Josna Rege

513. Blank Slate

In Aging, Education, Media, reflections, Stories, writing on July 3, 2022 at 10:50 pm

I suppose I had thought that a person accumulated her experiences over the years and then, when retirement afforded her the leisure to go through her diaries, miscellaneous writings, and correspondence, she would have all that she needed to write her memoirs. I, that is, not she. All those boxes of papers I haven’t organized going back to the year dot, they could all wait until I had the time to go through them. Once I had the time, I had supposed, the floodgates of memory would simply open, and all the flotsam and jetsam of life would more-or-less fall into place. I realize now that I was counting on it. But as it turns out, events are conspiring to present a wholly different picture. 

For one thing, my mind seems to have gone completely blank. After all, over twelve-plus years Tell Me Another has accumulated more than 500 stories in its archives. That’s more than seven stories for every year of my life. What more can there be possibly left to tell? The more I wrack my brains, the more I come up empty. Perhaps there are no more ’nothers. Likelihood is that I’ve wrung myself dry. 

It’s not only my own memory banks that are failing to deliver, but also those of my trusty MacBook Pro, which has secreted in its ill-organized layers of files and folders my entire life since I first started using a computer—since graduate school in the late 1980s. After years of service, it seems to have chosen this moment of my impending retirement to completely die on me—locking all my data away with it. Even the man at the so-called Genius Bar at the Apple Store had nothing to offer me except for the business card of a data retrieval service that he assured me would withhold charges if it was unable to recover my materials. I was not reassured.

Coming at this time of transition in my life, this massive loss would be daunting enough, but there is more. For along with the data in the documents and photo library on my laptop, all the emails in my personal email account dating back to the mid-1990s—thousands of them–have disappeared as well, trapped in the dead computer and failing to transfer onto any other device. The loss of my emails is perhaps the biggest blow of all, since it means that decades of correspondence with my closest friends are simply gone. 

As a result, standing on the brink of retirement, looking into the abyss, I find myself a blank slate. It’s all over, and I have nothing to show for it. It strikes me that I might have been feeling this way even if I had not lost my data and emails; but now what was the expected angst accompanying a rite of passage has become literal. Everything I have is gone, and I cannot retrieve it. (Before you offer me technical advice on how to recover the emails and (rightly) admonish me for not having properly backed up my data—I do need that advice, but what I’m facing here is something different, something existential.)

I suppose the question now is, when you take away my words, the written proof that I was here, and there, and everywhere, that I wrote, and said, and did, thus and so, what else is left? Who am I and what does my life mean? Without the documentation, the details, what has my life been worth? And then there’s the terror—what if I wake up one morning and the memories themselves are gone, irretrievable? Without my words, will I still be me? 

Many people didn’t think so when my mother began losing her words. Without them, many of her highly verbal friends didn’t know if there was anyone left to engage with. As old friends began to look through her and to talk about her, even in her presence, Mum would cry out, “I’m here!” Here was the infuriating invisibility of the ageing woman raised to a factor of ten. It took me some time to realize that my mother was still very much with me and always would be. She might have lost her cognitive powers, but she never lost her emotional intelligence, or the way she carried herself in the world, or her love. She never lost herself. 

What would happen if I sat with and worked through the panic? If I imagined that the data are indeed irrecoverable? Accepted that I can’t provide hard evidence to support the facts of my existence; can’t call to mind any new stories to justify my existence by re-narrating it. What then? What if I faced the terror of being nothing but a blank slate, stepping forward with nothing but myself, no footnotes, no documentation? After all, I can’t take it all with me, can I? Am I really going to be spending the rest of my days sorting through the detritus of my working life? Or am I going to step forward into a new stage of my life unencumbered? 

As an immigrant, I suppose I’ve been a bit of a hoarder. My brave and peripatetic parents would give everything away each time they moved and start over. In contrast, I have saved every shred of evidence of my former lives, terrified of losing anything lest I lose an irreplaceable part of myself. What if I simply let it all go and decided to travel light for the first time in my adult life? 

Of course I still hope to recover my data and my old emails. But if I cannot do so, I might actually be liberated. Like a child who finds that they do not need their special blanket in order to get to sleep; like Ernie who finds that when he can put down the ducky he can finally get creative. It’s not something I must drag around with me for all eternity like Marley’s chain in A Christmas Carol. What I have really drawn from my experiences has become part of me, part of who I am. And whether or not I lose my cognitive powers, which I suppose we all must do sooner or later, I will never be a blank slate.

