The Outrageously Overrated Act of Remembering

Summer memories

I was never good at remembering names. This isn’t new. Through thirty years of teaching college, some students’ names stuck; either from their attendance in multiple classes or their outstanding work, or, of course, from throwing desks and calling me an asshole. Still, even with students sitting in front of me two or three days a week for sixteen weeks, the names remained allusive. Face? No problem.

Numbers, also, no problem. I remember all the phone numbers I’ve ever had; license plate numbers, even an old friend’s social security number—it just stuck. It must be a different part of the brain; or, more likely, interest. No offense to the college-age kids but I never had a reason to remember their names. I taught, we talked, I read their papers, we talked some more, I turned in their grades and they moved on. So did my mind.

I guess I was distracted. Yes, that is it. I was distracted. After all, through those years I had incredible numbers of students, credit hours, a son, a house, writing projects, extensive travel; so of course I only filed away information my brain deemed necessary for future use. Besides, all the information retreats to yesterday quite quickly. I learned to live in the day, focus on the moment. Isn’t that good? I think that is good.

Small things, though, stand out as blank spots. I can never remember what you call the matting for a frame. For some reason, “matting” is just out of reach. And I am absolutely certain I ate dinner last night but please do not ask what it was. Salad I think. Yes, salad. I’ll go with salad.

A friend posted a meme which read, “I’m more likely to remember song lyrics from the eighties than why I walked into the kitchen just now.” Man is that so true. Lyrics relentlessly stick to my brain, but not items I’ve read. I’m rereading a book from my youth, Dove, about Robin Lee Graham’s solo voyage around the world. I’ve read it a half dozen times, but each time there are parts I completely forgot as if someone added them later. This is normal, a friend tells me. But he’s old and he is just projecting, I believe.

In his later years, my father had aphasia, where you simply can’t recall a particular word, though you know exactly what it is you want to say (like the matting problem I have). I read recently in an article that stress, major changes in life, and even raised blood pressure or bad diet can affect retention and recall. But, and I’m not trying to be funny here, I can’t remember what journal that was in. So somewhere it says in a place I can’t readily recall that my not recalling that very thing is normal for the way my last year has been. The thing is, this year is going swimmingly, and I read the piece this year. So does that mean that part of the brain was already gone? I have no idea.

Well, to be honest, I hope so. There’s so much I remember which is already enough to be grateful for in a hundred lives. I remember my first slurpee at the 711 in Massapequa Park on Long Island when I was barely more than a toddler. And I remember nearly every inch of Heckscher State Park out on the Great South Bay. And Eddie. And Steve. And Captain Cooey who sat in a wheel chair at the other end of Church Road and told me about his days as a tug boat captain in the twenties. And these memories are very visual; I have a better memory for things I see than things I read. Again, the senses dominate my recall. 

I remember summers mostly, and nearly every single day I have spent with my son. I remember the visceral experience of walking The Way, and the people, and the towns and food, though I need to look up the names of some villages. I recall the dates we walked through each of the places, no problem. And crossing Siberia is etched in my memory, though I’m fuzzy about some details. I could list the fine memories of my life for a thousand blogs and never get it all down. For some reason I can better recall things which have ceased happening (or people who are no longer with us) with more accuracy than the persistent events or people still in my life.

But…

I was going through some files of mine of previously published work for an anthology and I found some I don’t remember writing. I mean, the style is mine, the digression, and according to the bi-line and bio, I wrote the damn things. But, well, I must have been listening to some music.

I don’t mind forgetting; it helps me prioritize things in my life. I have one friend I remember every single moment together; another I can barely recall knowing at all. I just left a job after nearly three decades and it seems more like a character in a movie I once watched.

I took one of those memory tests and I passed. I think. And I have an incredible sense of direction. I need only travel somewhere once and for some reason for years I can recall exactly how to get there. But sometimes a student will say, “Did you get my email?” and I can’t remember if I did, what it might have said, or who the hell she is to begin with to be able to answer. Someone once said I have “Selective Memory.” Perhaps. Most of my life has been chiseled down to the simplest form of being, and I prefer it that way. When I walk in nature, along the ocean or through paths, I remain completely present. I have no need to remember, or plan for that matter. My son knows the names of all the birds and trees; I don’t, and it must frustrate him that I keep asking the names over and over. I don’t even know why I ask, as if at some point it will “take.” It won’t.

I can remember things if I can touch them, if I can feel it on my skin and under my fingers. I can remember things if they bring my senses to life, if they stimulate my enthusiasm for being alive and make me thank all the powers that be that I am living and breathing at that moment. I can remember things if remembering is all I have left, when the desire to pick up the phone is quickly followed by the realization someone is gone, and then it is quickly followed by sharp recollections of conversations and laughter, the way we planned or hoped or absorbed each other. I am glad for that.

I learned recently through my brother of something called “Muscle Memory.” I am sure the brain does the same thing; we’ve long known that repetition aids recollection. Maybe that’s my issue: I simply have no need to remember most of the minutia, the passing deluge of the common occurrences. But when something stimulates my brain, it grabs hold, and later I can at least salvage the finer moments of my life. And to be honest, how many fine memories does one need? I’ve decided if I can keep track of five fine memories as I grow older, I’d already be a lucky man. The balance of this, of course, is the five bad memories that must remain as well.

It is interesting how all ten of those events can be so related.

I remember when a bolt went into my son’s skull; I remember how brave he was as they stitched his head. I remember a summer of blisters covering my feet; I remember when we climbed the Pyrenees together. I remember the unparalleled excitement of a friend’s plans to travel; I remember how he never came home.

I remember how excited I was to finally graduate from college; I remember the finest days of my life were at college.

I remember the last conversation with my father; I remember the last conversation with my father.

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