Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Losing My Mind

Sacchi Green

Don’t worry, I have plenty of mind left, and my memory in general is okay (as far as I know.)

But I lose words these days, and for the last couple of years, as though they were marbles rolling merrily away under couches, or even sitting taunting me in plain sight, except that I can’t see them except as fleeting glimpses out of the corner of my eye. Words, especially names, are playing hide-and-seek in my brain.

Not all words, of course. I have lots of words, plenty of words, and they’re the best words, that I can tell you. And they don’t disappear for good. Usually they come back and behave perfectly well, at least for a while. Sometimes they come back on their own, usually not while I’m agonizing over why I cant remember them, but a little later, when I’m doing something else entirely. Or when I give up and look them up online, since I can always think of some context where they're sure to appear.  

A few are repeat offenders,  and I have to make up odd associations to bring them to the surface. The first time I remember doing this was for the name of a flowering plant, one I know perfectly well; cyclamen. Somewhere I’d seen the term “cyclamen pink” to describe a certain color, and now, if I’m trying to remember the plants’s name, I think “pink, that's it, cyclamen pink,” even though the flowers can range from white to deep burgundy. An odder link I use is for the useful bedding plant fpr shady areas, hosta. It makes no sense that I often can’t remember the word, but it makes even less sense that I can get there by remembering a sentient life form made of stone, from a Star Trek episode: the Horta. I can remember “Horta” and get to “hosta” from there.

It really doesn’t matter whether I can remember those plant names, or so many names of actors and actresses I’ve known well for years but can’t bring to the surface when I see them in old movies or TV. I’m pretty sure lots of people have trouble remembering those names. It’s worse when the lost names are those of people I know in real life (especially when they’re standing right in front of me,) or have known and want to discuss with others. What really shakes me up is when suddenly I can’t remember important words. Like “metaphor.” How could I not remember that word? Didn’t I use it just yesterday, or even today? I lay awake in the early morning a couple of days ago trying to sneak up on it. Simile. Alliteration. Onomatopoeia. Um…hyperbole. (That one almost got away.) All those fine words about words. But no luck, until the next day “metaphor” casually popped up in something I happened to be reading. So far it hasn’t slipped away again, so I guess I don’t need to figure out some—what’s that word? “Mnemonic? I’ll have to look it up.

On a more serious note, (not that I don’t realize the potential seriousness of losing words—is it a first step to something much worse?) I’ve been reflecting lately on a different kind of loss. I spend quite a bit of time these days in the house and town where I grew up, where my elderly father still lives and needs my help. I was there today, in fact. Sometimes I feel as though I’m meeting my own ghost there, or rather the ghost of who I used to be. I’ve been combing through family photographs to find some old ones of my father and his slightly younger brother who died last week. I’m taking the pictures I find to a memorial service for him this weekend. In the course of this, I’m finding, or revisiting, many photos of myself at different ages, which reinforces my feeling of having had different identities at different times, and different prospects and expectations. The person I see in the mirror at the end of the hall in that house both is and isn’t the person I used to see there. In a way this might be something gained, not lost, an accumulation of experience and knowledge and memories, maybe even a smidgeon of wisdom. But what’s really lost, or feels lost, is the sense of a limitless future.

I don’t really think I’m losing my mind, and certainly not my imagination, but I can’t help wishing that I could be both my current self and the selves I was in some of those photographs, even though memory tells me that I didn’t feel at any of those times that I was at the ideal time of life. Far from it.

Maybe there’s a word for that feeling, something like nostalgia, but not quite. If there is a word, well, I seem to have forgotten it.      


  1. Great piece, Sacchi.

    I love your clever mnemonics.

    And I can really relate to the feeling of having had "different identities at different times." I've been very conscious, on numerous occasions, of feeling some of the things I'd built my sense of identity from turning obsolete or withering away. And then where are you (I ask myself)? (Or, to be more accurate, now who are you? (:v>) Ever since I was a teen (or maybe even a kid), self-conceptualizing my identity was very important to me; but as I entered adulthood and ceased to find some of the "go to" elements of my identity (e.g., successful student, or practitioner of the religion I had by then abandoned) relevant or adequate in defining "who I was," it became more complicated. Also, to me, "identity" became something much more personal than just a Census-style roster of my demographical data, and consequently something much more elusive. [I have written quips on this general topic repeatedly, by the way: "When I’m feeling short on identity, I throw on more personality." "I’ve tried to forge my own identity. But it can be so hard to get the ingredients some days." "I have an identity crisis roughly every 17 minutes. I recommend it, actually. It really clears out the sinuses."]

