The Ordinary Artifacts of Everyday Life

As Forgetfulness Sneaks Up

As you will see from today's post, I had such a good time recently re-reading a 35-year-old collection by American poet laureate, Billy Collins, that I couldn't resist a second post (see Wednesday). Collins and I both turned 75 this year - a kind of mid-point in the progression of old age - and he often seems to be dogging my path - or I his - on that journey.

But before I get to today's poem, I am I'm going to make you wade through a story or two from me. (Or, you could just scroll down.)

Old people often reference our age-related memory slips – with or without humor - particularly, I think, in an attempt to fend off worry that forgetfulness may foretell future dementia.

I long ago stopped using the phrase “senior moment” when it happens and I've moved on now, too, to ignoring the kind of glitches that attack in the middle of a sentence, when I lose all notion of what I was trying to convey.

You see, I realized that I have always done that - forgotten the point exactly when I was explaining it. Here, however, is what has changed: when I was younger, I just kept talking, fumphing around the issue until I caught the thread again and could finish.

Nowadays, that doesn't happen or, when it does, not in time to complete my thought during that conversation. It usually hits me hours and, sometimes, a day later.

Oh well. No point in sweating dementia, I have decided, until it gets here.

In the past couple of years, I have come to see that there is an advantage to at least one kind of memory loss: TV program plots.

Okay, sometimes I watch old episodes of, for example, NCIS (especially those with Cote de Pablo) – even when I can remember them just because I happen to like the show and it's too much trouble to mine Netflix for something worth seeing.

But often as not – with NCIS as well as The Good Wife and a few others – I have no idea what the storyline is. None. Not even when I'm watching just a few weeks after the first (or second) time I saw it. Might as well be a new episode to me.

How handy is that, getting to watch favorites again as though they are new?

In the case of Billy Collins's 1991 collection, Questions About Angels, every poem was like new to me when I re-read the book this month even though I certainly read it all when it was new and several times since then.

In many instances, forgetfulness is an annoyance but it is a good thing, I have come to see, to be able to read old favorites with the same kind of surprise and pleasure as when they were new. Some kinds of forgetfulness come with their own rewards.

Billy Collins:

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.


Great choice of poem Ronni. Collins has a way of combining humor and poignancy that hooked me the first time I came across his work, which was about 15 years ago, not as early as you, and I'm not sure how I had missed it before then, but I quickly made up for lost time. He's had some very amusing performances with Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion over the past few years, too.

I must get acquainted with the work of Billy Collins and soon! The two poems you have included in your postings have been right on the money and I've recognized myself in both. It's such a relief to realize I'm not alone in knowing I've read a book (even within the past few years), but am unable to remember the story. A total blank, but upon rereading it may seem vaguely familiar but not a lot!

It's soothing to the spirit to know many others are in the same boat.

Collins is right on target! Love it. Lately, I've found that "new" fiction is almost always awful & I've abandoned many that I was initially, & rightfully scepitcal of reading. So I've decided to re-read some of the "old" novels that I know are well written with much less violence & racism to remind me that once there was great lit around for the masses. LOL. And much as you with TV shows, many of the books are familiar, but so much I had forgotten..........almost like going through an old picture album.

So as you often remind us, aging has it's many good points. It's just that lately, it's getting more difficult for me to remember some of your Collins reminds us. Have a great w/end. :) Dee

I check in daily and what I love about this site is how one can listen and determine what is usual for our ages.
It serves as a friendly non-judgmental guide to the future where we are all going.

Thank you Ronni!!

Extremely timely post. Just this moment googled aromatic trees because I couldn't remember eucalyptus, the tree that smells like Vicks, and was too impatient to wait the ten minutes or ten days till it popped into my head.

I'm going to check out Billy Collins' work. Thanks for reminding us about him.

Vicks is menthol, isn't it? Menthol comes from members of the mint family, herbaceous plants. Eucalyptus is a tree and not in the mint family to my knowledge.

Another "so glad to know it's not just me" post. Living in a senior community we all have-and complain about-the same thing.

Oddly, I remembered the name of the river in the poem-but forgot how to spell it! :-D
Thank heavens for google!'s Lethe.

How I love the Internet for those moments when I ask myself "Where have I seen her before?" or "What year was it when I ... " or "What was the name of that movie about such-and-such?" If only we could interrupt our conversations to look up the missing information. And you're so right about forgetting the TV shows. I always groan when I read that it's a rerun, yet remember none of it when I watch. And my favorite question to my son: "Have I seen that movie?" Still trying to figure out why he's more likely to know than I am.

