Privilege Blog

The Red Pin Of Memory, Or, Saturday Morning at 10:01am


You all have some strong and intelligent opinions about aging. So, I thought, as a newly minted 67-year old, I might talk about my experience of my changing memory.

This feels very intimate, to discuss the inner working of my mind, but also useful for me, so thank you in advance.

A few facts.

As a teenager, I could memorize like a queen. As an indicator, I was cast in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, as Antigone, and I memorized my entire part (so many lines) in one weekend, pretty much just by reading it. Twenty years later, with young kids, and a full time job, I had begun to call myself forgetter-head so as to soften the fact that several times I forgot school commitments. But I still remembered much.

My mother died at 86 of Alzheimer’s, having lost enough memory by 80 that she needed her extended family to wear name tags at her birthday party. My father died at 91, pretty much still sharper than I am now. With my mother’s diagnosis, I began to watch myself more carefully, because we can’t know which way we will go. Here’s what I saw, and see:

  • Cooking from recipes became harder, as I couldn’t just read something through and remember. I’d have to keep looking back and forth between saucepan and cookbook, which reduced the Zen-ness, a lot.
  • Stuff like dates, appointments, little letters and numbers signifying time, if I didn’t write them down I’d forget. Even if I do write them down, I might forget if I don’t set a reminder and I get going on some task or other.
  • Habits that are so ingrained they take no cognitive capacity at all are hardest to change. If I have always done something one way, and I decide to do it another, I may forget my new intent 2/5 of the time.
  • Back in my job as a salesperson (selling contracts for the delivery of liquid nitrogen to semiconductor manufacturers, what a life!) I discovered I could do sums in my head. After high school pre-calculus, as one of only two girls, both mocked, this was a secret gold medal. Now, as I age, it gets harder to hold the various decimal registers in my mind (thousands, hundreds, ones) without writing them down.

And here’s what I believe is happening:

  • Old habits stick because it’s very hard to overwrite what I learned young. Sometimes if I’m not paying attention I even put cooking spoons in the drawer where they went 20 years ago. The body remembers, as they say, and autopilot is hard to turn off.
  • The smaller the unit of memory, the harder it is to hold. Numbers, letters, very hard. Words, tricky. Phrases, easier. Images, and sounds, high resolution as they are, easiest.
  • It sometimes feel not as though I forget things, but as though they never entered my memory in the first place. I write that in bold because it’s such a strange and vivid perception. I have always been if anything too porous. To find now that information might pull up to my thinking machinery and find no purchase on its surface is astonishing.

So here’s what I’m doing:

  • Only thing of note, really. I work on adding weight to that which I must remember. I embellish my commitments; I envision them. When I want to remember numbers, I say them out loud and the sound makes them stickier. Finally, sometimes when I want to try remembering something without computer reminders, I imagine that I am sticking that thing–that fact, that idea, that commitment–into my actual brain with a imaginary red pushpin. Which sounds brutal but doesn’t feel so. It’s like puncturing the skin of stubborn time, if time were a bubble, refracting. (I didn’t say this would make sense).
  • Also I do the other stuff we already know of from a million internet articles: Beans and greens vs. steak and fries, less and less alcohol, more and more exercise, keep learning, stay connected, focus on the positive parts of getting older. That information is readily available. I have found far fewer accounts of aging from inside still capable minds.

So I am very curious to hear your experience of memory, if you are inclined to share. We inhabit our beings, but spend much of our youthful capacity coping, and caring for others, and getting by. Now we might have time to more deeply observe how we ourselves function. I am happy to do so in your company, to the extent which it might interest you.

Have an extraordinary weekend.


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