat.”
But all those years you spent with Joanne, why do you recall so little about them? Or her? And the books you’ve read, the books you’ve loved, why is there so little, if anything, you can remember of them, or of the countless movies you’ve seen? Why do they all seem so hazy and blurry, sparse and fragile? Why do the memories you have seem black and white and gray? What happened to Technicolor? Why, when you were visiting Hawaii, did you just laugh at the very idea that you’d ever be able to remember all those odd-sounding place names, no matter how often you might say them aloud? Could you even think of learning a foreign language or mastering some new discipline? Are you entering the zoned-out state your father always seemed to be in when you saw him at the nursing home, staring so fixedly off into space that he appeared to be watching the wall he was sitting passively in front of? What show is playing so insistently inside your head these days? Or is it just a blank screen in there with nothing on?
Or is it that you are just not paying attention? Is that it? Thinking about something else when you should be absorbing (for future remembering) whatever happens to be staring you in the face at any given moment? (If that’s it, then what keeps making your mind drift elsewhere? And where is it drifting to?) Or have you just reached that point in life where you really can’t pay attention anymore; that point where you don’t even want to pay attention; that point where you’re so damn old, where things—people, places, life, things—are just so familiar, so reminiscent, so tiresomely repetitive that they lack any significance they might once have held for you and now simply don’t—can’t—sink in? Is that why memories don’t form? Because you’re going through the motions, a kind of replicant on auto-pilot, unengaged, coasting through life with far fewer fantasies of love or fame or bliss or wealth? Because you’ve been there, done that? Or because you’ve convinced yourself that you have? And does that blithe indifference, that buffered stance, increasingly hinder your ability to recapture the past as well?11
Can You at Least Remember When All This Forgetfulness Started?
“Remember”?!?! Get serious!
In high school English, you read Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, a play whose action unfolds in Grover’s Corners, a storybook town in New Hampshire as alien to everything you were growing up in as it was somehow identical. No work of art had ever so shaken your adolescent sense of immortality. And it did so, simply and powerfully, by conveying the transcendent beauty of everyday life: how unseen the gift of merely being alive is, and how inevitably that unappreciated gift must come to an end.
One line in particular sent chills through you. The omniscient Stage Manager sets the stage for Act Two by telling the audience that, during intermission. three years have passed, so that “a number of people who thought they were right young and spry have noticed that they can’t bound up a flight of stairs like they use-ta, without their hearts flutterin’ a little. All that can happen in a thousand days.” When you first came across that line in 10th grade, you wondered, “When does that take place, that transition to a weaker body? Thirty to thirty-three? Forty-one to forty-four?” Well, you now know that, at least for you, those thousand days took place in your fifties.
But what you didn’t know in 10th grade was that there’d also come a day when you wouldn’t be able to bound up and down the flight of stairs called “memory” like you used to. The realization that that day, too, has come is equally chilling.
What Does Science Say About All This Forgetfulness?
Science says, “You shouldn’t be surprised.”
It was the Stage Manager who taught you that, one day, your heart would be fluttering at the top of a flight of stairs and, by implication, one day, the rest of you would fall apart as well. (You’re well on your way. “One day” is here. No matter how much you go to the gym, the Stage Manager was right: you still wheeze your way up that flight of stairs. Your skin is losing its resiliency. Your hair has long since fallen out. Too many of your clothes no longer fit. Without glasses, you have to hold a book no further than two inches from your face. Digestion and elimination functions have . . . well, “changed.” Your knees hurt. Your old driver’s license shows a man whom you no longer recognize. The guy on your new driver’s license looks even stranger.)
And you know there’s nothing you can really do about it. You try to eat better, drink less, go to the gym as much as you can bear to. You do a fairly good job of not going gentle into that good night, but even as you continue to lament the decline, slowly, barely perceptibly, a grudging acceptance of the inevitable has begun creeping in. (While the acceptance is grudging, it isn’t total. You’re heartened and amused by the fact that not only has your inner adolescent somehow refused to die, he also still believes that you won’t, either. Against all the considerable evidence to the contrary, deep, deep down, there’s a part of you, insanely enough, that agrees with him.)
So, with every one of your nooks and crannies rotting away, from kidneys to penis and back again, why on earth shouldn’t your memory be fading, too? After all, your memory is nothing but a function of your mind, and your mind —a psycho-emotio-spiritual miracle of the highest order, to be sure—is nothing but a product of the workings of your brain, which is, when you come right down to it, just another biological organ in—another similarly-running-out-of-steam nook or cranny of—the same old aging physical body that’s rotting away, day in, day out. Well, if your feet can break down, or your spleen, why can’t your brain? Why should your brain—and therefore your mind, and your memory—be any more exempt from decay than the rest of you?
Because they should. Because, they are just . . . well, different. Physical decline is understandable in a way that memory loss is not. Admittedly, everything about how the body works is miraculous, almost science fictional: that a cut heals itself by replicating pre-wound cells, for example, is no less astounding than a wound in a horror movie which, with the magical assistance of time-lapse photography, heals itself in seconds. So, yes, everything is a mystery. But physical changes—a smaller bicep? a ratty lung? or, uh-oh, a tumor on the pancreas?—at least you can see them. (You can sometimes even touch them.)
