Finding My Memory
by Nicholas Boke
I recently decided to acknowledge how bad my memory has become. Sure, I have memories, but I have no faculty of memory, nothing I can trust to recall things it seems reasonable to expect to be able to recall. I can’t count on putting a fact—a quotation, a name, an upcoming event—into my mind and being able to remember it a day or two later. Or even an hour or two later.
This is, in part, owing to the fact that I’m sixty-seven years old. A spry sixty-seven, intellectually nimble, full of curiosity and occasionally perceptive insights. But sixty-seven nonetheless. I—like my wife and my friends and everybody of roughly this age that I know anything about—find my memory ceasing and desisting.
Truth be told, it’s never been very good. Or, better put, it hasn’t been very good for as long as I can remember. And I’m not sure exactly how long that is, not, as I am, being able to count on my memory.
I’m certain of some things. I am sure, for example, that when I decided to memorize Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” several decades ago I discovered just how flimsy my memory had become. I would study part of the poem, then I’d confidently recite it. But I noticed that after a few recitations I had pretty much rewritten the poem. So “I will arise and go now,” had been transformed into “I shall arise…”; I confused what was happening at midnight with what was happening at noon; it became the roadway, not the pavements, that were grey.
I stuck with it for a while, then gave up. I couldn’t memorize the poem line for line. It was that simple. I decided I’d have to make do with the alterative skill I had taught myself: a rather impressive ability to grasp the gist of things, the essence, the kernel. I seemed to have given up on details.
It seemed to me that over the course of the years I had traded one skill for another—my brain had sacrificed precision for a general understanding. Would I have unconsciously made such a choice? Could I have done this? Is this how the mind works?
I’ve been reading about how the mind works for some time now. My interest was whetted when, twenty-some years ago, I came upon the concept of “metacognition” when I worked at the Vermont Center for the Book. I had recently stumbled into a career in early literacy, and had decided that it behooved me to learn something about what others had to say about the field. So I learned about the “reading wars” (the debate between the Whole Language people and the Phonics people) and stuff like “concepts of print” (knowing that those little squiggles on the page stand for words and that pictures in books are somehow related to the squiggles) and the like.
Metacognition was, however, the concept that really intrigued me. It turns out that the term metacognition—or thinking about one’s thinking—had been coined in 1976, though the concept itself had first been investigated by Aristotle in his De Anima.
I realized that I had always been metacognitive. I’d never been able to read more than a couple of sentences before I started wondering why I was reading what I was reading, or why I wasn’t understanding it, or how what I was reading was connected with what I had read last week.
I didn’t tell anybody about this propensity, though. It embarrassed me. I thought it indicated a profound narcissism, revealing that I was so egocentric that instead of reveling in Marx’s or Bloom’s or Woolf’s wisdom, I always headed down my own personal path, connecting what I was reading with what I had already read or wondered about or fretted about.
I chastised myself: I! I! I!—is that all you can think about? But you’re supposed to be—I told myself over and over—paying attention to this writer, absorbing what he or she has to tell you. You’re not supposed to drift off into your own thoughts, those idiosyncratic little experiences you’ve had that you somehow have found a way to connect with what de Tocqueville had to say about slavery or Frost about birch trees.
Then I read about metacognition and found out that this thinking about thinking was actually a good thing. Metacognition actually helped people learn. By making connections with their own experiences and puzzling through why they were having trouble with what they were reading or listening to, they could grasp new information and complicated ideas more easily.
In fact, not only was it good that I operated metacognitively, but I was also told that I should teach metacognitive techniques to other people. I should both teach metacognitive skills to the people I was training and also teach them how to help their students develop their own metacognitive skills. I should teach the teacher trainers I worked with how to reflect on what was going on as they trained or read or listened, and also train them to train others to do the same thing.
This was really cool. I was an expert. I not only had valuable knowledge to impart, but it was knowledge that I had crafted on my own.
Fast forward to more than three decades after my aborted effort to memorize some Yeats and nearly two decades after the recognition that my interest in how my mind worked was not just self-referenced narcissism, but was actually an important intellectual tool.
These days I still spend some of my time working with people who teach reading—recently, however, in Lebanon and Mozambique rather than rural Vermont—and I’m still propounding the virtues of metacognition to anybody who will listen.
I continue to read about how the mind works. About metacognition, but also about things like what the mind goes through to teach itself to read, or how a few turn-of-the-century Viennese painters had intuited some of the basics of our mental operations, or what consciousness is—or might be—in the first place. Stuff like that.
A friend recently suggested that I was at a good point in my life to try meditating. It was this suggestion that got me to thinking about—and trying to deal with—my memory.
