Reconciling the past and the future

BY RANDALL RIGSBEE, News + Record Staff
Posted 5/1/20

Our brains — the human nervous system’s mission control — are interesting organs.

In partnership with the spinal cord, it’s responsible for everything we do, including my tapping the …

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Reconciling the past and the future

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Posted

Our brains — the human nervous system’s mission control — are interesting organs.

In partnership with the spinal cord, it’s responsible for everything we do, including my tapping the proper keys on the keyboard as I write this. I don’t even have to look at the keys!

Memories, like our brains that store them, are also interesting. And fickle, it seems.

My brain can conjure many moments from long ago, yet it’s asking a lot of the same brain that recalls those cobwebby time capsules to recollect a birthday or a phone number or sometimes even a name.

I remember, for instance, a visit to an emergency room when I was 4 years old. My siblings and I had been playing croquet in the front yard of our house in Durham — it must have been a Saturday afternoon — when, at precisely the wrong moment, I reached for a croquet ball just as a mallet was contacting it, and my unfortunate timing was rewarded with a couple of smashed fingers and a trip to Watts Hospital. I remember the pain, and I remember crying about it. I remember my dad driving me to the hospital and I remember the hallway where we waited together for a doctor to look at my injured fingers. From where I sat, I could see into a room where a man lay on a gurney, bruised, bandaged and ailing. Sensing my unhappiness with my own circumstances (I was too young to know about stoicism), the man with troubles of his own tried to cheer me up by telling me how he’d been thrown from a horse and trampled and, like me, rewarded with a Saturday afternoon visit to the hospital. I remember how his stunning story diverted my attention — how could a mere croquet injury, however disruptive it was to my afternoon, compete with what he’d been through? — and I remember my father driving us home, the afternoon turned into evening now, my bandaged fingers still throbbing, but the scary trip to the hospital finally itself a memory. That, I remember, was the best feeling.

All of that is cemented in my brain 50-something years later, even with a heap of other memories piled on top of it over the intervening years.

Yet, somehow, I still more often than not must consult the directions on the instant grits we prepare with some regularity, uncertain if its a half — or is it a whole or a quarter? — cup of boiling water that’s added to the mix.

Some things stick. Some things don’t.

Why is that? Neither I, nor my brain, know.

While I don’t have all the answers, I’ve been thinking a lot about memory.

Partly these musings have been triggered by the slow process me and my siblings have been undertaking cleaning out our mother’s house in the weeks since her death in early March. We’ve uncovered a lot of stuff — newspaper clippings, old report cards, magazines, photographs, objet d’art — that have resurrected memories I’d forgotten I retained.

Another reason for these thoughts on memory, I’m hesitant to say (because it’s a topic both my brain and I are beyond weary from contemplating) is the new cultural landscape in this ongoing era of COVID-19.

It’s only been a matter of weeks now since the novel coronavirus became a dominant force in our lives, upending so many ordinary things; but how quickly a “new” reality can alter our perceptions.

For all the memories I can’t shake, I almost have trouble remembering what the world was like before COVID-19.

Was there a time when a trip to the grocery store didn’t feel like a game of Russian roulette? When toilet paper was plentiful? When the Rolling Stones could occupy an arena stage together as a united band and thousands of fans could gather en mass to hear them and cheer them on, instead of the new reality of seeing Mick, Keith, Ron and Charlie each in Zoom-like separate, segmented rectangles on a computer screen performing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” for an unseen, virtual audience?

I’ve tried to divert my brain from focusing to an unhealthy degree on the novel coronavirus by distracting it with television shows, but that’s been an odd experience for my brain, too.

Now, when I watch a show written and produced in the pre-COVID era — an episode of the sitcom “American Housewife” last week centered around Class of 2020 senior high school pranks, for instance — it’s with nagging incredulity. Instead of being a diversion, “American Housewife” had me pondering the actual circumstances of the Class of 2020, which has bigger concerns than silly string and shaving cream.

Maybe what I’m really thinking about now isn’t memory, but the opposite of it: the future.

What’s that future going to look like? Neither I nor my brain have that answer either. But all the sitcoms and dramas — even the crazy-popular “Tiger King” documentary on Netflix — that I’ve turned to for respite from COVID-19 news, merely is just another cobwebby relic.

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