    I can’t help wishing that I could be both my current self and the selves I was in some of those photographs.

    That's a very interesting wish! I can see the appeal.

    1. I can see the appeal.

      For someone else, that is. Personally, I'm pretty bored of my past selves by now (and the present one is starting to get on my nerves, I must confess).

  2. From what I've read, as we age, our brains get more crowded with memories and experiences we remember. Something has to "give", in order for us to be able to function in day-to-day reality. So some things are relegated to what I refer to as "back rooms filled with file cabinets." I picture memory as a hallway with doors on both sides, each one with a year you were alive. Walk through the door and you see pictures on the wall, which are your first memories of that year, or what you think of when someone asks, say, "What were you doing in 1970?" There are file cabinets, one for each month of the year. In the cabinet are drawers, one for each week. And in the drawers are files holding daily memories you've placed there for safe keeping. It's not that you don't remember them anymore, but you have no need for them, and the files grow dusty with disuse.

    I also think that as we get really old, the memories that make us feel good are the rooms we will visit regularly, to remember back when our bodies worked, we felt optimistic and healthy, and life was all ahead of you...rather than all behind you. That's why some elderly can tell you the smells, sounds, sights and feelings of a day when they were in their 30s, even though it was over 60 years ago. But they can't remember what they had for breakfast that day.

    I can't imagine being someone like Marilu Henner, who claims she actively remembers every event of her life, no matter how small and insignificant, since her birth. I'm glad that there are huge swaths of time that I don't easily recall. There are some that I still feel guilty about, 30+ years later, that I wish I could forget. But the minutia of everyday life is mostly dull and repetitive. We have long periods of boredom, occasionally broken up by momentous events, either bad or good, that stick out in our minds for a long time...maybe forever.

    For me personally, names have always been a big problem. I joke that I have a Teflon surface where I write names, since I forget them by the next time I meet that person, even if it's just an hour later. I've tried to do better, but the only thing that has ever worked, is to put some kind of memory-trick into my head to remember. There is a woman I see at one of my jobs, probably 4 days a week. I finally remembered her name, by associating it with the scene in "Young Frankenstein" with Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman, where the doctor asks "Eye-gore" whose brain he just put into the monster. Igor say, "Abby, someone. Abby-normal." Yes, the woman's name is Abbe, and now I remember it. I told her what I use to remember her name and she just laughed and said, "As long as it works, use it."

  3. I hear you, Sacchi. Even years ago, I began using mnemonic devices to remember things, such as the last 4 digits of my home phone number: 1714. When this was first assigned to me, I thought it sounded like a historical date. By skimming through my handy reference book about the kings & queens of England, I discovered that Queen Anne died in 1714. Voila! The names of students are a whole other can of worms. I've been assigned 3 classes for September 2017, & each class has a maximum of 40 students. At least in the first week, the classes will be filled because they're mandatory for most students. When I see them after class, I'll have to rely on the old formula: "I'm sorry, I know you're in my 9:30 (or 10:30 or 11:30, etc.) class, but I can't remember your name." The millennial student will probably think I'm old and creaky, but that's nothing new.

  4. I would vote for a national law requiring name tags. Saves all that embarrassment, such as at reunions or remembering people you do business with. Used for nefarious dealings, if somebody wanted to get away with something, he could wear somebody else's name tag. A guy could confuse the cops that way. :>)

    Seriously, though, when I would do shows as an atique art dealer, remembering names was useful when the client spends tens thousand with you. You should at least remember their names.

  5. "something like nostalgia, but not quite"

    I've been thinking about this, too - something in the air, maybe? I always found nostalgia a mostly pleasurable experience. It's a bit of pressing the bruise, but mostly it feels good to me and I experience it as rediscovering things that brought me joy in the past. But I've had a different feeling recently of wishing I could inhabit and embody an old self, and it seems akin to what you're describing. If you find a good word for it, let me know!

  6. Your description of words rolling under the couch like marbles fits my experience exactly.

    I've learned to bring the words back (sometimes at least) by retrieving related concepts--sort of raising the general activation level in the brain area where the missing term would normally be found. (Can you tell I majored in psychology?) Often, though not always, this works.

    Then, of course, there's the thesaurus. And the Internet, reference of last resort.

    It's scary, though, to find myself losing control of what has always so defined my identity. As Jeremy says, how we see and define ourselves MUST change with time... Often in my dreams I am still the young sex goddess who's now gone forever. Will the spinner of tales disappear as well?


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