Memories revisited

I wrote yesterdays’ piece entirely off the top of my head, with few edits, and sadly it shows a little. It’s not quite as clear and well written as I would like, but the point of the 30 day exercise is to encourage greater volumes of public writing to make me more relaxed about it – but to what end result, I don’t know yet. The journey is the destination at present.

Although it was written while I was inspired by Matt Gemmells’ piece – his work, obviously, is better quality – I have a different motive. I wrote it because I am scared of losing my memory. The writing was an exercise in recollection; could I, while writing, recall scenes from my childhood? Apparently I can, but as the character in the piece got more and more frustrated, so did I. My recollection of my childhood is exactly as it was written – disjointed, unconnected, and a series of pictures with the occasional associated burst of sound or emotion.

I’m 43 now. I’ve been through a horrible illness, and had other experiences that any normal grown man would be able to recognise, but the one thing that strikes fear and terror into my heart is the loss of memory. I’m not talking about the temporary loss of a particular experience – I’ve had a few I’m keen to forget – but that sudden realisation that a whole chunk of my past has gone missing, or even worse that it’s gone missing and I never know that it’s gone.

Over the years I’ve built a series of systems to hold up my creaking memory. A scaffold, if you will. It requires rigid maintenance and suffers badly if I’ve been lax. I place things by the door if I want to remember them, or pile them up around the things I need to leave the house – like my keys. I live by my to-do lists in Omnifocus and Asana and have to come to terms with the need to record everything I need to do in these systems, or they will disappear. My inbox and assorted folders are carefully organised to take away the need to remember where important data is stored and let muscle memory take over. I store every work email in carefully sorted nested folders. Search and audit trails are my personal religion.

This rigid adherence to systems, in order to support my failing memory, can be a burden. I adopt semblances of OCD when preparing for a day to come. I get pedantic and unsettled if my chain of events to prepare for the next day is broken or interrupted. I will scold myself relentlessly if I find out I have forgotten to do a simple task. My wife is thankfully tolerant of my need to record tasks the moment they are assigned – she knows by now that if I take a task without recording it, it will disappear like dust after mere minutes, and sometimes I can deny all knowledge of being told it in the first place.

And as if by magic, we return to the core of todays’ post. It’s that last sentence that captures all that I am scared of. I can be told something and not only forget what I was told, but forget that I was told it at all. It’s as if the event of the telling never happened, or happened to someone else. The fact that this happens to me – and can happen at any moment – is the pinnacle of my fear. If the scope of this forgetting were to expand, I would likely not know it was happening to me and before long all that is ‘I’ would erode with it.

I have no idea how common this is or how foolish I may seem by being scared of it. I’m wary of doing the research in case it tells me what I don’t want to know. Instead I write about it, and hope that exposing my fear to the cold light of day will cause it to disappear as easily as that instruction to empty the kitchen bin.


(Todays’ post was inspired by the piece ‘Relative‘ written by Matt Gemmell.)

He sits across the table from you, holding a stack of pictures which he soundlessly fans across the surface. They loosely scatter like leaves, each one showing a unique image. Here’s a small boy, smiling shyly into the camera and wearing his first holy communion outfit. Another shows children with fear etched into their faces as they run from a hail of rocks. This one is a shiny new bike, wheeled into the living room. As you look at this one you can see the owner of the pictures relax his face, as if smiling inside and remembering the moment.

He spreads his open hands across the tabletop and moves all the pictures around, in the manner of a cheap childrens’ party magician trying to distract your attention. Have more pictures been added? It’s hard to tell. They feel dense, somehow – this isn’t a collection of leaves any more as it is more a sense of mush. You realise that some of the pictures don’t have clean edges, they are ripped and torn and worn out. His hand sharpens into a pointing finger and glides across the table tapping one picture after another. Sitting upright in bed and puking. The curl of another childs’ hand around their Atari 2600 controller, a loose collection of kids and bikes wearing seventies flares and swarming down the centre of a road. The devilish gleam in a young boys eye as he prepares to lie down in the middle of an occasionally busy road. A young boy and a younger girl huddled together on a staircase in the dark, looking scared.

If you raise your head and try to catch his gaze, he will look fleetingly at you before returning his concentration to the tabletop. His hand moves from one picture to another, sometimes pointing one out, sometimes picking one up and holding it for a moment as if trying to remember the moment that the picture captures. When he does this, his brow furrows slightly with the effort of recollection.

An air of desperation creeps into the room. He doesn’t make a sound, but looks more and more frustrated as he picks up and discards images seemingly at random, faster and faster. He doesn’t seem to be looking for anything in particular, but even so a thread slowly emerges – the discarded pictures pile up at one side of the table, with new ones stacking on top to resemble a kids flick book – those ones you recall as a child with hundreds of stick figures taking on animation as the pages are flicked between the fingers. The pile of pictures builds. The child is getting older.

