The question arose this week because I was looking for something in one of the sheds that stand in for an attic and basement in our house. “Stand in,” because long ago, when we were designing and building the house, we decided that attics and basements were places for things that we should dispose of in the first place. In this case I was searching for a part of a piece of equipment that I had disassembled several years ago so it would take up less space among the things we should be rid of.
I distinctly remember the plastic bag I put the small parts in for safe storage. I remember exactly where I put the bag. The problem is, I can’t find it now. That means taking everything out of the building until I come across the bag, plus all the other things I don’t need but have kept.
Our brains are pretty much like those storage sheds: lots of stuff we thought we’d never need again, put somewhere on a neurological shelf, that tend to fall off and interrupt another search for something else we know we have had once, and stored away somewhere against a time when we’ll need it. Like a name. Telephone numbers for phones we no longer call. Street names, favorite books, author’s names, even special food and drink.
When I’m looking for something in one of the real sheds I usually end up uncovering things I’m not looking for, then diverging from my original mission to do something the discovery suggests, and then run out of time and have to put everything away that I’ve spread out on the grass in front of the shed. The same thing happens when I try to remember something I want to use or say.
This isn’t about aging, though age certainly has something to do with it. The longer one lives, the more things one accumulates and stores in folds of the brain. I can often see a picture of what I’m looking for, but the focus is less than sharp. A story, for instance: did I write it? What was the working title? What was the file called? I begin looking at the index under an umbrella title. These essays, for instance, are filed under “Meditations.” Most of my essays originate as a simple one-line thought. Sometimes the whole thought is in the title. For others, there is a period of cultivation followed by a time of illumination during which the rest of the thought writes itself. That doesn’t solve the problem of course. The thing I’m looking for is still unfound, the thing I need to do is still undone. And then, if I’m not right on top of it, it gets lost behind some other thing on a shelf I’ve forgotten I have. And then it’s over.
Shakespeare had it right.
An apology: In an essay-or-so ago, I wrote about being the subject of a video memoir. I offered to put you in touch with the producer, but my email address was not quite right. Here it is:
Sorry for the inconvenience.