All I know of you
is in my memory.
All I ask is you
Rosemary. Suzanne Vega.
* * *
“Mum, I Saw Tulips On the Way Home.”
In 1988, a fourteen-year-old English boy named Neil began radiation treatment for a tumor hidden deep within the recesses of his brain. Neil had been a normal child until the expanding tumor began to interfere with his vision and memory and to create a host of other medical problems. Chemotherapy was eventually successful, but Neil suffered heavy cognitive losses. He was virtually unable to read and could no longer name common objects on sight. Neil was able to recount most of his life prior to the operation, but he had great difficulty remembering his ongoing, day-to-day experiences.
Curiously, however, Neil performed reasonably well at school, especially in English and mathematics. The psychologists who tested his memory wondered how he managed to do so well. To find out, they asked him some questions about an audiotaped book he had been studying, Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee. He remembered nothing. Noting Neil’s frustration, and realizing that his class performance was based on written responses, the examiner asked Neil to write down his answers, beginning with anything that he could recall from the book. After a while he wrote: “Bloodshot Geranium windows Cider with Rosie Dranium small of damp pepper and mushroom-growth.” “What have I written?” he then asked, unable to read his own handwriting but able to speak normally. The examiner, who was familiar with the book, immediately recognized that the phrases came directly from its pages.
Neil’s parents asked him to write down the names of the children in his class. He produced a long list, which turned out to be accurate. When his mother asked him what had happened at school that day, Neil wrote, “Mum I saw tulips on the way home.” This was the first time in to years that Neil had been able to relate to his mother a memory of something that had happened to him in her absence.
Neil’s parents equipped him with a small notebook, and he began to communicate regularly about incidents in his everyday life. Yet he remained unable to recount these episodes orally. When he wrote them down, Neil was unable to read them, and often expressed surprise when someone told him what he had written. After an afternoon’s excursion to several familiar locations, Neil was unable to remember anything when asked. But when told to write down what had happened, he provided a succinct, and accurate, summary of the afternoon’s activities: “We went to the museum, and we had some pizza. Then we came back, we went onto the Beach and we looked at the sea. Then we came home.”
This case is unprecedented in the annals of psychology, psychiatry, or neurology. Neil’s tumor did damage his brain, including some structures that are known to be important for memory. But nothing about the condition of his brain provides specific clues to how or why he could retrieve recent episodic memories through writing but not speaking.
Searching for Memory. Daniel L. Schacter.
* * *
Victoria rarely left home these days. She was not regarded, however, as a recluse by her acquaintances. They believed the long gaps between visits or telephone calls was explained by her busy schedule and frequent trips. Most were married, many had children, so they too lost track of time. It was easy for months to pass by; even a year or two. The same morbid thought often came to her: “What if I died this minute? How long before someone might find my body?” This thought came to her more often these past months because she kept more and more to herself. It was far better to have an entire day stretching ahead with no obligations, no people. Of course there were the cats, which, she laughed, were sometimes even too much company! She liked it when they slept quietly during the day. This can’t be normal, she worried, to live so much in your own company. Everyone else must be living normally, the people she saw everyday in the street. It’s just that it took so much mental energy to make small talk. She could make small talk, there was no question of that, but it was something that she thought she did rather poorly, except when she was in one of those rare moods, when she liked to ramble about silly things. That could be fun.
But what she liked best, she decided, was dipping into her books (there was always a large pile near her radio), listening to her few records, and day dreaming. She had a strange way of reading–she hardly ever finished a book, but liked to read from a few at the same time. Her sister thought that was a strange way to read, and always made fun of her for this habit. She liked to day dream, with her memories of D. and sometimes even pretend D. was still there, or think of what D. was doing that minute. Does D. remember me? Who will remember me? People in old photos, did anyone remember the faces peering out from them? It’s sad, when there is no one left to remember.
* * *
Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.
Burnt Norton. T.S. Eliot.
* * *
In the Carmen of the Martyrs,
with the statues in the courtyard
whose heads and hands were taken,
in the burden of the sun;
I had come to meet you
With a question in my footsteps.
I was going up the hillside
and the journey just begun.
Rosemary. Suzanne Vega.
* * *
I stand by myself
Not lonely at all.
I listen to the little birds
Beckon and call.
I stand by myself
By the pond, with the fish
And now I don’t even
Have one little wish
Except to be by myself
Each and every day
And come down to the woods
Where the little deer play.
By Myself. Suzanne Vega (Age 9)
* * *
I was born in a country of brooks and rivers, in a corner of Champagne, called le Vallage for the great number of its valleys. The most beautiful of its places for me was the hollow of a valley by the side of fresh water, in the shade of willows…
My pleasure still is to follow the stream, to walk along its banks in the right direction, in the direction of the flowing water, the water that leads life towards the next village…
But our native country is less an expanse of territory than a substance; it’s a rock or a soil or an aridity or a water or a light. It’s the place where our dreams materialize; it’s through that place that our dreams take on their proper form….Dreaming beside the river, I gave my imagination to the water, the green, clear water, the water that makes the meadows green. I can’t sit beside a brook without falling into a deep reverie, without seeing once again my happiness….The stream doesn’t have to be ours; the water doesn’t have to be ours. The anonymous water knows all my secrets. And the same memory issues from every spring.
L’Eau et les Rêves. Essai sur l’imagination de la matière. Gaston Bachelard.
* * *
I wanted to learn all the secrets
From the edge of a knife
From the point of a needle
From a diamond
From a bullet in flight
I would be free then
Undertow. Suzanne Vega.
* * *
For notwithstanding the assumption, commonly asserted in [many] texts, that Western culture has evolved by sloughing off its nature myths, they have, in fact, never gone away. For if, as we have seen, our entire landscape tradition is the product of shared culture, it is by the same token a tradition built from a rich deposit of myths, memories, and obsessions. The cults which we are told to seek in other native cultures–of the primitive forest, of the river of life, of the sacred mountain–are in fact alive and well and all about us if only we know where to look for them.
Landscape and Memory. Simon Schama.
* * *
When I was growing up I spent five years in Spanish Harlem and ten years on the Upper West Side. The streets were always crowded with different types of people: kids from the projects, white liberals, students from Columbia. But I didn’t hang out much. You could find me in my room, or in the park by the river. Facing south on an afternoon and seeing the angles of sunlight gave me a weird sense of orientation. As a child, I felt: “The sun is there. It’s high and on my right. I am here. Everything is OK.” As an adult I had stopped going to the park on the weekends, and that feeling, if ever, visited again.
So it was about four o’clock on a cold Sunday, and I was out walking downtown. At Tenth Avenue and Fourteenth Street, or thereabouts, suddenly the rest of the city fell away, and I felt that same sense of orientation. I was in the meat market area.
The buildings in front of me were long and low, and the sky seemed very wide and intensely blue. It was a shock after the relentless verticality of the city behind me. Because of the cobblestone streets, the tin doors with porthole windows like a ship’s kitchen, the ivy on the bricks, the river on my right, I thought for a minute I was somewhere else. Cannery Row, maybe.
It was quiet and still, with a lonely feeling. A strange landscape of cool, fat shadows and slices of dazzling sun on tin. Later, when I lived on Horatio Street, where the meat market ends, I learned the neighborhood’s other moods and faces, but four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon is still my favorite time of day there.
“Blue Sky and Blood on Tenth Avenue.” From The Passionate Eye. Suzanne Vega.