Wednesday, November 8, 2017

In Search of the Poetic Memory

The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful ... Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.
Milan Kundera- The Unbearable Lightness of Being 

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
Roy Batty- Blade Runner (Who just wanted a little more time)

The year was 2008 and my life was stuck in neutral. I was finishing up my doctorate and was a grown-up man with bad furniture and ramen noodles in the cupboard. 

I needed an adventure.

With this in mind, I booked an impromptu trip to Ireland and left on a moment’s notice. Not being a wealthy guy at this juncture of my life, I stayed in a hostel, where I met a nice couple from Australia and a beautiful girl from Spain. 

Later that night, I sat with my new Spanish friend on the bridge at the River Liffey, and she told me about her life in Spain and some things she had been through. She talked about how she was alone in the world and in transition in her life and needing to make a human connection.

And then, our stories just kind of converged in that time and in that moment. It was sweet, romantic, and sadly fleeting. 

That was a poetic memory. 

Milan Kundera writes about this idea so beautifully and describes those little moments in our lives that etch their way into our “forever” memory. These are the things we come back to over and over. For many people, this might be the first time their partner said something that made them seem totally unique. And it doesn’t even have to be romantic stuff either. Maybe it’s something a teacher said we always remembered, or a compliment we received that was so unique it kept us going for years. These are those things that stand out in our minds in the wake of constant new information and experiences. The good stuff. The memory hooks. The mile markers. 

One theory of aging posits that time seems to move a lot faster when we get older because we have less and less of these memory “hooks” as we move into more responsible lives. In our 20’s we take more chances and travel and try on a lot of different places and people. This gets harder as we get older, and the years “fly by.”

As a frequent traveler, I thought about how this idea applied in my life. Often when I travel, I immerse myself in the local scene and try and find the exciting people and the adventure. But a couple of times in a row recently, I found myself staring at my phone more than I did introducing myself to new people. And in thinking about this, I knew that this was exactly how we lose those hooks. 

Staring down at your phone when you’re alone in a strange situation may certainly ease a moment of awkwardness.

 But it may also cost you a potential lifetime of memories. 

I decided to put my theory to the test on a recent trip to Wellington when I left my phone back at the room before I started my day. It was how I had traveled during the best years of my life, and I wanted to see how this might work in these more “modern” times. 

And so I wandered down strange streets with no google maps, no trip advisor, and no Yelp to guide me. I followed my nose down alleys, through laneways, and into some strange and exotic looking neighborhoods. 

I found a lovely little brewery down one of these laneways and immediately felt around in my pocket for my phone. That’s what we do now, right? Check our phones as a reaction to even the slightest moment of awkwardness, boredom, or social discomfort?

But this wasn’t an option, and I immediately struck up a conversation with the bartender, who provided me with a number of great ideas about the city.

But that wasn’t even the end of the story!! 

A lovely Irish lass overheard us talking and laughing and soon went to the back of the establishment and fished out a “beer map” of the city for me. She even accompanied me around to a few of the places on the map and introduced me around. 

This story does not end with a romantic interlude on a bridge. But it was a really amazing day. One I’m sure I’ll remember for a long time.

I’m not sure the day would have ever happened if I had brought my phone.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for some tech-free utopian society. In many ways, our lives are made easier by GPS, Google Maps, and even Tinder. But perhaps there is a cost. Perhaps the “escape” these devices provide, keeps us locked in comfort zones that we may sometimes need to wander out of. This was certainly true for me. 

One thing I learned from my time working in nursing homes was that all of the “stuff” we accumulate will mean very little one day. Even the wealthiest patients I knew essentially ended up surrounded by what could fit into a small room. And the few things they did take with them into these little rooms? They weren’t their nicest things or their most beautiful clothes. They were pictures of their best memories. Times from their youth. Or perhaps something from when their kids were young. Memories. The best memories. The poetic memories. 

We should be making all of them we possibly can. Trust me as someone who spent years working with the elderly and the dying, that one day these memories will be the most valuable currency you have. 

Now go and find some little moments.

And put down your phone once in a while!!