But a memory? A feeling or a thought that’s become part of you? What’s that about? You can sort of “get” how electricity can illuminate a light bulb or turn a motor or heat up the hair dryer you no longer need, but electrical charges that travel along a neural pathway, stored somehow and then, somehow, retrievable time and time again in the form of mental images and feeling-states and notions? Sure. Absolutely. Crystal clear. (You’ve seen multicolored images showing how different mental functions activate different areas of the brain. But what exactly do these pictures show you except colored images of the brain supposedly in action?) If it’s hard to picture how all those electro-physio-chemical events give birth to a memory, it’s impossible to envision what the story is when that memory dies; mysterious to begin with, infinitely more so once gone.
If you were a real journalist, or even a moderately curious human being, you’d read the literature and interview the experts on failing memory and brain research, and you’d learn about the biochemical reactions and electromagnetic changes and protein imbalances and neurons and synapses and the like, and ultimately discover that (i) the hippocampus and corpus callosum are connected to the thigh bone, and (ii) the thigh bone is neuroscientifically connected to the Islands of Langerhans, so that (iii) taking into account the roller-coaster gyrations of the Dow Jones Industrial Average and (iv) multiplying by the weight of all the tea in China, you would conclude that: (x) you haven’t the slightest idea what’s going on here and (y) even if you did, it wouldn’t change a goddamn thing: you still can’t remember who won Best Supporting Actor in 1965.12 And besides, you wouldn’t remember what the scientific literature said, even if you had read it. In fact, maybe you did read it and have forgotten it all by now.13
What’s the Big Deal? Why Is All This So Disturbing?
Sometimes you wonder whether you even need a memory anymore. Just as calculators made mastering the slide rule unnecessary, with each Internet-laden day that goes by, Google may be rendering memory obsolete (or, at least, its loss less significant). For nowadays, wherever you are, whenever you need it, anything you want to know can just be . . . well, Googled.14 With a Google-armed Blackberry in hand, what’s the problem?
No matter how sweet and inviting the lure of these technological sirens may be, you aren’t quite ready to surrender your memory to them. For, even if the day should ever dawn when a personal jet pack could somehow transport you anywhere you wished, so that you’d never have to walk again, you’d still want your legs to be in full working order. Just in case.
Besides, there’s always the ultimate nightmare were you to give in and let it all slide. If you can’t remember first this, then that, and then those and these, eventually—and maybe not too far off from now—more and more of who you are will become unavailable, inaccessible, beyond your reach. And then? Well, perhaps your descent will eventually bring you to that point where one fine day—much like the absentminded druggist in your neighborhood did 45 years ago—you forget to dress yourself before you go out and proceed to parade down the street without your pants on. What would be next? Forgetting who you are? where you are? your underwear, too? Is all your waking life destined to become as surreal as a dream?
Cheer Up! It’s Not All Bad: The Upside of Memory Loss
Do you remember how, once upon a time, when something upsetting occurred—a fuckup at work, a fight with your girlfriend—misery would inhabit every cell in your body and eat away at you like acid through flesh, as you brooded incessantly over what you’d said, what she’d said, what the boss had said, what you should have said, how you were inevitably in the right, how this must be fixed, how this can’t be fixed, how that can’t be said—to the point that your life consisted of nothing but the problem? And how life-sapping misery continued to eat away at you until the fuckup was fixed, the relationship restored, no matter how long any of that might take?
When something like that happens today, you start off feeling just as miserable, but then, sooner than you once could ever have imagined, you notice your body is unflexing, and that, soon enough, you’re not feeling quite so miserable. Thank your failing memory for that. The emotional horror, and even the details of what set you off—what were we arguing about, again, honey?—vaporize. Worries and fears that formerly seemed to take up all the space in your brain now resemble bullets in a PowerPoint presentation—nothing more, mere bullet points—stripped of emotion, with no text or extra slides to back them up.
That’s an “Upside”? Isn’t There Some More Positive Way of Looking at This Whole Thing Without Sounding Like a Sleepwalking Zombie?
You try to think positively about yourself and put a Zen spin on the problem: the reason you have no memory is that memory is . . . irrelevant. You’re totally in the moment, neither living in the past nor fretting about the future. No, you live only in The Present, The Now, which, as we all know, is all there really is. You’re swimming in existence as existence washes over you—you’re immersed in it—and if tomorrow you find yourself unable to remember today, that’ll be the case only because tomorrow you’ll be too busy splashing around in tomorrow’s present moments to remember today.
But that’s all bullshit and you know it. You’re no more living in The Now than you ever did, and, besides, you used to have a pretty damn good memory. (At least a serviceable one.) Once upon a time, if you looked hard enough for something, you’d find it, because something was there. Now there’s less and less to locate, and once found, images sail off too quickly for you to catch them.
