In my sixth decade I recall with some difficulty the many, many people I have known in my life. Not only is my memory getting more unreliable but those faces I do recall sometimes lack a name. The sense of losing a substantive connection with the past first occurred to me when my beloved father died. When the physical presence disappears all we have left are memories and when those go...we have nothing.
I have been re-reading one of my all time favourite books, Le Hussard sur le Toit, by my favourite author, Jean Giono. This much revered French author fought in two world wars, and not only did he live in the same place all his life but he viewed the cycle of nature as both poetic and profound and to which the human condition is inextricably linked. Le Hussard sur le Toit is essentially the story of a cholera epidemic in France and what happens to us when we are surrounded by death. There is a wonderful passage I have just re-read today, one where a doctor describes what sickness does to the body. The doctor explains that on the autopsy table we all look the same regardless of how we have loved or been loved. The pleasure that we experience in life leaves no trace on our bodies but the ravages of disease can be seen in the liver, spleen, lungs or inside the digestive tract, for example. The concept that bad things leave their mark but good things do not is profound and begs the question- is happiness therefore all in the mind? But let us return to memories.
Think back to Four Weddings and a Funeral when Andie/Macdowell/ Carrie remembers each of her thirty plus lovers. That in itself is quite remarkable even moreso that she was able to recall the chronological order in which all that copulating occurred. She must have been sober and loved them all (or kept a diary)! Memories are only active inside our heads if we choose to keep them. Let's face it, there are things we would rather forget.
I can remember almost nothing of my primary school days because I hated school. Did I learn anything back then? All a mystery to me, although someone clearly taught me to read and write. I recall having a crush on one of my classmates, Ian, and the jungle gym and playing with plasticine. In secondary school I learned even less. It's a wonder I got any O and A levels. French and English left a mark on me due to my very attractive French teacher and ditto for Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. The rest of the school curriculum is a complete blur.
The things/lovers/those-who-crossed-our-paths and those worth remembering, must be the ones that changed us. Made us better. Made us happier. Made us think. Or simply brought out the best of us. Perhaps that is why love is the axis on which our hearts spin; that dopey feeling brings out the qualities and attributes we hadn't realised we even had. Suddenly we want to nurture, feed, protect and smile all the time. Love transforms us if even for a brief moment but forever the imprint will be branded into our innermost core.
Part of my fascination with growing old, as I am, is the contentedness that comes with memories. The smile that comes upon my lips as I recall a former lover and the crazy things I used to do (I'm so thrilled I don't do them anymore!!!). Jokes aside, the fondness with which we hold the past is a vital cornerstone to our own existence: we measure our lives by the past and the present is the sum of all the experiences we have had before. A recent walk down a London street where every nationality and age group are represented, reminded me of the way our lives get etched in our faces. The down-turned mouth, the reluctance to smile, the eyes that never meet yours, these are the bitter memories that refuse to fade away. Better to give in to the nymph of joy than to tears of regret. Better to ditch the bad memories and make happy ones instead.
If it moves you, it must be art:
Having lost a court case this week- well and truly trashed- I walked out of the courtroom and into the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. This illustrious gallery is my regular haunt where I escape for a few hours as often as required. I spent two hours walking around, sitting and staring longingly and just emptying my head. Art is a magnificent echo of what we're feeling. Rembrandt, Rubens, van Dyck and Velasquez- thank you.
The actor Philip Seymour Hoffman ended his life by a suspected drug overdose this week. The Greeks maintained that a peaceful death was the reward for one who had lived a good and honest life. In this crazy world we live in, 'good', 'honest', 'peaceful' seem at odds with the word 'reward'. Why? Probably because we don't feel the need to earn brownie points with the universe too much these days. RIP Mr. Hoffman. Wherever you are.
A fossilised shell I found on the highest point in Surrey, UK. I always thought the oceans reached mountaintops once! Photo copyright S. van Dalen