Look at the stack – there are gaps. Years get added on in the blink of an eye. Groups of pictures concentrate on one event, as if that carries emotional weight. Apart from the similarity of our subject, there doesn’t seem to be any consistency; the images leap from night to day, sun to shade, happy to sad. The boy becomes a man, and the pictures blur and fade for a while, then sharpen again.

His hands stop. They clench into fists and rise as if to strike the table, but then pause and relax. He looks up and away, then carelessly sweeps all the pictures to the floor. Before you can ask what he was looking for, he turns and is gone.

A pause for contemplation

I have recently read of people on the internet who have lost children to cancer. To say it in such a fashion cheapens the message somewhat, as if to reduce the loss of a child to a single sentence is to reduce the fury and impact that the family has to go through when confronting the fact that their child won’t be around to grow up any more.

But… Cancer. It’s still enough to chill the bones.

I’m writing todays’ entry in hospital as I go for my regular checkup with my oncologist. Not to labour the point, but I had my own experience with cancer three years ago, and although I know in my heart that I’m cured (not in remission, but cured, although it will take another seven years before my oncology team will say that), the need to come back to the hospital every four months still makes me uneasy.

My examinations are rudimentary. A physical exam, a chest x-ray every six months, blood tests at every visit. Still, this hospital is where I went through chemotherapy and the associated discomfort that that brings, and to return reminds me of that, even though I don’t visit the ward I was in; I just skirt the outsides of the treatment centres and sit in the restaurant eating a lunch that three years ago would have seemed a remote impossibility to digest.

I am often accused of playing the cancer card, and to be fair, sometimes I do. I’ve written before about the sense of relief that arises when telling someone you have cancer and are going through chemotherapy gets you special service, or lets you jump a queue. All these little things add up to relieve the pressure of living a little – because the pressure can be hard during treatment. Even now I still play it just to reset expectations or show someone that they are not alone in going through experiences such as those I went though – essentially I am trying to show that I can help, if so asked. I’m not asked very often, but I want to help. I want to show compassion and somehow leverage my experience to help others, to pay it forward, to alleviate the light sense of selfishness that my entirely self centred treatment engendered.

Regardless, I am now cured, but I still have to have checkups, and while they are physically trivial, they can be mentally tough. As a patient I am chirpy and lively but I’m still searching for that frisson of pause or doubt in those medical professionals whose opinion and expertise I have placed my trust – they kept me alive, after all. To see a pause in their examination or to sense a carefully worded phrase when reading results will communicate far more than it is supposed to. I am an adult and I know that they have seen this before and won’t allow themselves to slip and, anyway, I am better now. It was three long years ago and not a blip has shown itself on the numerous tests.

Nevertheless, as a man who is cured I still wait to be told that I have cancer.

Writing history part two

(this is continued from part one posted yesterday)

During German detention, I managed to get a different form of punishment from the other students. As my German teacher and I had already agreed that asking me to revise for German coursework and lesson content was a fruitless exercise, she let me do something else. She had agreed with my English teacher that I could write stories.

This was a substantial help to my coursework. I was never all that able to focus on coursework or the work I needed to do when I was off the school premises, but trapped in a one hour detention session with nowhere else to go does wonders to focus the mind. A crucial part of my final English exam was to submit twelve pieces of written work and my English teacher had agreed with my German teacher that she would accept stories I had written during my German detention.

Right there, I had an instant and almost unlimited source of coursework. Limited only by the number of detentions I had, which was substantial as I wouldn’t be able to leave the lessons until the last few months of school (my attendance at that point was an utter waste of time, so I got to go home or practice in other teaching sessions).

So, to get to my point, I wrote stories. I let my fourteen year old imagination run wild, took up a paper and pen (this was 1984 and computers were yet to arrive in any reasonable quantity pretty much anywhere at this point), and wrote. Looking back, some of my stories were complete ripoffs of other published fiction, usually re-imagined to place me at the heart as the hero or let me detach myself from the story altogether and present another viewpoint.

I wrote third person, first person, science fiction, general everyday life and countless other stories. I never wrote about real life or mentioned what happened outside of school. Everything I wrote flowed from my imagination and flew onto the page, unchecked for quality, spelling or even legibility.

My teachers loved it. The German teacher got something to read – although I would hesitate to suggest she got anything other than mild interest in the fantastical ravings of a fourteen year old boy – and my English teacher read and approved every piece of literature I wrote before adding it to the pile of content I could submit as English coursework. I had a lot; so much so that I could pick and choose my best work well ahead of schedule. Despite my boredom and laziness, I was one of the few that year that didn’t have to write anything at all at the last minute.

I got an A.

