Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Fire and Ice, Memory and Forgetting

Fire and Ice, Memory and Forgetting
I came across this fragment of someone else's life in the icy snows of Wingra Park on one of the coldest day of the year. It had been touched by fire (perhaps someone had been burning papers in the fireplace, and this little piece flew up the chimney), and now it lay frozen in the snow.

First I thought it said "Mt Remembering," which led me to imagine some huge snow-capped mountain of memories stacked as high as the eye could see, but that didn't make much sense, and looking more closely, I saw that it said "Not Remembering."

When we come across notes that have been discarded or lost by other people, they usually raise more questions than they answer; this was no exception, and it came with its a paradox of its own: Usually we write notes to remind ourselves of something, in order not to forget. But why write a note to remember "not remembering"? And why write it on both sides of the paper, as indicated by the faint reverse lettering? And why "not remembering" instead of simply "forgetting"? Is there a difference, and if so, what? It's a mystery, as are so many things about memory and forgetting.

"I can't remember" means different things to different people. For some, forgetting something is a momentary irritation -- wait a moment, and it will some back. For others, the loss of memory is connected with a profound struggle to preserve a sense of self. Most of us are somewhere in between the extremes, and we negotiate our own tradeoffs between memory and forgetting, writing down the reminders we need, and letting go what we don't need. Nobody can remember everything. And again, some can remember very little.

"Forgetting It All" is the title of a powerful essay in the NYT by Floyd Skloot, a poet and author and father of best-selling science writer Rebecca Skloot. A viral attack 25 years ago devastated his memory centers, abstract reasoning capability and sense of structure -- all qualities that would seem vital to a writer. And yet he has not only coped, but had a productive career as a writer in the years since his illness. His account makes fascinating reading, and we can all learn from it. I love his closing lines:

Since I can’t assume I’ll remember anything, I must live fully in the present. Since I can’t assume my experience will cohere, I must prize its fragmentation. Since I can’t fix or escape my damaged brain, I must learn to be at peace with it. And since I can’t assume I’ll master anything I do, I must let go of mastery as a goal and seek harmony instead.

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