On the (persistent) making of memories
Here’s a question for old people like us: Why are we still going to such trouble to store up more memories? After all, they can’t last long, can they?
I’m not referring to the forgetfulness of the aged. This isn’t a veiled allusion to the onset of dementia. No, I’m just facing chronology. The truth is, both Joy and I reached our biblical threescore and ten years long ago. The road stretches out long when we look behind us; looking ahead, we’re about to run out of pavement.
What, then, are we up to with this incessant moving about, this rush to cram more and more adventures into a lifetime already overflowing with them?
It’s about memories, isn’t it?
We are what we remember. When they leave us (and the statistics aren’t friendly: if our bodies are around in our 80s, there’s a 50-50 chance our minds won’t still be with us) we not only won’t remember much, we won’t even know who we are.
So does it pay us to be greedily soaking up new sights and sounds and smells at our age? Why don’t we relax, for heaven’s sake, and savor the memories we already have?
It’s a fair question, because this incessant accumulating of memories is what travel is all about, isn’t it? When our children were still at home, we traipsed them off to exotic places all over the world: Israel, Mexico, Germany, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, the United States. Our motive? To enlarge their world, to strengthen the ties that bind us together, and, simply, to store up memories. We had an advantage over many other middle-class parents, most of whom couldn’t afford the fares. Our travels, though, were for the most part work-related. Among other things, I led tours so I could earn their tickets. Attending conventions, part of my job description as a pastor, was a good opportunity to pack up the kids to visit unfamiliar places. So we hit the road—or the seas or the air—and explored strange and wondrous places. We still return to those places in our reminiscences.
The children have been out of the nest for decades now. Yet their mother and I are still traveling, still absorbing, still marveling over what we have never experienced before—still adding to our memory bank.
But here’s the kicker. As I said above, the memory bank is really a ticking time bomb. The fuse is steadily getting shorter and shorter. Before much longer (how much longer, at 78 and 75?) the spark will hit the powder. End of memories.
We know that. We are almost brutally realistic about time’s inexorable march toward that moment when for us “time shall be no more.” Ah, yes, we look beyond here to there, to that next dimension, but of that experience we have assurances but no empirical data. So we speculate. There, I suspect—I hope—we’ll have no recollection of this fleshly existence. Oh, there are some memories I’d love to hang on to, some people and places and events I never want to forget, ever, but I’m afraid if I’m granted those memories the price may be that others I’ve repressed or mentally fought to forget will also be admitted. If that happens, then heaven won’t be heaven after all. So when the time comes, I prefer sleep to dreams, or, in the best possible scenario, I prefer to select the memories I want to keep forever and delete the rest.
But back to the question. Here we are, this bride of 56 years and I, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, setting up housekeeping among a people whose language we can’t speak, stumbling over cobblestone streets lined with what must compete for the world’s most treacherous sidewalks, shopping by the pictures on the labels and laughing at ourselves when the yogurt turns out to be sour cream, ogling the magnificent creations to be found in this artistic colony—storing up more memories. I ask it again: Why don’t we quit? The storehouse is already crammed with good stuff from adventures past. Why not be satisfied?
Because we can’t be, that’s why. Because yesterday’s experiences can’t replace today’s adventures. Because once we decide enough’s enough, mental atrophy commences. Synapses start misfiring. A deepening fog sets in. The brain feeds on going where it has never gone before, doing what it has never tried. It renews itself by processing new data, forcing new connections. No input, no output.
It’s not just that we mentally slow down when we have less and less to think about. Nor is it only that we get bored. It’s that we ourselves become boring. We have less and less to say—and fewer and fewer people who care. Here’s the downside of memories: they dry up. And dried memories dry up relationships. People don’t willingly hang around people whose conversation is all about what happened on some yesterday. Nothing is less interesting than rehashed stories too frequently told. Visit a person afflicted with dementia. It’s a good test of your patience. How many repetitions do you grant the same story before you hunt for the nearest exit?
You see where I’m going with this. I’m trying to justify our traveling, Joy’s and mine. We aren’t even taking the same trips, though we’re going on them together. We travel with each other, all right. We’re both in San Miguel right now, but in different San Miguels. She stops while we’re walking together; I go on ahead, oblivious to her disappearance. She’s spotted a tiny flower pushing its way though a crack in the wall just above the erratic sidewalk or a rarely blooming cactus that just appeared last night and will be gone tomorrow.
I’m observing, also, but I often miss the flowers. I’m focused on the animated conversation between a couple of codgers on the park bench just ahead. They should be in pictures. It’s fun investigating different worlds together. She’s always painting, even when her hands aren’t moving.
Me, I’m forcing this old body forward,
trying not to stumble, inelegant in stride, stooped in posture, but recording the sights nonetheless. When we get back to our casa we compare notes. Each can’t believe what the other missed. Together, though, we can concoct a pretty good story.
Another story for the memory bank. More evidence that we’re not dead yet. Additional proof that we’re still climbing, that the crest of our journey lies ahead of us and not behind.
So why are we traveling at this age? Because there’s no better age.