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Failing memory

I’ve been a little concerned of late that I’m losing my memory. Or at least that it’s nowhere near as good as it once was. Of all the bads that come with getting older, I fear those that concern the brain the most. My heart goes out those suffering from Motor Neuron’s disease. What it must be like to have an active, engaged brain, while your body shuts down bit by bit is beyond even my vivid imagination. To have a perfectly fit, active, healthy body while your brain unhinges is the stuff my nightmares are made of.

I had a couple of incidents in Costa Rica recently whereby I would have bet the house that I was right, that I’d done what I said I’d done just minutes before. There wasn’t a shred of doubt in my mind. I was 100% certain that I was right. 100% certain. And both times, witnesses told me I was wrong. We’re talking minutes here – the times it takes for a bartender to mix a drink or a waiter to bring the food to the table. And it scared me senseless. I can feel a cold sweat breaking out even now, as I write.

I’ve been watching myself very carefully since and while I have no incidents as serious as those two, I have noticed that my memory is going. It’s getting worse. And yes, a lot of it is walking into a room and forgetting why I was there. Or going to the shop and coming home with everything except for what I went for. Or trying to find my way back to whatever it was I was doing before I got diverted online. Those I can put down to being busy, too busy to be mindful. But the Costa Rica episodes? I can’t explain those.

Meeting up with cousins over the weekend, it was natural that childhood stories would be retold. I have very little recollection of any of them. I have no memory of being in places with people in a given year. And what’s worse, I can remember clearly being places with people in a given year when everyone else swears I wasn’t. So is it me, or is the world wrong?

Working on some course text recently, I came across a reference to a conversation written up by Plato around 370 BC: Phaedrus.  Theuth, the Egyptian god of inventions, was telling King Thamus of the advantages of  a new technology: writing.

Here is an accomplishment, my lord the king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure recipe for memory and wisdom.

Sounds just what I need. But Thamus was a little sceptical.

Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of their own internal resources.

I’m with him there. I have my lists. I even have lists of lists. If it’s not written down, then I’m guaranteed to forget it. And perhaps in relying so heavily on lists, I’ve lost the ability to remember. I used to be able to rattle off phone numbers and now the only ones I know are my parents’ landline, the landline of a house I lived in in Dublin, and the number of my bank. And that I blame on technology – it’s made it far too easy for us to forget. The list of birthdays I can recall without any aide memoirs is dwindling. As for anniversaries? Enough said.

Anyway, Thamus goes on:

What you have discovered is a recipe for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instructions, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom, they will be a burden to society.

Damning words indeed. In memorising facts, we can sound far more intelligent than we are. In trotting out quotations, we can approach a modicum of wisdom that is suspect at best.

This does nothing to assuage my concern that I am losing my mind – but it comforts me to know that it was being talked about thousands of years ago. I might get lucky. I might get to the end of my days with some grey matter intact. In the meantime, it’s back to practising mindfulness. If I could only remember what it is…

The bliss of solitude

My short-term memory is worsening by the day. My long-term memory isn’t much better. I find myself having vague recollections of events and conversations rather than my usual  chapter and verse. I’m getting older. That’s a given. And with each advancing year, something else gives.

In the midst of all this self-induced angst, I was heartened to recall some lines from a poem I learned in secondary school. From Wordsworth’s I wandered lonely as a cloud. I was in Terezín in the Czech Republic last weekend when they wove their way back into my brain:

When oft upon my couch I lie, in vacant or in pensive mood,
they flash upon my inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude.

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Down by the Ohre river, there’s a pietní místo – a pious place – with signs showing what not to do. No swimming. No sunbathing. The why of it all became clearer as we approached the monument. It was here, in November 1944, that the Nazis ordered the ashes of 22 000 Jews – all victims from the Terezín ghetto – to be dumped in the water. Hard to imagine. Hard to get my head around those sorts of numbers, that sort of volume. It was made even more surreal because in my bag, I had a small urn with just 5% of Lori’s ashes which I would scatter later from the Charles Bridge in Prague. Now, math has never been my strongest suit, but even so, I still couldn’t get a grip on the magnitude of what had happened here.

IMG_2932 (590x800)The death rate in the ghetto was high. Records show that 22% of internees died there – about 30 000. At first they were buried locally – the first 1250 in individual graves, and then 217 in mass graves. But towards the end of 1942, the cremations started. The ashes of some 8000 or so are still in urns at the local crematorium. The remains of the other 22 000 have settled in the silt or floated away.

I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like in 1944, in November. I can’t imagine the logistics, the affect on the water, the sheer volume of ash that had to be disposed of. And while I was struggling to come to terms with all of this, I kept going back to the sign that said no swimming, no sunbathing. And I wondered why anyone would have to be told not to.

