Sunday, November 20, 2005

"How we believe is as much as mystery as how we remember." John Henry Newman


Memory was a strange thing.  There were surprising connections.  Most of them seemed random enough, but there were others, which were so different.  There was that sense of “dejà vu” or even of having been there before with these more surprising connections.  For years he had wondered what on earth made us who we are.  He did not want to be predictable in the way he formulated his questions – he felt he had come too far along the road to be enamoured of clichéd enquiries.  How the human being remembered was always a source of wonder for him.  The very act of remembering and the consequent reflection on its wonder were essentially what made him who he was and what separated man from the animals, what put the “sapiens” in the term “homo sapiens.”

It was always the smallest of things that made him remember – the way the myriads of small shells and shingle crunched under his shoes as he walked along the strand.  It was that very sound that brought him back years.  Now he was a little boy running on the beach chasing the wind, shouting, “Catch me!”  Shortly after that he had visions of himself playing with the neighbour’s dog, which always came into their childhood kitchen excitedly wagging its tail at the end of a long school day.  Then again he could vividly see a young boy standing in a shop in a small country town in the early sixties of the twentieth century.  

The ridges in the sand left by the outgoing waves wove a wondrously regular pattern in the sand.  Those waves had come one after another, each inevitably part of the whole tapestry, meaningless in themselves without the company of the millions of others.  It must surely be the same for memories, he thought.  Can one exist on its own, without the addition of others to give it shape and meaning?  

Walking, camera in hand, he sought out different angles, interesting reflections and wonderful shapes like that of the huge grey cloud like a fur collar draped across the shoulder of the strand.  All these myriad angles, reflections and shapes were constantly changing from moment to moment in the waning light of the red winter sunset.  Memories, he thought, were as fleeting and as unrelated as these angles, reflections and shapes that intrigued him now.  And light what was it?  Seven colours of the spectrum which, when spun quickly, formed the colour white or again white light being broken into its seven constituent colours through the wonderful medium of a prism did not really seem to capture the mystery at all.  Old Heraclitus’ dictum that all is flux and forever changing seemed to capture the experience of what he was feeling rather than any more precise scientific formulation.  Sure science had its place in the scheme of things – in applying logic and observation and hard facts to “reality” and so on and so forth.  But the experience of this transient mystery before him was so difficult to express in words.

And then the dark, what was it?  Was it enough to say it was the mere absence of the light? Then other memories like waves broke across his consciousness.  As he walked, he remembered how he had rested once among the dunes on this very beach in the summer sun, but that was many years ago.  He remembered also how he had suddenly become aware of some other strange presence near him.  Then his gaze came to focus on a dying herring gull, which was spasmodically moving its neck back and forth.  He wished he had the courage or even the know-how to wring its neck.  It was obviously in pain.  His peace was now disturbed by this white wretched living thing, which was now quite obviously painfully dying.  How dare death so rudely poke its reality into his?  But that was the way things were, was it not?  Then he remembered how his father had often used that phrase with him – “That’s the way it is, son.  That’s the way.”

As he walked there were four foreigners, speaking some language from Eastern Europe that he couldn’t identify.  They were trying to launch a great kite into the sky – it made a perfect arc of dark blue and white.  One side, he noted that there was some sort of buggy that the kite could pull if it could be launched.  With the waning light they decided that the effort was not really worth it, so they packed up and went away.  There were many languages which he could not understand, but that did not really matter did it?  He sensed what they were talking about from their gestures.  Communication was always more than words.  It was context and situation, gesture and expression that added so much more than the forced exactitude of words.

These days as his mother was entering more and more into the labyrinth of dementia words were beginning to lose their meaning.  Every time either he or his two brothers visited her she would begin to talk and talk, making up words as she went along.  Words had become so slippery now in this twilight world of dementia.  And all those memories were now distorted and contorted and twisted out of shape till they became transformed into something different.  What that “something different” was he did not know.  This was unexplored territory.  What geriatric specialist could describe that world where they themselves had never trod?

And what was the personality if memories themselves were beginning to break down?  What was personality anyway?  Did they not tell him at college all those years ago that personality was a complex reality made up of traits, behaviours, thoughts and feelings shaped by memory?  If memory broke down, then personality would cease to be.  Mam was a different person now – her personality was altered, altered utterly.  For all intents and purposes she was dead for them and almost dead to them.  And yet somehow at some deep unconscious level she recognized them and constantly sought to engage them in conversation.

Looking right around the bay he could see Howth Head in the distance.  He remembered having walked it so many times before, that each memory blended itself into the other that he could not properly separate them.  Memory was never that precise was it?  The imagination always seemed to enhance it, add this or that colour and even subtract more painful elements we simply didn’t want to remember.  Christ, it was almost forty years – 38 to be more precise – since his Uncle Jim had taken him and his two brothers tramping over that headland.  Jim was a somewhat exotic and colourful character in the dull grey Ireland of the 1960s – he was a worldwide traveller having visited most countries save Soviet Russia and China.  Now he remembered how the yellow furze bushes had cut into the skin of his young legs as he ran after his Uncle Jim, the explorer, home on holiday from that land of beauty – New Zealand.  

Another time he had walked Howth Head with some school friends and their mathematics teacher from O’Connell School.  He remembered Brother Russell saying these precise words:  “This is absolutely exhilarating, gentlemen!”  Yet another time he had climbed it with Spanish and Italian students whom he was teaching English during his holidays from school.  He remembered purposely praising the owner of the school for her agility – deliberately massaging her ego to get a longer period of work from her.  That was all long ago now.  

All those chemicals, neurotransmitters, or whatever that shoot across those millions of nerve endings – ganglion upon ganglion – to form memory upon memory.  The wonder of it all!  Was personality reducible to the complex interplay of chemicals?  Are we after all just a collocation of atoms and molecules, as Bertrand Russell would have had us be?  Since his experience of depression at forty years of age he was not quite sure anymore.  Maybe we humans were just a complex pharmacological phenomenon?  

Then the waning light reflected in the pools of water on the strand caught his attention.  The light from the setting sun was a brilliant red orb dissolving in the sand.  The falling night and its beckoning mystery brought back all those memories when as a boy he had hated leaving his friends as his mother would call him in from his play.  The half-light was always mysterious, much more so than either pure white daylight or the black dark of night.  Now he photographed the reflected sun in the water and the tyre tracks of the cars that had come this way some hours ago.

And life was a play of light – source of all life - in all its various intensities on the fertile blue planet Earth.  He was so blessed to be sighted - to enjoy all the various colours and shapes patterned each day on the screen of his mind.  He supposed the blind might rely much more on the other senses.  They probably remembered by sounds, by touch and by smell.  The wonder of it all, he thought as he turned and walked back to his car.  It was practically dark and he had to turn on his full headlights.         [The picture I have placed at the beginning of this post is one I took of car tracks in the wet sand at Donabate beach. In the piece above I decribe how I took the particular pictures referred to, of which this is one!]