On Top of Germany: The Zugspitze
If you read my last post, about Memory, you’ll appreciate what I’m about to share next…about making memories. In the book, “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering,” Josh Foer (the 2006 USA Memory Champion), relates the extraordinary story of Michel Siffre, a French chronobiologist (someone who studies the relationship of time to living organisms). In 1962, Siffre did something radical for research; he locked himself in a subterranean cave for two months. No calendar, no clock, no contact with sunlight or the outside world, total isolation. He slept and ate only when he felt the need, seeking, in this state of isolation, to understand the natural rhythms of the body.
The result: Siffre’s memory rapidly started to whither. Days morphed together. He couldn’t keep track of time. There was nothing novel to do and nothing to impress upon his memory. His sleep patterns turned erratic. He would stay awake for thirty-six hours straight while at other times he’d stay awake for only eight hours, but it felt the same.
When his support team called to him two months later from the cave entrance, he’d written the date in his journal as August 20th. He’d thought only one month had gone by. The date was September 14th.
Here’s what Foer says:
“Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next – and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly…take vacations…have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor [your] memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time and lengthens our perception of our lives.”
People can live long lives, without living long lives. The converse is true. Short lives can be long in comparison if there are experiences to “impress upon the memory.”
When I look at the sum of my memories, it’s interesting to note what I remember. I’ve forgotten a lot. But if the memory is embedded, what I recall isn’t just the person or what was happening, but the whole mental picture: the weather that day, what I was wearing or eating, the smells around me. This makes sense, knowing what we do about our memories. We recall best when we create multi-sensory visuals. It’s that whole idea of the Memory Palace, using your senses to store information.
Ironically, reading this book while in the midst of creating a memory drew the point even closer. It occurred to me that the Zugspitze, the highest point in Germany, and the most stunning glacial feature I’d ever beheld, was a vision that would blaze into my mind forever, and with it the conversations and people I was with while on the top of world, (or so it seemed).
The day we went to Zugspitze with the boys, we left the kids to ski, while a few of us went to eat lunch at the restaurant on the peak. It was Cooper, Maggie, my dear friend Aisa, myself, and a stranger (who’d offered to let us sit at her table when she noticed there were no other tables left.) As the five of us sat eating, enjoying plates of venison stew and pretzel bread, we discussed the odds and ends of life: our children, Aisa’s son on a mission in Japan, her new Zumba class, my book project and the Winter Olympics. We discovered the stranger seated with us was an American woman, single, living and teaching at an International School in Norway. She’d grown up abroad, her father had been in the Foreign Service. Her plan was to live and teach on every continent. She was hoping to move to South America next. I couldn’t help but think: Could this be my child someday, wondering the globe believing everywhere was home? It was a moment I won’t forget.
Several years ago, when living in Virginia, feeling very routine about my life following the year Cooper had worked in Pakistan, leaving me solo to handle the household affairs and four kids–including a teenager and a newborn (no I wasn’t bitter), I decided to take a mental health break and venture to Seattle to meet up with my best friend from college. It’d been 15 years since we’d seen each other but, of course, it felt like yesterday.
During this time we explored Seattle, took the Ferry to Friday’s Harbor, and did things I would never NORMALLY do in my life. For example, we each selected a book of poetry at a local bookstore to read and take home, promising to share the best poems with each other later. We dined at restaurants with great atmospheres–or as she would say, “great vibes.” We spent time talking and relaxing on the pier with our feet dangling above the still cold water. I took pictures of the ancient ferns that grew wild because they made me feel exotic. And not least of all, the unforgettable evening spent with all of her family, parents, siblings, meeting beloved nieces and nephews. Those memories have stayed with me because they were out of the ordinary, not my usual MO: feeding kids, doing laundry, bath time, bedtime, repeat.
As moms we’re high-risk candidates for feeling stuck in our lives, one day unmemorably blending into the next. It’s not because our work is boring, or drudgery (Okay, sometimes it feels that way), or unimportant, it’s just very very routine and the brain gets tired of the same old, same old. You know you’re getting dangerously close to monotony when nothing makes you happy anymore. Those are the moments when you need a change. Go for an outing, serve ice cream for breakfast (with fruit, the kids will ALWAYS remember it), take a hike in nature. If time allows, plan a trip. A weekend at a hotel by yourself can be better than Prozac.
It’s easy to forget. If you want to have a long happy life, then don’t just eat right and exercise, get out of your routine and make it memorable.