Amnesty for Amnesia

We have all been deeply schooled in the value of “letting go.”  My Centering Prayer group talks often about “letting go and letting God.”  “Consider the lilies,” says Jesus in answer to two questions about anxiety: “… which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest?”  OK, right. “Letting go” is also a pervasive theme in Buddhist meditative practice; I cannot tell you how many dharma talks I have heard on the necessity of letting be and letting go.  “If you let go a little you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace,” says Ajahn Chah, and I believe him.  The problem is that I still have not been able to let go the of big things, while I am “letting go” of little things constantly.  And I don’t like it.

I let go of small things all the time – mostly names, but sometimes words.  I also let go of objects (reading glasses) or the reason why I walked into the kitchen. The most strange and aggravating thing about these little “forgettings,” these “senior moments,” is that I know the word or answer is buried somewhere in the folds of my grey matter, from whence it eventually surfaces – long after the moment when I need it.  Sometimes it teases me – I can remember that the name starts with an “S” (Sara?  Sally?) but still cannot produce the correct name when we meet up in the grocery store.  It is like when you wake up at the tail end of a dream – you try to grasp it but… it’s gone.  And then, while you are brushing your teeth and not standing in front of a woman trying to remember her name, the answer floats back into your consciousness.  “Stacy,” you say to yourself, “that woman’s name is Stacy.  Where was that name when I needed it?”  Where indeed?

These are small lapses, but it is not an inconsequential matter to me.  My mother spent her last years in a nasty sort of dementia, so every time my brain fumbles, I start to hyperventilate.

It bothered Elizabeth Bishop too, but she turned her lapses into the wonderful poem, “One Art“:

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

Losing things is an art; it’s going to happen, so we might as well get better at it, “accept the fluster.”  Bishop’s poem is bittersweet, pairing the need for acceptance with the letting go of keys, names, places, and the grief over things that are permanently gone.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Philip Larkin seems to take the letting go of memory as a blessing; the past is what gets in the way of future happiness.  Funny and cynical, in “The Winter Palace” he longs for the peace of an empty mind:

And [I] am starting to give offence by forgetting faces
And swearing I’ve never been in certain places.

It will be worth it, if in the end I manage
To blank out whatever it is that is doing the damage.

Then there will be nothing I know.
My mind will fold into itself, like fields, like snow.

Billy Collins at least has a sense of humor about it:

It is as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones. (from “Forgetfulness”)

Amnesia and amnesty both come from the Greek word amnestia – meaning oblivion, or forgetting.  Amnesia means “complete or partial memory loss” and amnesty means “a general pardon for offenses.”  Now, it is somewhat paradoxical that I have been working hard at “letting go” for years, and yet – when my brain is ready to part with something, albeit something as trivial as where I hid the extra key, I panic.  Silly.  And, I have been assured that these minor memory lapses are rarely a prelude to true dementia (from the Latin dementia, meaning “out of one’s mind”), which is defined as a condition characterized by progressive, persistent, severe impairment of intellectual capacity. Some self-amnesty for amnesia is in order. Clearly, I need to pair Bishop’s advice about learning the art of losing (“it isn’t hard to master”) with Larkin’s assurance that the less cluttered my mind is, the better.  And add a dash of Collins’ humor.  I just wish I could choose what my mind lets go of.  There’s some stuff I would really like to get rid of, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

I have written several other blogs on letting go and memory – if you are interested in the topic you might try “Whispered Words of Wisdom” or “Dementia, Creativity, and Forgetfulness.”

One thought on “Amnesty for Amnesia

  1. The best instruction stands on three feet. Today’s poetic trinity was a very good lesson indeed. May we all visit Billy’s village while the sun shines and the full moon illuminates, and may the experience guide us into the journey forward.


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