by Kerry Cue
The poem ‘Forgetfulness’ by Billy Collins is one of my all time favourite poems. I first heard it in the car and had to stop the car to listen. I found it hilarious and gloriously lyrical and true to the human condition all at once. You will find the full poem – it’s very short – here.
As I had to lead a workshop on poetry at a recent conference, I started the workshop by reading this poem. The workshop participants, all in the forties and fifties, had one answer.
‘It’s about Alzheimer’s’ they said.
Only one other participant saw the poem as I saw it.
“I thought it was about me’ she said.
And this had me thinking about our perceptions of memory and aging. We protect ourselves from the ‘horrors’ of aging by seeing the OLD as THEM and, naturally, we are US. This keeps us safe. We aren’t like them. Our memories are fine. Maybe, the odd ‘senior’s moment’.
Memory is, has always been, something of a major building project. We collect bric-a-brac and build memories. Then we rebuild these memories, often shoddily, every time we think of them. We neglect some memories. How many of us over 60 can remember how to do a cartwheel, say, or sing Psalm 23, the Psalm you sang in the church you used to go to as a child. Hint: Sheep are involved. Now it is irrelevant to many Australians. Only 8% of us are regular churchgoers.
So memory is not something that is all there or all gone. It is a building site you wander around in work clothes constantly repairing, retrieving, and completely rebuilding when necessary. Some areas are difficult to access. There is a pathway, but where? Often you are peering into the dark. Some memories fade, decay because they never have the light of thought shone upon them. Other memories seem so new, so sparkling, so complete; you stand back and watch them in awe. Other memories are both hidden and dangerous. There should be warning lights, but there are none. Suddenly you are there and the pain is real.
I wrote three books about my childhood when I was in my thirties. Exercising my memory everyday for months, I could recall every cupboard in our kitchen and every object in those cupboards. I could hear my parents speak. How accurate were those memories? Who knows? But they were vivid. Brilliantly vibrant memories.
It is not just the old or demented who forget. We all remember. We all forget.
Or as Billy Collins wrote:
‘and even now as you memorise the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.