(Hey, wait a second. Wasn’t this part supposed to be “positive”?)
Okay, here’s positive:
While memories may be all you have of the past, they’re not all there is to being alive.
There is something more.
There’s also the connection that you make to what lies beyond The Now, to that something which isn’t you but connects you to everything there is. Whether you make that connection through art or nature or religion or love, it occurs at those moments when the trance of habit and routine is broken, and a door opens onto something greater than the small and simple confines of your everyday life. At those moments, you manage to catch a glimpse of the world—stark and separate, beautiful and fierce—as, unmediated, it reveals itself to you: in a pop song that mysteriously pierces straight through to your heart or the gentlest fingertapping sound of raindrops on wet leaves or a child’s unguarded face or the startlingly graceful three-pointer that flies out of nowhere to end the game or the harsh finality of a loved one’s corpse.
The Inevitable Bottom Line
It’s a little bit like dying, isn’t it, memory loss? A kind of vanishing act? The slow wasting away of who you are, and who you were. Fewer and fewer images to play with, in no apparent order, and the few that do remain themselves fading and disappearing for no apparent reason: jump cuts and quick dissolves, the work of some nutty auteur. And this evaporation of detail after detail of your life foreshadows how—once you are gone—those who knew you will slowly forget not only the details of your life, but, over time, you. Dead, you’ll fade into a half-remembered dream they’ll have difficulty recalling, the details entombed in some dark corner of their minds—a corner that’ll seldom, if ever, be reached. All those years spent striving and yearning and then—? Poof. The Brick Wall. The End. And whatever you’ll have managed to achieve or contribute during your life, whether to benefit yourself or your family or even mankind—children, love, wealth, invention, art—all that, too, is similarly doomed to hit a similar wall, for one day, all your beneficiaries will have vanished as well.
However, while you’re still here, before you actually do pass on, your consciousness, fragile creature that it is, might be envisioned as a sort of endless ticker tape of frequently random images, fragments, shards, and shreds, a cauldron of muddled feeling-states and thoughts, sometimes so fleeting that you’re barely aware of them. You generally operate under the belief (or illusion) that you’re making your way forward, coming from a past where you know something happened (even though, with each passing day, what exactly it was that happened is becoming more and more obscured). Once upon a time, you were able to stop the tape at will, rewind it to whatever memory you were looking for, and experience it anew, almost as if it were happening for the first time. No longer.
Stop! Enough Already! We’ve Been Through All This. Isn’t There Anything to Be Done?!!
Basically, no. You may die tomorrow. (In fact, you may die today.)
What good will memories do you then?
At the same time, you might:
Brush after every meal.
Do crossword puzzles.
Learn a foreign language.
Reminisce with friends.15
Stop daydreaming and pay attention.
Stop telling yourself you have a bad memory.
Take a memory class.
Take gingko biloba.
Take St. John’s wort.
Take whatever those Chinese herbs are that help your memory.16
Treasure the dwindling number of memories you’ve managed to retain.
Write more stuff down.
You have a feeling that there was one more thing you could do, but, try as you can, you can’t remember what it was.17
1. Ed. Note: Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox,.369.
2. Ed. Note: You left them in your overcoat.
3. Ed. Note: Olympic Office Supply Corp.
4. Ed. Note: You did.
5. Ed. Note: Jimmy Buffett.
6. Ed. Note: “Forgetting of Names and Order of Words,” Chapter 3 of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901)
7. Ed. Note: No.
8. Ed. Note: You mean the 1892 poem by Rudyard Kipling, not the 1939 movie base upon it.
9. Ed. Note: And the two of you need a third guy for the area code.
10. Ed. Note: “Palin-like bumbling and confusion” might be more up-to-date.
11. Only you know the answers to these questions.
12. Ed. Note: Martin Balsam for A Thousand Clowns.
13. Ed. Note: You did and you have. (If this sounds like bragging, that’s because it is. You have to admit it: as proud as you are of your (relative) honesty, you’re not shamed by your ever-increasing ignorance.)
14. Ed. Note: Anything, that is, other than where you left those damn keys. (At least for now, anyway.)
15. “During the twenty years of Odysseus’ absence, the people of Ithaca retained many recollections of him, but never felt nostalgia for him. Whereas Odysseus did suffer nostalgia, and remembered almost nothing.
“We can comprehend this curious contradiction if we realize that for memory to function well, it needs constant practice: if recollections are not evoked again and again, in conversations with friends, they go. Emigres gathered together in compatriot colonies keep retelling to the point of nausea the same stories, which thereby become unforgettable. But people who do not spend time with their compatriots, like . . . Odysseus, are inevitably stricken with amnesia.” Milan Kundera, Ignorance.
16. Ed. Note: Mai Men Dong, Sheng Di Huang, Tian Men Dong, Xuan Shen, among others.
17. Ed. Note: Laugh.
Fred Wistow is a former contributing editor to the Psychotherapy Networker and lives in New York City.