Some quotations seem to choose us. Surreptitiously they slink into to the memory and remain without apparent effort to retain them. Most likely they glom on to something important in the unconscious. For me, a poem by Wordsworth represents such an entity. I don’t remember ever having made an effort to memorize it. Yet, it has remained with me for many years.
And oft’ when on my couch I lie
in vacant or pensive mood.
They flash across that inner eye
which is the bliss of solitude.
The poet tells of a specific memory. In verse he recalls a past event where he found himself amidst a field of daffodils. The recalled experience thrilled him. In memory he was actually reliving the past with all of its attendant emotions. In describing his experience the poet seems to be delivering a broader message. He is extolling the power that memory has to enrich and define us.
The labyrinths of memory create and shape who we are. Of trillions of events that we experience only a very few are captured for subsequent recall. Those that are retained re-enforce our identity. Unlike the precision of a photo, memories are edited and fashioned to conform to the image we have of ourselves. The process begins at a very early age. Psychologists have determined that many, if not most, of very early childhood memories are pure creations of the neurologically immature mind. They call them screen memories. At the other end of the life spectrum aging people construct their memories to portray themselves in a more heroic light. Their fish stories become more exaggerated. A little imagination often augments the adventures of the past. In their narrative elderly persons display a need to make their stay on this planet more meaningful. At times the very process of recall seems defective. As a psychiatrist I have often heard family members narrate a family occurrence with versions so disparate that they hardly seemed to be talking about the same event.
I hear young people complain that grandpa only talks about the past. Often this is true. For many geezers little is happening in the present. This is especially true of physically active types of events. In contrast, a rich trove of treasure awaits to be excavated from their past. As I indicated in a previous blog my infirmities have forced me to be more sedentary and those exciting things like scuba, hiking etc are past. However, through books, television, movies and my computer I can engage in a very active life vicariously. In memory I can be on the Grand Canal or under the Bridge of Sighs. Mementos of native artifacts transport me to jungles of New Guinea or to the high Veldt of Africa.
Recently I experienced a memory so vivid that it bordered upon deja-vu. The actual event occurred when mount Pinatubo was erupting in the Philippines. Volcanic ash in the upper atmosphere transformed the sunset into a pool of blood. I can still remember the elation of catching an eighty pound catfish. Also the intense stench resides in my memory. Approximately thirty yards away lay the massive carcass of a rotting Hippo. However, the remains of the dead animal were barely visible. Covering almost every inch of the hippo’s surface were dozens of slithering crocodiles ripping and tearing on the decaying flesh. The rouge of the dying sun cast an infernal hue on the scene. In a sense it seemed reminiscent of Dante’s inferno.
At times I question my memories, especially when they seem extraordinary and unusual. I question whether I am exaggerating in my minds eye. Just a few days ago I watched a nature program. The television production dealt with a dead hippo. Indeed, swarming and writhing over the carcass were dozens of feasting reptiles. Viewing the program unleashed a flood of memories. In reality I have thousands of stories that transport me to former times. They are a source of great amusement.