I fully credit those two members of staff for spurring me on and taking advantage of the odd set of circumstances to bring out the best in me. They lit the light in me that I use today to guide me through the difficult parts of writing; I’m no novel writer but I can bash out 500 words a day without having to think about it too much, and I owe it all to them.

Tomorrow I’ll either pick another topic entirely, or indulge myself in a little more history. The best advice is to write about something you know, and I do find I am an authority on myself.

Writing history part one

So, all of a sudden I don’t get the chance to write meaningless drivel in a personal diary. I’ve committed to writing things down that will be made public on the internet, and that places a burden on me to write something that will be interesting, or at least doesn’t make me look like a complete fool, anyway.

Let’s start off with something easy, and a bit meta – let’s write about writing.

I started realising that I was a better writer at secondary school, I think – at least, that’s the earliest memory I have of writing stories. Please understand that this wasn’t a series of creative writing classes, but a series of punishments – a series that ended up benefiting me in my exams.

I wasn’t really all that interested at school. It wasn’t helped by the headmaster who set a dangerous precedent on my first trip around the school with my mother – She told me on the car journey home that I was perfectly capable of getting 11 A Grade O-Levels in this school, which started off my time there nicely. (I never got 11 A Grade O-Levels; I finally left there with 4 mediocre qualifications which haven’t made a jot of difference to my professional life since).

I was particularly able to be led astray by my fellow classmates. As you would expect, I was the one who suffered for it, and this meant I got to spend a lot of time behind after school. I’d like to add to this that I was quite bright – as least, I think I was – and so I got bored easily. As any adult who looks back on their schooling will remember, being bored never really works out well for a secondary school kid, and while I did get some support for my appalling handwriting, I never particularly recall any support that was designed to make me shine as a academic star.

Except for two teachers.

I should point out that my secondary school was an all boys institution and as such was packed with hormonal teenagers who continually bordered on tribal struggles and violence. I have some true horror stories about the violence. This highlighted the good things that teaching staff did for us, and I had two teachers who did make the most of the situation I was in to help me out.

I sadly can’t remember their names, but both were women – one taught German, which I was awful at, and the other was my English teacher. My German teacher quickly cottoned on to the fact that I was not adept at second languages, but couldn’t ignore my bored behaviour so I got a lot of detention. My English teacher realised that my boredom was not conducive to the volumes of coursework that I had to complete, so between them they hatched up a plan.

In detention you were supposed to be punished. You were supposed to either catch up on homework or do things that reminded you of the futility of your existence during punishment. My exercises during other detentions were many, but during my German detention I got to write stories.

I’m already over my 500 word limit for the day, so I’m going to park this story here and come back to it tomorrow.

30 days from Fathers Day

Today I experienced the joys of Fathers Day for the very first time, and I must say it gives me a warm feeling of purpose. Writing about it gives me a sense of trepidation though, and I’ll explain why in a moment.

As I write this, my nearly nine week old son is sitting in his bouncer with a case of the hiccups and is happily surveying the world around him in the way only a baby can; his bright blue eyes are open wide and he is gawping around at everything that is within his limited vision. I assume he has limited vision – he hasn’t quite managed to fix his gaze on his mother or me yet, apart from the limited attempts when he is hungry and believes that looking more adorable is his key to being fed upon demand.

As I have explained to friends over the last few weeks, it wasn’t until he arrived that I realised how selfish I had been with my own time. I’d been used to sitting and futzing around on the internet for hours at a time, convincing myself that I was working or researching or doing whatever I needed to fulfil my dream of supporting myself (I was lying to myself – I was just reading different bits of the internet). Now my time is broken up into whatever chunks are available between Freddie needing to be fed, or have his nappy changed, or whatever attendance he needs to keep him happy, and whatever time I can eke out to just sit and bond with him.

Part of the time has been increasingly allocated to expanding my writing skills. Today is day 266 of writing 500 words a day. As I explained in my previous post, I have been doing this as an exercise in improving my writing skills, but because the writing isn’t public I am increasingly turning it into a whingey diary. I thought it was necessary to give myself a kick in the arse by committing to writing openly.

So I’ve taken a step and have decided to publish 500 words on this site every day for the next 30 days. The 500 words will be those I write as my daily exercise. This fills me with trepidation as I am about to make my inner mutterings public, and it also requires me to apply a filter to what I write now, lest I offend someone.

This explanatory post is the first of my 500 words a day. I offer no guarantees as to the quality of my writing – often as it is not planned but simply written straight out as I think of a topic in the morning. I edit very little, and plan even less. If I were to try and apply edits and careful planning I fear I would run out of time, and I have already committed to the writing for 266 days in a row – I’m not about to stop that streak.

So, enjoy what you read, and expect more every day. Let’s see what the next 30 days bring.