Meditation? Hmm. Forty-some years ago I’d attended a few Hatha yoga classes, rapidly becoming disheartened by my inability to concentrate on whatever it was we were supposed to concentrate on—breathing, I think it was. Discouraged, I quit the class and went on to spend the ensuing decades rendering myself even less able to sit still, to close down my thinker, to surrender to anything but my busy little mind.
I was sure that there was no way I could sit still long enough to unclutter my mind through meditation. But sitting still and concentrating certainly seemed like a good idea. Maybe there was some way I could fool myself into focusing for a while, undistracting myself from the many distractions my (still metacognitive) mind is prone to mess around with.
“Hey,” I said to my friend, “maybe I could memorize some poetry or something, and maybe that would serve the function of helping me detach myself from the day’s muddles. Not exactly meditation, but if it gets me to focus, undistracted, wouldn’t it serve something of the same function?”
“Sure. Good idea. Give it a shot,” she said.
Where to begin? Here, I thought, reading through a 2010 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly one morning before I started my day; here’s a good place to start: Lu Ji’s poem “Ways of the World,” written in around 280 C.E. Ten two-or-three line stanzas. A nice flow. Interesting ideas. I’ll memorize this.
So, a bit before sunrise the next morning I set out to memorize the poem. Two stanzas at a time, I decided, would be a good place to start. So:
The poet stands at the center
of a universe,
contemplating the enigma,
from masterpieces of the past.
I read it aloud. Then again. Again. I closed my eyes, repeating the lines. Again. Again. I wrote the lines in the back of my little pocket calendar. I read it a few more times. I repeated it with my eyes closed a few more times.
Am I doing this right? I wondered. How do you get these words to stick, to move them from short-term into long-term memory? And what does “move them” mean, anyway? Something about getting the neurons that I’ve activated in the prefrontal cortex to activate neurons in the hippocampus in order to disperse bits of the information through synapses to other neurons scattered throughout the brain. Not to any one spot, but to various locations, apparently, that can later be called upon to reconstruct this thing that I’ve wanted to remember, to memorize.
I understand that there are some things I can do to make this happen: I can say the lines out loud; I can picture the words on the page; I can feel the rhythms of the lines, turning the words and sentiments visceral.
I did those things every morning, reading a few lines, reciting, re-reading, moving my body to the lines’ rhythms. Then I’d start my day.
I gradually added more stanzas and finished memorizing “Ways of the World.” What to learn next? I vaguely recalled a few lines about what makes poets tick from one of e e cummings’ poems. I set out to tidy up those shreds of memory so I could count on being able to recite the actual lines instead of the, “…Oh, damn, well it’s something like that; it’s really great,” that I’d had to resort to when I’d tried over the years to share the lines with others.
This didn’t take long, and about the time I had the cummings down, I came upon Howard Nemerov’s “Runes,” a longish poem in Today’s Poets: American and British Poets since the 1930s, an anthology that I had just picked up at a book sale at the local library. About halfway through the first rune, I came upon the lines, “That is my theme, of thought and the defeat/Of thought before its object, where it turns/As from a mirror, and returns to be/The thought of something and the thought of thought.”
This, I decided as I was mastering the cummings, will be next. It’s so connected to the work my mind has engaged in for a few years now, focusing, as it does, on “the thought of something and the thought of thought.”
I decided to start at the beginning, to let myself lead myself gently into these thoughts about thought. So I began to learn that, “This is about the stillness in moving things,/In running water, also in the sleep/Of winter seeds…,” which would eventually get me to the enticing “thought of thought” part.
And it was at this point that I decided to become systematic. I would watch myself learn the poem, study how I went about learning it and thereby see if I could directly confront my long-standing inability to memorize. I would be, I decided, overtly and intensely metacognitive about how I moved the words from my short-term into my long-term memory.
I had actually begun this process while learning the Lu Ji poem. Frustrated by the difficulty I had memorizing the lines, I had asked myself what I might do beyond the obvious—read it a lot, say it out loud, read it again—to memorize the poem.
I decided verbs were the key. If I could remember that the poet begins by standing (at the center of a universe) where he is contemplating (enigmas) and drawing sustenance (from masterpieces) and so on, I could frame the content, making it easier to memorize. I was right. Doing this enabled me to secure the lines in my memory.
This technique did not, however, work for the cummings. All I wanted to memorize was the end of the poem:
Such was a poet and shall be and is—
who’ll solve the depths of horror to defend a sunbeam’s architecture with his life:
and carve immortal jungles of despair to hold a mountain’s heartbeat in his hand.
Verbs, I found, weren’t going to work here. In Ju Li’s poem, the verbs make sense: people (including poets) actually do stand at the center of a universe, and they actually do contemplate enigmas—these realities allowed me to use these words as signposts to hold on to the thread of what the poet was trying to say.