IMG_2929 (598x800)It defies reason. The lines from Wordsworth came flooding back – in vacant or in pensive mood – because everything about this place leaned towards pensive. It was eerily silent. No noise. No birds. Even the water was quiet. Despite the intervening 70 years or so, there is still a heavy presence that challenges thought and defies speech. And when we did speak, we spoke in whispers, so as not to disturb the spirit of the place. Although it was the 29th of March, snow still covered the ground and the signs of spring had yet to appear.

IMG_2934 (600x800)I wondered what it might be like in summer. Would people picnic here? Would mothers sit by the river bank as they watched they kids playing? Would courting couples come to get away from it all? Or is it indeed a pious place where people would show the dutiful respect required by definition, where they would come to sit in silence and contemplate man’s inhumanity to man and how it makes countless thousands mourn? I wondered, too, which would be best – should we celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us with gaiety and laughter, showing them that they did not die in vain, or should we be sombre and silent? Can we be happy and still remember, or do those memories weigh us down and make us sad. What does a dutiful respect require? And what would they have wanted?

I mentally compared the gaily decorated graves I found in Hawaii which lie in stark contrast to the Jewish cemetery in Budapest and wondered what I’d prefer. I remembered years ago visiting the concentration camp at Dachau and being horrified at some tourists who had dared to laugh in the face of such atrocities. I found myself leaning towards piety.  In the midst of the manic lives we lead, alongside the constant push to do and be done to, we need the time, the space, and indeed the opportunity to remember. Perhaps bliss is not quite the right word for this occasion Mr Wordsworth. As I searched my memory banks for something more suitable, I hit upon the line from John Donne’s poem Death and agree that

…from thee [death] much more must flow.

In memory

Many years ago, I went to see a psychic of sorts near Oxford. She had worked with the local police on a few cases and had quite the reputation. I can’t for the life of me remember anything she told me, apart from an answer to an off-the-cuff question I asked as I was leaving. Would I ever be published? Her answer: Yes, your poetry will be well received. Poems? Mine?

I quite fancied that idea for a while, as back in my twenties I had a bit of reputation for being able to jot down a ditty about someone, on the spot, usually in the pub or at a party, and then recite it to great acclaim. Needless to say the acclaim was more in proportion to the number of pints that had been consumed than to my skill as a poet.

Lori 001 (800x552)Then, about three years ago, in Budapest, I had the good fortune to meet the talented Neil McCarthy. And I knew for certain that whatever latent talent I might have with words didn’t come close to how he can master his. I was mesmerised. A few months ago, I asked Neil to pen a poem in memory of my mate Lori, who died a year ago today, aged 49. I miss her terribly. And while I know that she’s at work on my behalf and probably ratcheting up the fun factor upstairs, the pain of her passing is showing no sign of dissipating. I talked to Neil about her at length. He read some blogs I had written while she was ill. And then he patiently set to work, drafting a memorial. I returned each one with comments. I didn’t know quite what I wanted it to say but knew that if he could capture the essence of what I am feeling, I’d recognise it. We went back and forth until earlier this week when I received the final version. I think it’s beautiful.

Today, as I scatter some of Lori’s ashes from the Charles Bridge – she always wanted to go to Prague – I’ll read it to her. And I’ll remind myself, for the millionth time since her death 12 months ago, that life is too short to wonder what if. We owe it to ourselves, and to those who have gone before us, to make the most of today, to live life to its fullest, and to make sure that nothing that matters is left unsaid. I love you, girl.

A breath of wind through the long grass

                                    i.m. Lori Stephens

1.

Rest assured that the storm will never settle long enough for a smooth crossing,
that the tide has tied tightly its opus of memory to the stern of the boat; nor will
an enduring thought or concern from the shore settle into any intelligible order,
disruptive as a breath of wind through the long grass harrying the sands beneath.
Hindsight is a delicate bequest when surveyed from a careful enough distance,
smiles stifled by grief once again coming to the forefront; a break in the weather
or a high pressure moving in from the sea – perhaps the face of the forecaster in
the hall mirror announcing with buoyancy that we are all but over the worst of it.

2.

There is no space wide enough for consolation to take root, no exemplary words
to sate the hollowness, no charts to leisurely unfold and map the geography of  loss. Faraway cities run blue dye through the retina and birds move in, circling, drifting, diverting attention as the world below races on, stumbling every now and again. San Francisco comes thundering back, slows once it’s found itself perfectly still in the focus of your attention, as if a cinematographer has rolled back a velvet curtain in your thoughts and adjusted the resolution of that view from Columbus Avenue, the traffic out on the Bay in no rush whatsoever to get anywhere in particular.

3.

You make your offerings to the gods with trembling hands, not quite sure whether or not they will be received; or if through your hesitation and reluctance to let go they will be blown clean from your grasp, as a breath of wind through the long grass passes ever so gently, touches the back of your neck, carries her words onwards.  To stand and take this moment in is to feel the world shrink; to walk the cobbled streets of Prague, shake your head in wonder at the distance you have brought her; to pause on Charles Bridge and wait for a break in the clouds to encourage you with the swans asleep on the gentle lap of the Vltava like a white flag on the water.

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