Woke up in the middle of the night with a song in my head. In my dream, the song had started playing, and I couldn’t think of the name of the performer. Waking, I could still hum the tune (to myself – it was 3:00 a.m.), but I could not come up with the artist’s name. I knew I should know it. I’d seen him in concert, after all. I lay on my back in the dark, replaying one line of the song over and over. It was a jazz tune, so there were no words to help me.
I knew the name of the song, so there was a clear solution to this problem. I could have gotten out of bed, picked up my phone and looked it up. Somehow this seemed like cheating, like using the dictionary for a crossword clue. I needed to extract the name from somewhere inside my head. I knew it was there.
I’m thinking now that there are reasons for this reaction. There’s a part that is just resistance to the idea that senior moments are happening. I have a friend, a fellow teacher, who always marvels that I can readily retrieve the name of a former student, even one from the 1980s. I always have to qualify this ability. I can do it in conversation, remembering a moment, or I can do it by looking at a class picture from ages ago, even my own elementary school days, but face-to-face encounters are different. These often leave me staring blankly at a face I should be able to name. I know it’s anxiety that shuts down my retrieval system in those moments. I’m not sure what blocked me last night. I was not feeling anxious in the middle of the night. The musician wasn’t staring expectantly at me, like a former student.
My memory preoccupation could stem from a recent return to Duolingoing. I had a very long lapse. In my rush to get back to my old level, I’ve had to deal with lots of temporarily lost words. “Wait, what’s falda mean, again?” Or “Shoot, I can’t remember how to say ‘too.’” Just like with the musician mystery, I know that I hold a solution right in my hand. Siri could bail me out in a second, but I can’t resort to that.
The other contributor to a memory fixation, no doubt, is the book I’ve been listening to this week. What Happened to You? consists of conversations about trauma and healing between Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Perry, a brain scientist. Perry has a gift for making the functions and systems of the human brain understandable. Much of what he explains gives me hope, but there are also disturbing parts. For example, he spends a lot of time showing how the very earliest experiences of a human shape the way they view the world, the way they learn, and the way they interact with others. Traumas, stresses, and deprivation all change the way brain connections form. They actually change the brain’s biological functioning. All this brain talk makes me wonder about the students I teach, and at the same time, makes me hyper-conscious of how my own brain was shaped and how it works right now.
So, it’s safe to say that though I may technically have been outside on my walk with Farley this morning, I was still very much inside my own head. I had resisted looking up anything online as I ate breakfast. I was determined to have this name from the past present itself on its own. As we headed down our street, I noted the improvement in the temperature today, a welcome reprieve from the oppressive heat of the past few days. “We can take a longer walk today, Farley,” I muttered. “I might need it.” He didn’t respond.
I started whistling the tune, slightly frustrated that I couldn’t hit the right notes. I whistled it over and over. Again the wrong names started bubbling up. “Sammy Hagar?! Where did that come from?” Discard. I could picture him, sitting at the keyboard, shaggy white hair. I remembered my friend Carlo in college, bragging that the guy had actually performed at his high school in Westport. “Weird. I wonder where Carlo is now. He’d be surprised to know that I work in Westport. I should Google him.” More names surface. “Wally? Wallace Stevens? Nope, poet. Wally Joyner? Nope, baseball player.” Discard. Then the wrong tune started playing in my head. “Wait, no, that’s Weather Report. How did that happen?” I had probably listened to that around the same time in my life. I tried to return to the original song, but you know how that’s kind of hard when another tune has intruded. “Heavy Weather” persisted, but so did I. The correct tune finally returned.
Not long after that, we approached the fancy Senior Living Center on the right side of the road. This grassy stretch of the constitutional is Farley’s favorite pit stop spot. He paused. I waited. I stooped. I scooped. You get the idea. So, after Farley’s own brief senior moment, we resumed our walk.
I started whistling again. We had just reached the elementary school parking lot when suddenly it jiggled free. Bubbling up from brain stem depths, floating through limbic layers, and finally popping into the cortex. It wasn’t a dramatic eureka moment, either. After all that, it was just, “Oh, Brubek. Dave Brubek. Cool.”
I’m listening to him now.