But cummings’ suggestion that we solve depths and carve jungles didn’t work in the same way. These verbs didn’t provide a semantic anchor. I had to try something else. I finally decided that all I could do was to link the oddities, unlikely verbs with unrelated nouns and the like—I would have to pay attention to the disconnections in cummings’ language, not the connections.
I had both poems down pretty well. I began each morning seated in the stuffed chair by the window, eyes closed, reciting the poems, then reading them over to make sure I’d gotten them exactly right before getting on with my day.
Nemerov was next. How to do this? I wondered, the cummings experience having taught me that there was no technique that would work for every poem. Nemerov’s syntax was tricky, beginning with “This is about the stillness in moving things,” with no referent for the “this.” Okay. I can remember that. And another key lay in the preposition “in”: it’s not about the stillness “of” running water and winter seeds, but the stillness “in” them, which offers an entirely different take on the relationship, introducing inherency and innateness, not merely a quality that might be transient.
I had trouble with “where time to come has tensed/Itself.” I kept wanting “come” to be the sentence’s verb, and “tensed” to become “tense,” serving its more usual function as an adjective. But once I could connect the idea that impending things could build up internal tensions, as they might in seeds, I began to retain the lines.
So far, so good. Next, how to deal with the fact that this tensed time to come was “enciphering a script so fine/Only the hourglass can magnify it”? The words “enciphering” and “magnify” seemed to share some structural equivalency—was it the Latin roots?—even though one was a participle and the other the simple present; I’ll remember that.
But the next line disconcerted me: “only/The years unfold the sentence from the root.”
I loved the idea, how it expanded upon the image of seeds tensely enciphering the future within themselves. But I couldn’t hold onto the words. Thinking of how the verbs or prepositions worked didn’t help, and there were no adjectives to mess with; sentences seemed too far removed from roots for that connection to support my effort.
So all I could do was repeat the words. Over and over. The next morning, walking down Washington Street toward Starbucks, glancing at the lines written in the back of my calendar from time to time, the line stuck.
What, I wondered as I found myself securely reciting the line, had happened?
Okay. So these words—this thought—had been moved from my short-term memory into my long-term memory. They, or it, had passed through my hippocampus enough times to merit the kind of activity on the part of that little organ that would disperse the words or sounds or idea or ideas in such a way that I could count on retrieving it or them whenever I felt like it.
But what had really happened?
Before this transition from not knowing the line to knowing it, I had struggled as I walked down the street trying to conjure the lines. Hoping to jar them loose from wherever they were hiding, I had recited “enciphering a script so fine/Only the hourglass can magnify it,” again and again, eventually recalling that the next word was “only.”
Only what? I had wondered as I scanned the red and yellow foliage that lined the street. Only what? I had wondered as I’d closed my eyes, letting my brain scan itself, looking for a word, for words. For an idea; an image; a sound. Anything that might open the door to let me recall “the years unfold the sentence from the root.”
Nothing came. My mind could find no hint to help me—could find no way to help my mind find what my mind was asking itself to find. I wondered if the words or the sounds were in there somewhere complete, but hidden. Why couldn’t I simply retrieve it? Was part of it—are parts of it—hiding in there, a word or phrase or a sound or an image, but not available enough to be drawn to life or exorcised, to take its place at the end of this line? Was there any way I could nudge it into the open?
The frustrating part was that I knew I was going to be able to recall the line soon, which meant that there must already be something there for me to latch onto, though I couldn’t yet find it.
So what has my brain done? How much of what has it allowed to be lodged somewhere or a bunch of somewhere, almost ready to serve the purpose of helping me recite this entire line? Do I have only part of a word or words, only disconnected sounds? Or are these words just mis-stored, not readily available, but there, somewhere, merely difficult to access? Is there somewhere a word or an idea, just not stored in the right place for me to access it? Perhaps an image that’s not clearly enough developed for me to connect it with the preceding “hourglass can magnify”?
And what is this that I’m doing; exactly what is involved in this search? I understand that sounds and sights are captured by the hippocampus, considered, then dispersed—zipped here and there, alerting and then strengthening synapses. I understand that, sort of. And the fact that the more times I activate these processes, the more likely it is that the synapses will become strong enough to connect the neurons so I can find the lost word or forgotten name, the words, the address or date or tune I can’t recall, or have misremembered.
But exactly what am I doing when I’m searching? Who is doing what inside my brain, trying to convert the physical brain into a mind, a self-cognizant organ, almost a being that knows itself and governs itself, can choose to look for something and decide on a way to find it.
Is that what I’m doing? Looking for something? Is that the right metaphor for whatever it is that I’m doing as I try to turn the haphazard into the intentional, to figure out where I put—where my mind put, where my brain put—a few words? Am I looking for it? Or am I listening for it? Or is there simply no day-to-day metaphor to accurately describe this activity?
Is the process totally alien from any process I might activate as I, for example, might scan the index of a book looking for a name, or turn my head to determine which direction the siren is coming from as I consider crossing the street? Is what I do in trying to recall totally unlike anything else I do?
