Sunday, June 30, 2013

Unstuck (Time and Memory)

When I was an English major down at the University Illinois I was required as part of the honors program to request an adviser and do a thesis paper. My favorite professor was a man named Charles Sanders, who I first met when I was in a small seminar devoted to the work of T.S. Eliot, my favorite poet.  I went to his office to talk to him but he was not there.  I sat in the hallway for about an hour so that I could ask him if he would be my mentor.

Charles gave me my "D." On the day he did I also sat in the hallway. When he came in, he said, "I actually really liked your paper, T.S.. I give everyone a 'D' on their first paper because I find that weeds out the people who are tourists looking for an easy grade and not serious about what I teach.  He was right.  The next time i went to class it was down by half.

On this particular day, when came in he said “T.S. why are you here?”  I told him why and he said “Of course I’ll be your advisor.  What do you think you want to write about?”   I said, “I have thought about this a lot, and I think I want to write about how about time and memory, and about how modern writers and poets, like Faulkner, Eliot and Vonnegut, have fractured their narratives and poems to express how we experience  and struggle with these two things” 

Charles always sucked on lollipops.  He took the strawberry one out of his mouth and asked “Why?” I told him about an obsession I have always had with time and memory. He said, “That’s a good theme.  There is a lot of material there. Let’s see what you can do with it.” I ended up writing 36-page paper on the impact of these things on modern literature.  It was focused on how historical and life events change the way we think about an create around time and memory.

These days when people come into my garage studio and my upstairs to my home office they often ask “Why do you make so many collages of events in your life, and why do you have so many clocks?”  The answer is that I am, like when I was a young student, still obsessed with time and memory.  This obsession got even worse when I found out I had Parkinson’s. It got almost to the point where my thinking about these things paralyzed me.

I have always felt like I was unstuck in time.  Then, and still, my mind jumps around from memory to memory.  I am also constantly looking at watches and clocks to see what time it is because I have no natural sense of time.  I am like Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, minus the science-fiction.  He was a man unstuck in time and memory and so am I.

In the early days of this thing my wife was concerned about me enough to suggest I might want go to a counselor and I did. I went to visit with a guy I knew, named Steve, who is a highly recommended therapist.  He is real nice guy and I felt very comfortable sharing with about how it was that I felt unstuck. 

He asked me about why I thought so much about time.  I said, “Because I want to have as much of it as I can.  I don’t want to lose it; I want to use it well, as much as I can.  I don’t like sleeping because that could be time I could use. I have done that since I was a kid. After everyone went to bed I would sit up all night writing. I'm doing it again.”  He scribbled in his notebook. 

He then asked me about why I was currently thinking so much about memory.  I said, “I don’t want to lose it either.”  I told him I was worried that my memory was tarting to get sketchy and lost. Even though I can remember stories from many years ago, but I can’t remember numbers, appointments, certain words, or what someone said to me ten minutes ago.

He said that is normal for a person like you. By nature, being a writer and artist, you're someone that spends a lot of time in their head. “There is a big difference between being highly distracted and losing your memory.  Why else are you so concerned about your memory?”

I told him the story of the night I called my father to check in on him and when he got on the phone it was clear he did not remember who I was.  He broke off for a minute and asked his wife, “Who am I talking to?” She said, “Your oldest son, Tom.”  He said “I have a son?” Dad was not in good shape then.  He was using a walker and you never knew from day-to-day how lucid he might be depending on medicine tweaks.  We finished the call but I could tell he had no idea who I was. That conversation broke my heart and has haunted me ever since.

I was lucky that I had a couple of more conversations with him where he did remember me, if not all that we had done together, and we had one more nice visit together before he went to sleep and never woke up again.  I told Steve that I didn’t want to end up some day like my father, where I couldn’t remember my own children.

The whole time I was talking, Steve was writing in his notebook.  He eventually looked up and said, “We’re getting near time.  I want to tell you this.  It is not uncommon for people like who have life changing events, like being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, to feel “unstuck” like you feel right now.  I can help you with that.”  I said thank you.  He then asked me, “Just for my notes, what exactly did your dad die from?”

 It took me a minute to answer, because it was the root of many of my problems.  I didn’t want to face it at all, but I told him anyway. ”He died of complications from Parkinson’s.”  Steve, who is always taciturn, stopped writing and looked up at me over the rims of his glasses. He said, “Oh, my. I think you and I are going to have many more conversations, not just about time and memory, aren’t we?”  I nodded my head, put on my coat and left.

I worked with Steve for weeks and he helped me. He convinced me that there was no reason to believe I would necessarily be like my father when he was in his final years, and if I was it would be many years in the future. He also taught me two other good things. 

He taught me that time is not something you can control, and it is not necessarily completely linear or precise.  Time is, as Einstein said, “Relative,” and different for different people, so therefore it is best to just let go and find joy in the time you have… even the wasted time.  He also taught me that it is alright to be unstuck as long as you can manage it, use it to your advantage, and it doesn’t mess up your life.

Another thing he told me was this, “T.S,, there is nothing wrong with revisiting memories, good and bad.  As a writer that becomes your material, but don’t obsess about hanging on to memories forever. A good exercise to do might be to stop worrying so much about keeping memory but to concentrate on making new memories.” I am trying to do that now.  I’m trying to make good memories for my family, my friends, and my neighbors. 

I’m also trying hard to discover what the songwriter, James Taylor, said in his song “The Secret of Life.”  I’m doing my best to just “enjoy the passage of time.” I'm doing the things that I love, in the places I love, and with the people I love. I am still unstuck in time and memory, but that’s OK with me now.  It keeps my mind alive and busy, which is not a bad thing.

And so it goes.