There is nothing like an old address book to demonstrate the impermanent nature of most things. According to a wise Hindu saying, “The world is a bridge, cross it but build no house on it”, yet a longing for permanence is part of human nature, and hence a guarantee of disappointment. My address book is barely ten years old, yet turning its pages is like looking at an old battlefield full of casualties, namely crossed out entries, corrections, additions and a few mysterious squiggles which must have meant something when I made them but don’t do so any more.
Some deletions are tinged with sadness: a cross on the margin means a death. Others refer to the ending of an old friendship or a disappointment in a new acquaintance who seemed fine at first but then proved to be the opposite. Each one evokes a story complete in itself and makes me wonder about the functioning of memory: why does it preserve unimportant details with crystalline clarity but refuses to produce their important framework? The French refer to “un trou dans la mémoire”, a hole in the memory (which is probably bottomless), and that’s as good a metaphor as you can wish for.
A friend of mine has a charming fantasy about her brain: it’s a big hall full of filing cabinets chock-a-block with knowledge, all precisely sorted and referenced, and there is a little man rushing around at lightning speed, producing the correct file which the owner of the brain needs in order to recall a particular memory. It’s all beautifully organised and highly efficient, but in the course of time the little man begins to age, he loses speed and sometimes puts stuff into the wrong file or even loses half of it, causing the owner of the brain much frustration. Now that’s a fantasy I can wholeheartedly share.
There are some puzzling entries in this modest spiral-bound address book, the names and particulars of people whom I cannot identify for love or money, but who must have seemed important enough to be recorded for future reference. Do my name and data suffer the same fate in other address books? Who is this person in Nicosia, in the Algarve or in an unpronounceable Polish town whose name consists of nothing but consonants, whom I can’t remember but at one time intended to contact? Search me.
Oh, never mind. There are the others, close friends, dear people who don’t move house for decades, who keep their mobile numbers and e-mail addresses unchanged and represent a kind of permanence in this shifting world. As a matter of fact I know their data by heart, but it’s good to have them anchored in writing, just in case that hole in my memory grows a bit bigger. Beyond a certain degree of maturity (no, there are no old women, only mature beauties) one needs the mental equivalent of belt and braces.
I take enormous care of my address book. It’s got to last as long as I do. Once I’ve moved on, leaving no forwarding address, I hope it’ll end up in a recycling box, not in a rubbish bin – although by then even that won’t matter very much. But now just let me marvel at exotic passwords and wonder whether a close friend will ever stop moving residence, forcing me to record her new addresses over the best part of a page.
It’s all good fun, with a gentle philosophical undertone. Just enough to remind me to cross the bridge but build no house on it.