I took piano lessons for twelve years, from my fifth birthday through high school, with a short hiatus somewhere in the middle because I finally confessed to my parents that I hated piano because my teacher's constant berating (given my overly sensitive temperament) was making me cry.
I was good at piano; I memorized things quickly, didn't have to practice much in order to make it sound like I'd made some progress. Over the years, I accumulated quite an impressive repertoire of music that I could play on demand without sheet music, including Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu:
I delighted in sitting down to a keyboard and blowing away unsuspecting audiences.
Over the years, as I've practiced less and less, my finger memory of that music has faded. I've found the same thing is true of poems I memorized: Invictus, The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening (that one in the 7th grade). I sat down to the piano today to tinker around a bit, and found myself halfway through "New York State of Mind" when I realized I'd lost the chord progression. I couldn't help but feel like the things I'd learned by heart over the years-the things that are less intellect and more emotion-are slipping away.
The ancient Greeks believed that the heart was the seat of intelligence and memory, as well as
emotion (in fact, it was with them that the phrase "learn by heart" originated). Though neuroscientists have long since proven otherwise, I think about this sometimes when I wonder where the things I've forgotten go, and what is taking up residence in their place. Is it course numbers? Day care schedules? Small projects? My shopping list? Whatever it is, it can't be as worthy of a place in the heart as music and poetry.
The root of the word record is Latin, too: before Latin, we had to work on re (meaning "again") and cor (meaning "heart"), committing it to the heart again. And perhaps there's some truth to it after all: we make the time and space for what we love.
What things do you know by heart, and what things have you lost?