It’s Tuesday morning. Time for Pilates, a form of exercise designed to engage and, hopefully, synchronise my brain with my body.
I lie on the Reformer bed lifting and lowering my legs. The familiar patterns of movement free my brain enough for me to ask my Tuesday instructor if she’d had a good weekend. Yes, she had. Apart from giving some extra classes, she’d been for a beach swim and caught up with friends.
I move on to the next exercise—leg circles, in both directions. Re-engage brain, remember which muscles to use, remember to count. Did she say ten or twelve repetitions?
“How about your weekend?” she asks. My mind goes blank. My weekend? What did I do? More blankness. Apparently, I’m in a clue-free, memory-free zone. Good grief, it was only two days ago! Finally, relieved, I recall my relatively quiet and obviously forgettable weekend.
Time for the next exercise. Activate muscles, move your limbs a different way, 12 repetitions.
We chat about why it’s so hard sometimes to remember even recent things, and why the events of one day can meld and merge into others. Sometimes, it really is a mental strain to rewind time and put events, places, people, back into chronological order. Life is so fast-paced, so full of activity and change that our brains feel overloaded.
Next exercise. Switch attention, refocus, count again.
“It’s like a messy dressing table”, she says. “Your brain is like a dressing table covered with stuff.”
I picture an old-fashioned one, painted white, with curved legs and a three-paned mirror. It’s strewn with discarded scarves, jewellery, makeup, hair clips, a brush, Post-It notes, bills, photos and an empty mug. Dust.
The problem is, she says, that there’s no time to evaluate all the information coming in, so we end up with a tangled mess of stuff piled up in our brains. It’s got to be processed some time; you just can’t do it right now. In the meantime, the input has to go somewhere and so all the random bits of information collect in your brain and wait to be disentangled. That’s why it’s so hard to retrieve anything new, she says.
I think about all the information that accumulates continuously in our heads at every waking moment, entering through our senses, thoughts and emotions. It could be the sight of an un-made bed, or the distant drone of a lawnmower, or the biting cold of the winter wind, or angry words spoken in haste, or the flavour of your Nonna’s ravioli, or the floor manager’s unexpected email, or yesterday’s Pilates session. All of it gets caught up in the knotted mess of impressions, facts and memories just waiting to be combed through and teased out, to be smoothed and arranged.
Apparently, we’re not yet finished with the dressing table. That’s because, my instructor says, the drawers hold everything that’s been classified and organised. Our brains have already analysed and categorised and filed earlier batches of information into drawers and that means we can search and retrieve it more quickly and with less effort, whenever we need to. The stored information is no longer piled in a messy heap on the table.
Then I remember something I heard on the radio about how our brains process each day’s information while we sleep. It’s true and amazing, but this is how information gets settled into memory.
I tell my instructor how impressed I am with her extended analogy. And I relax a little. Somehow, my momentary memory lapse seems understandable and even slightly more interesting.
But it was such a trivial incident, so why did it bother me at all? My short term memory has never been strong; I’ve always struggled to remember what happened yesterday or what someone told me an hour ago. Nonetheless, my memory’s temporary failure to spark did make me wonder—just fleetingly—if it’s beginning to decline. Perhaps it is; I really can’t say.
But what I do know is that memory—the ability to store and recall information—really matters to me as a human being. My brain is a repository of information, a lifelong record of everything I’ve ever known or experienced. And my memory of those things really underpins my sense of identity.
Like many people, as I age it gets easier to retrieve the older memories rather than the newer ones. You might know the feeling.
I can remember lunchtime skipping games in the schoolyard, with friends holding the ends of a long thick rope and turning it rhythmically—thwack, thwack, thwack—as I readied myself to run in and jump, without getting hit. Sometimes they held two ropes, a mildly terrifying scenario as they turned them in opposite directions, simultaneously, and you had to jump twice as fast.
And I can still feel the slippery sensation of sweat forming on my legs whenever I sat on our 1970s tan-coloured vinyl lounge in summer. And the satisfying fragrant squish whenever I bit into the butterfly cakes my Mum used to make. Their little ‘wings’ dusted with snowy icing sugar, they oozed with sweet bursts of strawberry jam and whipped cream, and with the first bite a dainty white moustache would form on my upper lip.
Remembering these simple childhood sensations reminds me of who I am. Each recollection is a three-dimensional, brightly-coloured building block of memory that has helped to form my identity and to make me the person I am today. The thwack of the jumping rope affirms my love of rhythm; sweaty legs on vinyl confirm my preference for warm weather; and Mum’s butterfly cakes undergird the sweet certainty that I have always been loved.
But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realised that there’s another kind of remembering that affirms, undergirds and confirms my identity, by anchoring it in true and factual things. This kind of remembering, though, doesn’t rely on my sometimes unreliable memories with their fuzzy edges and blank spaces, or their (occasional) rose-coloured tints and embroidered details. This crisp, black & white kind of remembering relies on words—words that clearly describe and confirm my identity, words that tell me who I am, because I am in Christ Jesus.
Each time I read these words in the Bible, they remind me that although I am a distinct individual with character, personality and experience unique to me, in other ways I am just like everyone else who is in Christ Jesus. Each one of us is a forgiven sinner who—when dead in our sins—was saved and freed because Jesus paid for our sins with his blood. In him, each one of us has been blessed with every spiritual blessing and adopted into God’s family and marked as his own. Together, we are co-heirs of eternal life and glory (Rom 8:17; 1 Cor 6:19-20; Eph 1:3-14).
So, even if our earthly memories become disordered as the mess on the dressing table grows unchecked, even if we can no longer find the words in its drawers that confirm our identity in Christ, we have a deep and abiding assurance that he will not forget, that he will remember. Our identity—whether we can remember it or not—remains secure and unchanged in our faithful and steadfast Saviour. As the apostle Paul affirms:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39).
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