Art As an Act of Memory
How do you want to be remembered?
Posted September 17, 2018
Memory is a rather magical human trait. It allows us to share what we experience and make connections with the world and the people we care about. It is the thread that binds us to one another. Through memory, we learn to love, to trust, and to care about each other.
One of the things I learned from living through my mother’s decline with Alzheimer’s is that memory is a fundamental part of the everyday of our lives. We need to remember.
If we don’t remember the answers to the questions, we fail the test. If we can’t remember the way home, we get lost. If we don’t remember to take the dinner out of the oven, it will be ruined. If we don’t remember the faces of the ones we love and who love us, we become estranged from our lives and the lives of others. If we don’t or can’t remember, we have no past, no present, and no future. We are disconnected and all alone.
One of the more far-flung theories being tossed about regarding the reason our parents and grandparents are experiencing Alzheimer’s in such alarming numbers is that they saw so many terrible things happen during World War II—the concentration camps, Pearl Harbor, and the dropping of the atomic bomb, not to mention the horror of the war itself—that they developed the disease in order to forget.
With Vietnam, two Gulf Wars, 9/11, too many senseless school shootings and every other tragedy we’ve witnessed in recent years, are we doomed to have Alzheimer’s? Destined to forget?
Artists and writers have always served as scribes for humanity. They put down in lines and colors, words and songs, the things they see and feel. When we write a story, draw a picture, play music, sing a song, dance, or throw a pot, we engage in an act of memory.
We want to remember. We need to remember. Memories make us happy. They can also make us sad. But whether happy or sad, memories connect us. That is why we tell stories when we sit at our kitchen tables, why we take pictures when we travel, why we send emails to our friends. We want to connect. We want to hold on to our memories. Because in some very fundamental way we understand that if our memories are lost, we are lost.
One of the most curious things about Alzheimer’s is that when the sufferer has forgotten most of their memories and nearly all their language, if they hear a song that has some strong memory attached to it, whether it is the singing of the hymn Amazing Grace or The Old Rugged Cross, or even a song they once danced to with someone they loved, they can recall and call back every word of the lyrics and sing along. When they sing, their faces are no longer blank and flat, but filled with memory in a way that can break your heart—for when the music is gone, the words and the memories are forgotten again.
Some researchers have suggested we can stem the tide of Alzheimer’s by keeping mentally active doing crossword puzzles and reading books.
My mother read books and did puzzles until she no longer remembered how to read or knew puzzle pieces were meant to fit together.
Books and puzzles are not enough. I believe we should make art. I think we should take some time every day to pinch a pot, take a picture, write a poem, arrange a vase of flowers, bake a beautiful cake, sing a song, dance, do anything to spark the creative spirit within us that says: This is what I see, this is what I feel, this is what I want to remember about this day.
This is what I want you to remember about me.