I always remember going “Whoa! Wow!” the first time I read that there was more than one infinity. In fact, there could be an infinity of infinities. It was the summer between sophomore and junior years in high school. For some reason I can no longer recall, I had picked up a paperback popularization of modern mathematics. The author did a good job because I got hooked, not only on the multiplicity of infinities, but on groups, fields, classes, and set theory. Not that I understood them very well, but they fascinated me.
My history with mathematics up to that point had not been stellar. I failed arithmetic in 5th grade and had to spend the next summer being tutored by my father’s cousin Noreen, who was a teacher. I did not do well in geometry in sophomore year in high school. B overall average, but there were some real flops. Having gone through my first 12 grades in Catholic schools in the 50s, most of my teachers had the pedagogical approach of my college Latin teacher. Sister Raphael, my fifth grade teacher, once called me a “dimwit” in front of the whole class. And my geometry teacher, a tough looking little Italian priest, wrote a comment on one of my diagrams calling me stupid.
So, I blew his mind the next year in trigonometry when I asked him what was the modulo in the class of numbers he was talking about. I wasn’t trying to show off. I was just trying to understand one of the slippery concepts I had read about the previous summer.
Stan Link’s article on the varieties of silence and nothingness brought all these memories back. I’ll get back to him in another post. For now I want to reflect on the problem of these memories.
I’m not sure anymore if it was the 4th or the 5th grade when I failed arithmetic. And I’m not sure whether we had trigonometry in my junior or senior year of high school. It is interesting that my memory of these events is fading, but I can recall exactly the time that Sister Raphael caught me talking to my friend Richard Drab while she had been out of the classroom. As she came through the door, she yelled “You two dimwits don’t have enough brains to make a nitwit!” Interesting that I remember the name of my friend Richard Drab, with whom I have had no contact since we graduated from 8th grade in 1957. When trying to remember after which grade I had to redo arithmetic, I couldn’t remember the name of my 4th grade teacher. Was she Sister Edith or Sister Celeste?
There are long gaps in my memory of my youth. My memory is silent if you will. Then, of course, I have no memories earlier than coming down the stairs on Christmas morning at my maternal grandparents’ house. It would have been when my father had just been discharged from the Army after WWII. Maybe 1946 or 1947, so I would have been just about to turn 3 or 4 the next day.
I have these silent periods throughout my adult life, too. The 1980s were eventful, but I couldn’t tell you exactly when certain traumatic and many happy events occurred, much less what went on in between.
Frankly, I’m fairly certain that after my children have all passed away, human memories will be silent about me. Even eternal cyber life may go silent when old media can no longer be deciphered. And, even if they can, no one will be looking.
This brings me back to Stan LInk’s question. Are these silent gaps in my memory part of the silence out of which I was born and into which I will return? Or, is each silent period unique? Will the uniqueness of my life, then, be in these silent periods? It surely won’t be in anything I’ve said or done because they will all fade into eternal silence.
In some ways these are comforting thoughts. I don’t have to worry about what I haven’t achieved or what I’ve forgotten. I don’t confuse uniqueness with value or worth. The value or worth of whatever I’ve said or done in this life lies in the lives of those I’ve loved and otherwise touched, not in some eternal record, which will be playing Cage’s 4’33“.
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