So I searched and listened, metaphorically opened every mental door I could imagine being available to be opened, guessed at possible words, at parts of speech, at concepts. But nothing came.
So I took out my little calendar, flipped to the back, and reread the line.
Reading it this time I knew that I now knew it: “only/The years unfold the sentence from the root.” I knew it. I would not forget it. I could feel this.
One moment I did not know this line. The next moment, after a final prod, I did.
What had happened? What neurons had done what? By what measure had the synapses of the hippocampus been activated? What was the tipping-point that had been reached so that when I wanted to say the words they were readily available to me—so available that I could be confident that they’d be waiting there for me to call upon any time I wanted them?
But where? And what does it mean that they’d be waiting? And what tricks would I use to conjure them when the strength of their mental existence began to fade? Would I find them by staring off to the right? Or by reciting the poem from the beginning, or just from the line or two preceding this one? Would I have to recall what it had felt like to walk down that autumn street when the line had stuck?
Or would I just need to stay silent, sitting still, and let it come; let them come?
And what would actually be happening, whichever tack I took; what electricity and what chemistry would be doing what in which parts of my brain that would allow, “Only the years…” to appear, word by word?
One final reflection on this process. With his next line, Nemerov veered far from the complexities of hourglasses magnifying and years unfolding sentences. Instead he wrote, perhaps knowing that his readers would need a break, “I have considered such things often, but/I cannot say I have thought deeply of them.” So straightforward, so simple: I consider things, I cannot say, I have not thought deeply. No surprises. No need to parse the syntax or deconstruct the metaphor.
These two lines are the only ones in this entire adventure that I might actually have spoken, that I might actually have said to a friend over coffee. I understood them the first time I read them. Finally I could rely on the strength I had created for myself, that ability to grasp it, summarize it, to put things into my own words.
Did this make these lines easier to memorize than those I had memorized earlier? No. But it did make it easier to remember what Nemerov meant and to reconstruct his idea.
The difficulty was in honoring exactly what Nemerov had written. Does he write “I have” or “I’ve”? And what’s the matter with “deeply about them” instead of “of them”?
I’ve found no tricks that work here, and have found these lines as difficult to memorize as cummings’ were—not because they’re unfamiliar, but because they are so familiar.
To learn them, I’ve had to actively suppress the very skill I’ve developed over the years, the same one that kept kicking in all those decades ago when I tried to memorize “Innisfree.”
All I could do was read them over and over, recite them over and over, emphasizing raw word order and word choice, with no clues other than the recollection that these were the choices the poet had made.
I’ve finally almost brought these lines to heel along with all the rest and am ready to move on.
I think I’ll continue this little morning memorization ritual. It’s been interesting. And it’s fun to amass this storehouse of things quotable.
The metacognitive layer I’ve imposed on the effort, intriguing as it’s been, has left me puzzled, though. Before doing this, I thought I understood something about how the mind works, thanks to authors like Dennett and Kandel and Bateson. Their careful explanations—complete with explanations of what they were not yet able to explain—and the wonderful graphics of cortices aglow with activity, of synapses and dendrites, have led me into a world—led us all into a world—about which we could only guess until very recently. What an honor and a treasure.
But having systematically watched my own mind try to activate its memory has been—almost—a set-back, raising more questions than it has answered.
What I have learned about how people think and learn, I have found, really tells me nothing.
I’ve certainly learned to how to do things with my mind, and how I’ve been doing things. I have, however, no real sense of what those things are, other than mechanical actions I’ve performed to make my mind accomplish what I want it to accomplish.
About what’s actually going on in there—beyond a general grasp of the fact that there’s a lot of electricity and busy chemistry involved—I still know nothing. Nothing about this thing on which I rely; the thing which I think of as I.
I remain a speaker who does not know how he speaks. A learner who does not know what is taking place when he learns. Even a forgetter who does not know what his brain has done to let him forget.
Strange tool, this thing I think with, this I. So alien. So integral and separate, inscrutable.
On a good day, Nicholas Boke refers to himself as a Renaissance man; alone in the dark of night, he admits he’s just another unfocused dilettante. He currently spends most of his days developing programs for or traveling to work on education projects in rural Africa and the Middle East, one Sunday a month filling a Unitarian Universalist pulpit in rural Vermont, and occasionally grabbing a few hours to try to wrap up his novel-in-progress, The Man Who Lost His Job. In thirty-plus years working as a freelance writer, his feature articles and essays have been published in places like The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, Yankee and Education Week, while more literary pieces have appeared in The Rumpus, Washington Dossier, Cape Cod Life, and Double Take; his commentaries aired weekly on Vermont Public Radio for more than a decade. He currently lives in Providence, RI, with his wife, Buffy.