I don't know anyone our age who is not going through this. I like to think it's due to having so much more content to remember, given our millions of experiences—although current brain research would question that reasoning. With books (and sometimes movies too) I usually get through a few pages, and things start to feel familiar—I sense a shadow of memory. If I'm lucky, the whole thing comes back to me. Such a bonus!

When you first start forgetting words it is unsettling. When you then forget important things like a doctor's appointment it becomes frightening. When you can't remember what you did yesterday but start remembering the names of your first grade teacher you know you are old.

The brain is just another organ and it grows old just like every other part of your body. No matter how many crossword puzzles you may do, it will slow down just like your pace. Deal with it.

IBilly Collins was our U.S. Poet Laureate 2001-03, that was the first time I came across him. His poem "On Turning Ten." grabbed me by the heart and I've been in love with his poems ever since. Ironically I used to know it by heart but can't recite it anymore, drat. Thank goodness for books.

As soon as I saw the title of today's post, I knew you were going to quote one of my favorite poems.

Estelle is not wrong - Wickipedia says Vicks contains camphor, eucalyptus and menthol, plus several other aromatic ingredients. That's the way memory retrieval works, isn't it, when you've lost something? You chase it down using any clues you have.

Case in point: Celia's post prompted me to try to remember the one silly little poem I attempted to commit to memory about twelve years ago. Of course I couldn't. Even then, it was extraordinarily hard to keep it in my brain. I'd be able to recite it, then two days later I'd have lost a word, or a whole line. It kept slipping out. Eventually I stopped trying. The last time I even thought about it was six or seven years ago... so all I had left today was "that funny rhyme about poetic meters, what was it, anapest? Oh, and there was a pun, on, what was it... aha! pterodactyl!"

Not enough to find it online, it's too obscure. Luckily, I did have a file saved from 2009 (that had made it across at least one computer change), in which the rhyme had been quoted. And the Mac file search is good. I have it back now. Not in memory, and I don't think I'll try again to put it there. So my poetry-memorization circuits are in pretty bad shape... hey, I can live with that.

However, since I did once think it was deft enough to be worth trying to store away, I'll share it here. It's from The Space Child's Mother Goose, by Frederick Winsor.

The Pseudo-Anapest
Moves awkwardly at best;
His feet are long, uneven, and retractile.
Who hunts the beast in rhythm
Should take his meter withm
And still may only bag a Ptero-Dactyl.

"Same-state learning" I think is a term used to explain how people learn things under the influence of something or another, but forget it until they are again under that same influence. (Try alcohol or pot, they both have been tested for this phenomenon.) So perhaps since we have experienced things when younger, our brains were in a different state than now, when they are a bit older. Duh. Just trying to give a different twist on what we all are experiencing. I also love re-reading and re-watching favorites because I really have no clue what the ending will be.

I definitely agree about the delight in being able to rewatch something from a year or so ago and while remembering the characters, not remembering who was the killer (love the PBS myteries) so it's like a new show. I don't consider it "forgetting" - I call the shows and books "fluff". I also agree that there is so much more to remember now and we're cramming it in brains that are so much fuller than the younguns. Wasn't that why Google was invented???

Contrast the difficulty we experience remembering words... poems, lines in plays etc... with the relative ease in remembering songs. Even non-musicians know many songs and recognize instantly when a wrong note is inserted. Some songs... like commercial jingles stick even when you wish they would fade away. It must be some different part of memory.

I once met a very old woman... who was suffering some dementia. During the afternoon she could not tell you what she ate for lunch. Yet... she could sing many songs both those recently heard and from her youth.

I, too, have shelves of beloved books for which I cannot remember the plots, characters, etc. I don't worry about it, because I only keep books that I think I will want to re-read some day. This forgetfulness is not a concern because it's so familiar to me. I've always been in awe of friends who can come out of a movie and start recounting scenes or reciting dialogue, and then do the same years later. How do they do that?! I wonder if they can still do it, even as they are aging, too.

Like others above, like your blog because its my current/future life map.

Internet is wonderful for fading memories.

Nowadays when I use "undo" - several steps back often - I wish I could do the same with personal mistakes. Ditto when I'm scrolling the calendar, and it magically goes back to say February 1980 - be nice to do that in actual life to go back to the days that were good. (Just that the I can do the same, flipping through a paper calendar - but, its not the same.)

The only time forgetfulness is really annoying when you have forgotten the most appropriate word you want to use in a sentence. It is more aggravating when it was at the front door of that mass of grey up there and suddenly forgotten it just when you need it the most.

Some how I looked at my screen and there you where! Wonderful at last brains that I could relate to..Welcome
I'm never lonely, I find myself chatting all day with images that just drift in and out. When the im driving I can go miles out of my way and with a sigh just turn
Around. Let me explain we live 100 miles from anywhere
On roads rarely travelled .

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