From now to a memory

I stumbled onto a TED talk about memory this morning and since that's a subject I'm keenly tuned to, having lost family and friends to Alzheimer's, I watched. Joshua Foer's talk is about competitive memorizing—who knew?—and he shows us some of the tricks competitors use. But the heart of his talk is this, that you must work to remember. And you must pay attention to the present. I latched onto that because it's what I believe too, and we're always ready to adopt an expert when he agrees with us. But in this case my experiences support my belief.

We've done a lot of traveling through the years and have been rewarded with wonderful memories. Most remain bright and clear because when you travel as we did, with little money and almost always by car you must, if you are to keep going, pay attention to the present. If you're on the road in a foreign land, following roadsigns you can't read, eating foods you don't know, struggling through a conversation in mutually unintelligible languages, and seeing strange and beautiful things every minute of every day, you can't help but be present and alert. Otherwise, to quote recently deceased author Chinua Achebe, "things fall apart."

Some of the sites and some of the conversations we had during those travels are burned into my soul. It is day-to-day living that depletes our memories, it is the deep ruts we carve for ourselves and the mundane activities that fill our lives: eating, bathing, cleaning, working, shopping, commuting. Not to mention all the electronic distractions. Yet even in this we find relief when we pay attention.

On my routine daily walks I am often so deep in my mind that I only surface when I'm about to be hit by a car. Most days I cannot tell you what I saw or heard. But when we pay attention, memory works. A few days ago I was obliviously walking the asphalt path when a sudden movement on the left caught my eye. I turned to see eight deer, the closest standing less than ten feet away. I had already passed most of them and would have missed them entirely except for that nod of the head. Of course I stopped and greeted the ladies—they were all ladies—and we stood and looked at each other. Then, not wanting to spook them I moved on.

On another day Ray and I were walking, not speaking just walking, when I looked up and saw two birds circling high above us. "Look," I said, "are those vultures?" And as I spoke one of the great birds turned toward us and the morning sun lit up his white head and tail feathers. We watched as the bald eagle circled lower and lower on a descending current of air. Then suddenly he flapped his wings and was off again, disappearing over the tops of the pines. I remember that, just as I remember the deer, because they were events that drew me out of my routine and into the present.

Distractions like those are frequent here and we are lucky, but anyone can be aware. I sometimes pretend I'm on a trip just to practice the awareness that I know goes with traveling. It's not hard, it just takes remembering to do it.

Give yourself a present today. Step out of your routine for just a moment and notice your surroundings; pay attention. Don't, as Foer says, "be so lazy that [you're] not willing to process deeply." Look hard. Your present is your present, and it can be a memory.