I’ve always thought we become more ourselves as we grow old, both good and bad intensifying as the years go on. What we lose always seemed an abstraction, “sans teeth, sans hair, sans everything.” It never occurred to me that loss would occur without my knowledge, until I learned that much of the sight in my right eye had gone.
When an acquaintance sent me a May Sarton poem in response to what I wrote about that knowledge, it hit me hard, in the best of ways, and I decided to learn it by heart.
My memory has always been a tool that is easy for me to use. I knew every word in many of my Little Golden Books before I could read and song lyrics stayed with me without effort. The things I couldn’t keep with me were the extraordinary ones, and they were telling: the Confiteor, which I never completely learned, and the times tables, which I eventually and painfully did. When I took a linguistics course in my twenties, I memorized every page of notes that I’d taken for it, handing the notebook to my husband and telling him, “Stop me if I miss a word.” It was all there, I could see each sentence in my head.
So I suppose my memory was photographic. It was certainly word-centered. I could never remember during the course of a day what clothing my children had put on each morning. “If they disappear and the police ask what me to describe what were they wearing, I’ll be hopeless,” I told a friend once. My husband’s mother chalked this up to a lack of common sense; I knew it was probably more akin to brain damage. Words stayed with me, visual details not so much.
This all turned upside down in Thailand. I couldn’t read the words that surrounded me so I began to concentrate on the shapes of the letters. Bangkok’s buildings were often featureless so I fixed my attention on the small things, what was in their windows, the faces of the vendors who sold things on the nearby sidewalks, the food sold from their carts. It was a different way of mapping the world in a city where although the street signs were bilingual, their names in English were in combinations of letters that I’d never seen before. And those letters could change from block to block on the same street; spelling in English didn’t require consistency in the Thai capitol city.
When I returned to the states, I looked at the world differently. This was of course as much to do with my ripening cataract as it was to my change in attention from words to details, but I didn’t realize that. Only recently did I begin to feel annoyed at blurred signs across the street and my eyes that oddly grew tired after hours of reading.
And I forgot that the brain is a muscle. If parts are unused, they begin to lose their strength. When I began to memorize the Sarton sonnet, the words were reluctant to stay with me. What was worse was that I couldn’t conjure them up in that part of the brain that had always taken the required photograph.
At last after three days of trying, I had almost half of that sonnet with me, but recalling the words wasn’t easy. I rationalized this silently: poems are difficult because of their precision of language. There’s no room for improvising. This poem was difficult because of its subject, which is loss. The one line that resonated most, “This strange autumn, mellow and acute,” became the hardest for me to remember, even though it aptly describes my life. And I had never before tried to learn something from a computer screen.
That is the rationale that makes most sense to me. Every minute I’m looking at something on a screen; the deluge of information is instant, inexhaustible, and ephemeral. I’ve trained myself to read and forget when I turn to that source. Why worry about storing it in my memory when Google will do it for me? I read somewhere that we’ve outsourced our memories, which I believe is true—for me at least.
Just now I tried to remember Robert Frost’s verse about the end of the world. When I mentally pulled up the first lines, I saw them in my own handwriting because I’d once copied them into a notebook for a class I was teaching in Bangkok. When I remember “Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands,” I could see the rough, grainy paper that these words were printed on, the line drawing of the blacksmith, and the shape of the font that conveyed the poem. When I try to remember the Sarton poem, the visual image is the same as the words I’m typing right now, the manuscripts I’ve edited, the e-mails I’ve received for at least a decade. It’s an image so common that it’s become anonymous.
So I’m turning back to adolescence, when I memorized one hundred lines of Julius Caesar by handwriting them over and over. If I write the words of this sonnet repeatedly on paper, will I remember it? And if I repeat them to myself, or read them, before I fall asleep, will they be there in the morning” Is my memory a slackened muscle or an organ that has dissolved?
The peculiar thing is that this morning when the words didn’t fall into my brain, I typed them onto a screen. For the most part, my fingers remembered them, the way they have remembered phone numbers and ATM codes. Are we developing a new, more tactile form of memory? Before I could read, I learned my alphabet by playing with hard plastic capital letters. Learning Braille has taught people a different form of memory. Maybe in old age, we don’t need to lose. We have to rediscover.