Memory – who I am, and am not

Thinking about memory today.

I no longer really have one as I have mentioned once before (although I don’t think you grasp how extreme that issue actually is) – no episodic, no long term, limited computational short term. I am almost what Oliver Sacks calls a Humean Being after Hume’s chimera of fully present flux cut off from experience and thus unable to learn from it.

Recently Steve helped me convert my scrapbook (moldy) to an Elaine safe format. Wall poster. Sealed in plastic. There are photos, concert tickets, plane tickets, drawings, cards, and opera programs. There was a good deal more set aside for later as well. Another frame when we have more time.

Mexico, Canada, Belize, Saint Louis, Michigan, Virginia Beach and thousands of other cities I visited during my nomad days, bits of time in paper and glue, photos of me with long hair, short, no hair, bandaged head.

And I remember none of it. I do not connect with any of it. At all. It’s a thing hanging on my wall. It might as well be one of those utterly sanitized prints one can buy for one’s office.

I was going to throw the whole sketchbook away, but Steve would not let me. He refuses to believe that it does not mean anything to me now. He thinks of those things as my treasures. He wants them preserved.

And he was disturbed to see me standing in front of the finished product reading the tickets and shaking my head. I’ve seen Madame Butterfly twice in Asheville. Really? Flown to Belize? Who is this guy in this picture? Robert without his mustache? And that is Cherrill Milnes? Kristie sent me a card with an Emerson quote?

I just found the whole thing depressing and I was going to throw the framed mess away but Steve would not let me do that either. He says I may want it again someday.

Well, yes, I believe in neuroplasticity and in partial neurological recovery but unless the neurolyme is killed then the damage will at best remain the same and at worse, grow worse. As it is I am the White Queen running endlessly to tea.

Oddly enough I fare a bit better with my “thing” collection. In all my travels I picked up a rock, a chunk of concrete, a shell, a cartridge from a gun, a glass bead or a feather. I still do it. And I can tell you where each and every one of those came from, when I picked it up, and what was happening in that moment.

Pictures of the Puget Sound bring me nothing, but the barnacled oyster shell was picked up on a day there when Kristina and I were walking the beach and were surprised by a sudden thunderous downpour, her red cardigan drenched in an instant; I loaned her my leather jacket and was drenched in seconds myself. I remember the rough bark beneath my hands, as we scrambled over deadfalls of pine and cypress as the tide rose and I remember how we made the pier just before we would have ended up swimming. The water smell of the Sound and the sky blended to make a scent that I have not smelled before or since and the air was a mist so thick that it was water itself but somehow still less opaque than fog, The oyster shell sat on one of the posts along the pier and each barnicle pit held a rainbow droplet of water. I picked it up almost as an after thought and dried it on the deck after the rain while Jeremy burned his steaks on the grill and Monica and I spoke of cancer and Lyme and the fear of death.

And each item can do that. Can put me back in that place and in that time where it was collected. But nothing else can. Not words, not photos, not the few odd home videos. Those are like seeing strangers.

So what is memory for me then – a mixture of touch and scent and visual cues that circumvent the temporal lobes, especially the left one?

And who am I to the person who knows me from a cruise that I do not remember taking? The friend from high school who sat right behind me and who I have no memory of whatever? Who am I too myself when someone asks me to tell them of my life – something that is no longer mine as I no longer possess it, at least not in the sense they mean?

I have been accused of lying about my travels, or worse of being shit insane when Steve shows the doubter the pictures he has of us, but which still offer no story to me. People do not believe me, which is very hurtful sometimes, but perhaps less harmful than the fact that I frequently -and with evidence before me – do not believe myself.

And how am I to learn from experience when I do not remember the experiences? Not even those that happened a moment ago?

How can one grow, as humans do, by accretion of memory, of skill, of knowledge, when one’s mind is finest teflon?

Who am I when my closest friends are strangers and when I have family or friends over I scan their Facebook pages for hints of appearance and of what tastes we might have in common? When I do not recognize my mentor, my “father” or my spouse?

Who am I then?

And why do I continue this farce of living?

Well, there are the things I can touch, there are reference books, and calendars, and there is the way Steve moves when combing his hair. There is the scent of the Sound. There is music and the taste of baked salmon. There is the purring cat on my lap. There are gorgeous works of art. There is in short the world, in the here and now, in the place where the Buddhists say the soul lives.

There is mindfulness which is not the same as intelligence – though I still have that as well – there is the wind on my face, the sun on my back, the laughter of that beloved friend which is etched on my heart.

This does not mean that I do not despair. I do. And often.

But then sometimes, when Steve and I are snuggled tightly together, full, freshly showered and warm, there are times when I forget the despair.

For this I am grateful.

For this, I can live.

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