Memory makes us. If we couldn’t recall the who, what, where, and when of our everyday lives, we wouldn’t be able to function. – “Memory Basics,” Psychology Today
This week, I remembered a poem I wrote as a teenager.
Some of the lines returned to me, complete and clear.
I couldn’t recall other lines at all.
I wrote the poem after a dream. In this dream, I was with a group of young people around my own age in a deserted beachy area with trees. We had reunited there on a hazy afternoon when the light is most golden, just as the sun begins to set, and with great joy, we began singing.
Except that I really did not know these people, this place, this song. In the dream I knew I was supposed to know all of these things, and I didn’t. I was meant to belong, to be a part, and I couldn’t. The sense of mounting sadness over the desperate attempt to remember the significance of these people and the words to the beautiful song so that I could join in was overwhelming.
The dream haunted me so that when I woke, I wrote the poem.
Remembering my poem for the first time in years, I wanted to reread it, to recapture the lines that were missing in my memory. I could envision the little stapled booklet I made, could actually recall other poems I wrote in it, word for word.
I couldn’t find it.
I searched everywhere I thought the booklet ought to be – I could not remember where I put it.
Things like this become compulsions for me. The more I searched without success, the more determined I became to find the missing poems.
At some point I realized the many layers of irony folded into this situation: I wrote a poem about forgetting something I could not remember in the first place, because I wanted to remember the experience; not remembering all the lines compelled me to read it again, and I forgot where I put it.
I began to think about what dementia patients must feel like.
But I kept looking, and yesterday, in a box of old notebooks, in a planner under some loose papers, I found it:
My mind, it plays a melody
That it hasn’t ever heard
A voice sings in my memory
But remembers not a word
Faces I don’t recognize
Are singing this with me
Sadness streaming from my eyes
Such a haunting harmony
I hear the music chiming there
And then again it’s gone
Hidden in my mind somewhere
Chiming off and on
I ought to know this tune
These words I’ve sung before
I’ll try to learn them very soon
So I can sing them more
I can’t remember this refrain
I’ve forgotten it this far
My mind cries out to know this strain
And what the lyrics are
But all I know is sorrow
A deep and dark despair
I’ll cry and cry tomorrow
For what was never there.
At last. My mind can rest now.
I certainly can’t end on such a dark note, so today I pay tribute to the vital, mysterious power of memory, how it makes us who we are; to writing, which preserves who we are at various points in our lives and sets us free from whatever haunts or hurts us; and to the foresight of my young, rather gothic self for having grasped it.