Driving to the beach the other morning, I heard about a not-new study that tested the brain function of people 14 years before retirement and then 14 years after. Deterioration occurs. Verbal memory was negatively impacted, which means people forgot words and verbal items (referring to analogies, antonyms, sentence completion, and reading comprehension). “Use it or lose it.” This made me think about some trade-offs that may occur upon retirement. My fear of forgetting where a comma goes and for whom the bell tolls contrasted with my fear of not spending time with the people who matter to me, of having my life overshadowed by concerns for my students (who have probably already forgotten me), and of not having the opportunity to figure out who I am without thinking about my career. The fear of staying in a job for fear of forgetting could result in not getting to experience post-work life.
This made me think of some of the things we need to remember over the course of our lives: people (faces, names, stories, birthdays); homes; schedules; career terminology; driving routes and walking paths; recipes; events; family histories; the books read; the movies, plays, and TV shows watched; and the places visited. Thinking back, or trying to, it’s hard to even realize how many things have been forgotten. But just because something isn’t recalled doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been absorbed somehow into our essence. The croissant of life (much nicer to think about than an onion’s layers).
What do we want from our memory? From our lives? We want them intact and for us to be in control of them. But how much of that is possible?
Even before I retired at the end of the 2019-20 school year when I was 60 and a few months (right at the age when I could start receiving my pension), I already felt myself needing more time to access words and to regain a train of thought. It’s so odd to experience those inside wrinkles, just as it is to feel the thinning hair and see the age spots. In class (here’s a partial excuse), it became apparent that I really needed to watch what I said because it could be recorded and twisted to be turned against me (by a parent whose darling was not getting the A they absolutely deserved), so I took my time composing my thoughts before speaking. (Self-censorship or wisdom?) Even so, I could feel my brain working instead of it just working. Kind of like watching my mother get up from a chair: at 88 it was a slow-motion process, not a simple act.
Of course, I don’t want to forget things, especially if it’s my fault. I play Wordle and Quordle daily, and read and write, but I talk a lot less than I used to. Oh my, the amount of talking that goes into teaching. But that’s now countered with the calm I feel (except when looking at the stock market and my life savings experiencing loss). The balance of words lost to calm maintained must surely count as a significant benefit.
I hadn’t realized how much thinking about work overtakes our thoughts for so much of our lives. From a young age we’re directed to think about what we want to be when we grow up, and then we study for that and work at it, and then realize that we were wrong, so we try to figure out what we really want to do, and then work to transition into that new field, and then there’s the money we need to make to support ourselves and our growing families, and self-satisfaction takes a backseat to money for our children so they can start the process themselves. It’s never-ending, until it does end—at the point when a new version of us can emerge.
I remember words and their meanings, but now I also think about finding my own meanings so that I want to hold on and not loosen my grasp of life.
Here I am. A person focusing on being a better me and figuring out what that entails. It’s not selfish to continue within this unfurling, to live fully within my allotted time and space. It is to live within my expectations, not society’s.