“. . . one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire . . .” (Billy Collins)

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Ethelred the Unready, circa 968-1016. Detail of illuminated manuscript, ‘The Chronicle of Abindon,’ circa 1220. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“Me senescent.” About me getting old. Or is it “my” getting old? Do I mean it’s about me in the process of getting old, or that it’s about the process of getting old in general as I experience it? I’ve wondered for quite a while if the title of this blog shows my ignorance, or if it is very clever.

The difference between ignorance and cleverness is not always obvious. Microsoft Word insists that “awhile” is not a word, that one should say “a while.” Is Word showing its ignorance or being clever or dogmatizing grammar, as perhaps the arbiter of writing correctness in the 21st century should not do?

I have been growing old awhile now. Only awhile. Briefly. I’m going to while away the hours I have left. I am senescent, and I am developing all of the oddities of senescence that are the stuff of ubiquitous jokes. The late comedian Buddy Hackett compiled a list of seven warnings for senescent men. I’ve googled him but can’t find the list. Perhaps it was someone else. It’s a memory I used to harbor. Buddy Hackett senesced only to 78. The list, whether or not he wrote it, ends with, “Never waste an erection,” and “Always know where the nearest rest room is.” I was glad I’ve learned to heed one of those warnings while I was at a conference this past weekend.

The question of using “awhile” is complicated by the possibility that whenever one uses the word, one is perhaps implying a preposition. When I say, “I have been growing old awhile now,” do I mean, “I have been growing old FOR a while now?” Is this the kind of grammatical hair-splitting that only senescent English teachers think about?

No. It’s the kind of question anyone who wants to communicate well in writing needs to think about. Do you want to write about the object of your thoughts or simply modify your expression?

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

While I do not like the idea of senescence, I am somewhat comforted that the concomitant loss of the kind of memory Billy Collins’ poem describes is not a problem for me. I have never had a store of information about books and plays and music and movies and historical or scientific facts to lose. I have never paid close enough attention to build a store of such memories/knowledge. I read a book, I see a movie, or I hear a symphony concert; I experience them, and then I move on to the next book, movie, or concert and the previous ones disappear. Plots and details have

. . . floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as [I] can recall . . .
It was ever thus.

During my most recent (annual) Christmas trip to visit my brother and sister-in-law, we saw the movie, “Jackie.” (This very moment I had to google it to remember Natalie Portman, the lead actress who was nominated for the Academy Award for her work.) About two weeks later I went with a friend to see “La-La Land.” Its lead actress won the Academy Award for best actress. I remember her name. Emma Stone. While we waited for the movie to start, my friend said he was hoping to see “Jackie” soon, I said I’d like to see it, too, and perhaps we could find a time to go together.

He said, “I thought you had already seen it.” I couldn’t remember. It was two weeks before. He reminded me it’s about Jackie Kennedy and the assassination.  Oh, yes, I vaguely remembered. Fortunately, it came back to me in short order, and I was able to explain to him that the movie covers only the period from the assassination to the funeral.

This is my friend who can, I’m sure, recite the entire script of “Night at the Opera,” of “Blazing Saddles,” of “Sweeney Todd,” and of many more movies. I do not comprehend his memory.  For me

. . . The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title . . . .
[the novel] becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of . . . .

My friend is young. Not yet 60. He probably has a while to go before he has to

. . . . rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.

I have never been much interested in famous battles, but if I were, I’d have to rise in the middle of the night. While I was in college, I pulled one “all-nighter,” studying for a final exam. Medieval Civilizations. I determined I would remember at least one fact from that night for the rest of my life: Ethelred the Unready was King of England from about 979 to 1016. Two facts. His son Edward the Confessor died without an heir. That led to the Norman invasion and defeat of the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

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The tomb of St Edward the Confessor Photo: Alamy

I wrote all of that without google. I guess I am interested in one battle.

The word “while” has no touch of French or Latin in its etymology. It comes from the Proto-Germanic,

hwilo, “a spice of time.” In other words, it survived the Frenchification of England and the appropriation of the Anglo Saxon/Germanic languages by the Latinate French, although the French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese words for “while” all come from a Latin word that was obsolete even in 1066.

So the question remains: am I writing about the process of getting old in general and my experience of it, or am I writing about myself as a person in the process of getting old. Would the French not have defeated the English if William the Confessor had had a son? or was England in such disarray at that juncture that nothing could have saved the purity of the Anglo Saxon language and culture?

“Forgetfulness,” by Billy Collins (b. 1941)

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

“Forgetfulness” from Questions About Angels, by Billy Collins, 1999.

One Response to “. . . one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire . . .” (Billy Collins)

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