mind palace

unnamedSomething I read months ago has been a haunting refrain – “What are we without our memory?” The speaker – an author of repute – was pretty clear the answer was not much.

This bothered me since my memory is ever more lacy and moth-eaten. It is at once flat as Nebraska, oddly without drama, and then it can swoop into a valley of murky melancholic lagoons. It is a Frank Stella monochrome and then dizzingly transforms into a packed Baroque canvas, nearly tipping into the psychedelic.

My memory is not what it once was. And yet it is so much more.

My kids, now 12 and 14, remember all sorts of things from their life on earth that I don’t recall. Conversations. Movies. Meals. Birthday parties. And in my daughter’s case, snippets of her birth. Each detail they present is an enigma to me, though I have no reason to doubt them when they recall what they got for Christmas in 2005 or who where their 6th birthday party took place. Are their memories that much more vital than mine? The part of me that fears my demise thinks YES. I see their brains rosy and pumping with blood; mine is grey and draining of life.

My friend Hope, who is ahead of me on this journey, once said that our 40s are the last time in our lives when we are physically beautiful. I balk at this, and yet increasingly understand her POV. Tonight in the bathtub looking down at my body, which recalled a still from an old Frankenstein movie, I had to agree. But what about our brains? Perhaps they are becoming more beautiful – layered and full of secret passages, textured and ripe. They grow increasingly mysterious, a place we’ve decorated and rearranged for years. What does it look like in Sherlock’s Mind Palace? Is it an orderly Philip Johnson home, or is it a hodgepodge lair of a member of the Bloomsbury group?

My memory has certainly become adept at holding differing versions of the same event – the reality of unreality – in a way that my younger brain often couldn’t or would’t compute. My memory can hold joy and grief, a lie and a truth. It’s a two-fer of sorts.

Those wisps of sensation, images and sounds, smells and felt-in-the-gut emotions may be less reliable in certain ways – forgive me now if you ever want me to recall your name, oh lady in the back row in the red shirt. But oddly, they are also increasingly arriving in the Now. The past is sloughing off. The future, ever closer, is increasingly part of the present.

What are we without our memories? Perhaps we are simply here. Now. Beautifully ourselves. The house and the painting we’ve been trying to become for years. Our own unique style. Without nearly as much care for what was. And with so much reverence for what had been. All at once. Holding it in our Mind Palace lightly.

Note – This post was inspired by an article about new works by Laurie Anderson, which seem to be largely about the memory. And the Sherlock/Watson face mashup is by Bella Epstein!


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