“One of my friends marveled that I retained a fine memory for my age. I explained that I have developed an elaborate system of mnemonics, and that I depend heavily on spell-check and search engines on my computer. I did not mention that I couldn’t remember her name.” — Robert Aitken Roshi
I’m sixty-six. The other day, as I was filling out a form, I couldn’t remember my Social Security number. I made a running start at it several times, but I couldn’t get past 0-1-3. I had to look it up on last year’s income tax form. To reassure myself, I recited the books of the Old Testament in order, without a pause. My great aunt paid me two dollars to learn them when I was ten; she said it would come in handy, and so it did, though not in the way she had expected.
Of course, memory loss is a normal part of aging. I bet Shakyamuni sometimes forgot where he put his bowl down in his later years. But normal or not, it’s inconvenient, even disabling. It hurts to forget what you used to remember. My mind, like my bladder, is shrinking with age so that it doesn’t hold as much at once.
I now put people in my Rolodex by their first name if I think I’m going to forget their last. (This will work as long as I can remember the alphabet.) Forgetfulness eats away at people’s names starting at the end, so that sometimes I find myself clinging to the first letter of the first name like a person at sea hanging on to a splintered piece of the mast.
My mother went through a period when she said she couldn’t remember ordinary words. She began writing them down—after she did remember them—in a little notebook that she carried around with her. Catalog. Vascular. Particle. She thought she might be able to look them up when she needed them.
Now it happens to me too: I know there’s a good word for the thing I want to say and I just can’t get hold of it. If somebody else says it, I know what it means, but I can’t seem to get it on the hook and reel it in, to put it in my . . . what do you call those wicker baskets that fishermen use?
And it’s not just words. Going through airport security recently, I left my laptop in the gray plastic bin and marched off toward the gate with an empty briefcase. Mercifully, I remembered before I boarded the plane. But next time?
I used to think I was pretty darn smart, and now I am given the opportunity to let go of that identity. I’m a different person with a different brain, but as long as I’m grasping for the mind that “I” had twenty years ago, I suffer.
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Then, too, there’s the remembering. I may not remember the last names of lots of people I know, but I remember seeing my father standing in the doorway of our apartment in Chicago, looking like a stranger in his brown army uniform and hat, silhouetted against the light from outside. I must have been about two and a half, and he was going off to the war in the Pacific.
The older you are, the more of your life is in the past, the further back it goes, and the more historical your memories become. It’s part of the job description of an older person to tell stories about the times that are gone—about what it’s like to have your father disappear into a war, for example. Or about stepping off the Greyhound bus in Biloxi, Mississippi, over forty years ago to work on voter registration, and being greeted by the sheriff saying, “Now don’t you be causing any trouble in our town, young lady.” History’s not what really happened—there’s no such thing. It’s what people remember and tell each other.
One of my heroes is the late Studs Terkel, the great oral historian. It was important to him to get people to tell their stories, because, he said, “we live in the United States of Alzheimer’s. People have forgotten their own history.”
Needless to say, I also remember terrible things, mistakes I made long ago. I remember throwing a wooden clog across the living room at a man I loved (and missing, fortunately). I remember crouching in the hall closet behind all the coats, with the door closed, so my children wouldn’t hear me weeping.
Memory is plastic. What I remember isn’t necessarily what happened, and how I remember it changes depending on my changing focus of attention.
The body memories, like how you button a button, seem to be the last to go. A longtime Dharma sister of mine has advanced Alzheimer’s and is no longer able to come to the Zen Center to practice. But she did come for a long time after she’d forgotten how to manage her life. Someone from the sangha would pick her up at home and bring her to morning zazen. She didn’t know where she was going or why or who was helping her. She had to be guided from the car to the Zen Center and helped into her priest’s robes. But once inside the zendo, the forms of her thirty-five years of practice were held in her body. I was moved to see how, during service, she was right on track, manifesting dignity and devotion. She recited the Heart Sutra from memory along with everyone else, she bowed when it was time to bow, and she exited the zendo when her turn came, greeting the abbot with a gassho on her way out. Outside the zendo she was lost again.
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It’s scary. Sometimes, driving along one of my familiar routes, I suddenly can’t remember where I’m going. Then I’m in a dark place, even in broad daylight. I keep driving, slowly, hoping I’ll remember where I’m going before I get there. So far I always have.
In the thirteenth century, Zen master Dogen wrote, “To study the Buddha way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the myriad things.” What does he mean by forgetting the self? Could forgetting my Social Security number or where I parked my car be steps in the right direction?
Once, twenty years ago, before I was “old,” I had a strange experience. I woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t remember where I was. That wasn’t the strange experience—it happens to most of us from time to time when we are traveling, as I was. But on this occasion, I couldn’t remember who I was either. The loud crack that had awakened me still rang in my ears; it might have been a door slamming in the wind or a bowl breaking in my dream, but whatever it was, I fell through that crack into a dark space of not knowing. I asked myself, Where am I? and then, shocked, Who am I? I lay in bed, waiting. For a frightening split second I didn’t know anything about who I was. I couldn’t even have told you my name. Then my eyes grew used to the dark, and I made out the window curtains. Ah! I recognized the room, in a family house by the sea, and everything, my whole impermanent life, fell into place. I wonder if that moment before the remembering is what it’s like to have severe dementia. Or is this what Dogen was talking about?
If I lose my memory, will I stop being me, or is there a me beneath the memory? Is there a look in my eye that will stay no matter what I forget? The thing is, I don’t have dementia now, so worrying about it is a distraction from being present in my life, taking good care of myself, and focusing my attention on what’s important.
I believe that Dogen is talking about forgetting self-concern, and as I grow older, I notice what an excellent time it is to practice this kind of forgetting. It’s all about letting go. I can forget about accomplishing all my ambitions—it’s too late for that. I can forget about “making something of myself,” a telling expression. Sometimes, for a moment, I taste the relief of letting this self fold gently into the next self, moment by moment, like eggs into batter.
It’s time to forget some things and remember others. As a matter of fact, the planet needs all of us human beings to remember our history and to remember our own accountability in it. History is a process that we keep on making out of the stories we tell each other about the past. Before written language, or before most people had access to written language, people had only their own brains in which to store their knowledge, and so they were much more dependent on their memories than we are today and they gave their memories more exercise. Buddha’s disciple Ananda, for example, had a particularly prodigious memory and recalled every single thing he heard Buddha say. He passed the teachings on after Buddha’s death, and for centuries the monks and nuns of the sangha recited the sutras to each other, until they were finally written down.
The printing press made shared memory available to more people, and the Internet has further democratized our cultural memory. If you forget the books of the Old Testament, you can look them up. But there are still some things that Google can’t remember for you, like where you parked the car. And the stories of your life—they aren’t on the Internet either. How was it, for example, to be sitting in bed nursing your newborn baby when you learned on the TV news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination?
Oh, by the way, it’s creel, that wicker basket for fish.