When Memory Doesn’t Speak

Several months ago I began writing a piece based on memories from a long ago journey I took. I decided I wanted to write strictly from memory, and not consult the journals I kept during my travels. It’s challenging, it’s interesting, and it’s fun even though I don’t know if most of what I’m writing is what really happened or something I made up, or something I’m making up even as I write.

But there’s another way I’ve been dealing memory lately that’s not so much fun. Rather it’s a familiar, um, challenge for many my age. The loss of facts. What is the name of that flower? Where did we have dinner two weeks ago, that place we loved? What is my cousin’s name, the one who lives in Idaho and I haven’t seen since we were ten years old?

Sometimes, seemingly out of the blue, I can’t remember the names of movies, or books, or authors, or even old friends. It’s embarrassing when I’m teaching, frustrating when I’m chatting with friends, and maddening when I’m writing.

This is from my journal, three days ago:

“Dammit! I can’t remember Camille’s cat’s name. The male. There’s Halcyon and there’s ____________. Not Spunky, that was a cat from a time back when. The cat whose name I can’t remember is that tuxedo that was the runt of the litter who grew up big and fat and who likes his naps.

A fat black and white cat relaxing confident the ground on a brown wood floor

Not Shorty. Not Smoky. Not Spunky.

“And the harder I try to remember, the more tense I become. My brain is getting all twisted up and cramped. My whole body responds; I can feel the tension. I’m chewing my lower lip.

Not Snooker or Snooky or Snookums.

“Is this how it feels to Alzheimer’s victims? Only more and all the time? This painful brain racking.

Sooty? Sorcerer? Serendipity?

“I imagine some mind midget, some tiny elf of a worker inside my brain, slamming open file cabinets and rifling through words and images, memories of that old fatty, sitting patiently by his bowl in the kitchen, thinking maybe if he just sits and stares at it, it will magically be filled. The heavens will open and tuna will appear.

Sidney? Stanley? Sammy?

“Beside me on the table where I write my iPad dings. A reminder from iCal of my 9:30 appointment. ‘Traffic is light,’ it says, ‘leave by 9:05.’

“I imagine a little ding like that will go off when I finally remember Camille’s cat’s name. I may be deep in writing today’s memories of Greece which is where I am in the piece I’m working on, allowing images and memories to come as they will and writing what I remember and what I believe I remember, not knowing which actually happened and which I am making up, or confusing from another journey, because that’s what the mind will do—

Serengeti. Spoleto. Spumoni

“— hand me words, names, images, places. That agitated, overworked little memory elf, eye shade askew, fingers bleeding, tossing out file after file, trying to come up with the correct answer because that’s its job.

“It tries Spunky again. Spunky, the beautiful smoky gray cat that Camille had for years, the two of us smuggling him into a no-pets-allowed apartment in San Francisco. Spunky who ran away from home and took up residence next door when Camille brought home another Corgi.

“But this cat, the one whose name still eludes me and my memory elf, this cat is probably snoozing in a patch of sunlight on comfy bed in St. Petersburg unaware of me, a continent away, struggling to remember his name. I must gather myself and my things for my date at writer’s camp where I’ll open my notebook and let memories of sailing in a small boat with five strangers from Tinos to Kea or some island whose name I don’t remember now, and maybe on the way to the cafe, while I’m listening to the news on NPR and hoping for light traffic as my iPad promised, the name of Camille’s cat will come to me. Or maybe I’ll simply forget I can’t remember it.

This ever happened to you? Do you have any memory tricks?

Writer’s Challenge #32: Describing the Effects of Emotion on a Character’s Face

We all know it: eyes can’t fill, can’t tear up, can’t water or leak; tears can’t roll down cheeks, or flood, or track. Lips can’t quiver, tongues can’t get tied, color can’t drain from faces. We can’t freeze and especially we can’t freeze like “a deer caught in the headlights.” Our mouths daren’t drop open, nor our jaws. We can raise our eyebrows, but we best not furrow our brows.

Oh! all the cliches we can’t write, and most especially we can’t write them when our characters are experiencing those Big Emotions. You know, the ones our writing group tells us we must “show” our characters experiencing, rather than just telling about it.

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Memories Held by the Senses

Body memories: the first crackling fire of fall when images of that time at the cabin in the mountains arise like the catch of flame. The old, familiar scent of Chantilly dusting powder, and there is Grandmother in her Sunday dress with its jet-black buttons. That song on the radio, and in comes the memory of love’s first dance and its bittersweet farewell.

Tango arms

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