What am I afraid of? 

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. You faced the deepest kind of anxiety with the loss of your data and asked the crucial question: who are we without our (fill in the blank). Sometimes we are given these experiences for the pure reflection and soul-searching they provide. I’m glad you retrieved everything!

    Here’s the backup tool I use:

    I’m on the personal plan, which backs up all of our computers automatically and regularly. Well worth the price for the peace of mind it provides.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, dear Anne. Characteristically, you went right to the heart of things and gave me computer advice as well. You are quite right that the whole ordeal was a gift, (albeit an expensive one, since I’ll have to buy a new computer!). This retirement business is giving me plenty of occasions for soul-searching, that’s for sure. But it is also forcing me to attend to things I have repeatedly put aside because I’ve been “too busy.” xo J


  2. Thank you for sharing your very personal and frightening existential crisis!!
    As you do so admirably, you find the light in the darkest tunnel.
    (I love that you included the image of Dickens’ Marley.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You’ll always be you. But I hope you get your data back. One in a fit of living in the moment I threw years of letters between myself, my mother and my sister in a Mississippi dumpster. One of the dumbest things I’ve done.

    I was able to get my data back once when a computer died with it and it was fine and now backed up. But I think I’ll back it up again after reading your morning post.

    While you wait for your data to be retrieved, you might want to organize those posts from this blog. I am positive more memories will come as you go through them.

    No loss can make you not your.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Kristin, I love “a fit of living in the moment”! I understand living in the moment in principle, but in practice I always find myself arguing with it, as my mother did when we was a reading and discussion group actually called The Power of Now. To her, letting go of the past meant letting go of her memories of childhood and family, of the experiences an relationships that had formed her and that were precious to her. She couldn’t accept the idea of being “liberated” from them.

      Thank you for your suggestion of organizing old posts and your confidence that there are plenty more memories waiting to be released. To date all I’ve had to do has been to wait until the germ of an idea begins to take shape, and then I start building on it in my mind before I start writing. I must trust that new stories will continue to bubble up, but know for a fact that there are periods and areas of my life that I haven’t written about. Organizing what I have will reveal those contiguous stories waiting to be told.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hari OM
    Well, on the practical side, I am supposing you have come to realise that the blog exists in the cloud and is therefore present for eternity unless you choose to eradicate it…you can access it from any device, as clearly you have done here. You can choose, too, to download any or all of it to any drive you nominate – or just get it printed (check BlookUp and et voila! I appreciate this doesn’t necessarily help with the email side (unless you were on Gmail and stored them all under labels – which are still in the cloud too…)

    On the existential side – been there, doing that! Totes stand you, as the young uns like to state. Finding one’s value in an afterlife of having been useful can indeed prove daunting and given that I do have some dreadful blanks at times, the whole memory wipe thing is a very real factor. It is important to beware of the fear of potential; fear becomes an anchor that drags one down even as the tide is rising. In your case, your mark, and your presence have been placed in the hearts and minds of those you taught. Each of them will carry a thread of you through to those they pass knowledge on to…

    Now – go into these remaining years knowing that all the years before brought you to this point now and that there are still experiences to be had and marks to be made… it is not all about yesterday, and there are still tomorrows to grasp and make your own. YAM xx

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for this lovely, thoughtful, encouraging response, YAM. On the practical side, my dear brother-in-law saved me by walking me through a fix–a temporary one at least–that allowed me to back everything up. Now I’m backing up daily so that when it does give up the ghost I will be able to transfer all the data.
      On the existential side, you are absolutely right that the fear itself is a problem that makes the inevitable worse. And then, your exhortation: Go forth without fear! I love your last sentence. xxo J


  5. Very moving and important reflection. It resonates deeply.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Norah. I think we’re in the stage of life in which these kinds of thoughts inevitably arise. But thanks to Dan, the computer problem is solved–temporarily at least. And in the meantime I’m backing up religiously.
      Hope you had a lovely birthday. Looking forward to seeing you later in the week. xxo J


  6. oh dearest, that is a terrible loss, and blockage. i know words coming from others right know pale in comparison with your angst but please be assured that your memories WILL come back, and new life will be added to old, and also that your computer’s mess-up does not mean you and your life does not exist in our memories. and digital code is NOT your life. please take heart and step into the transition, and keep on adding layers to who and what you are? plus, of course, fingers crossed that somebody can help your technology back on their feet and release the data! hugs bine

    Liked by 1 person

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