9 January 2020
Hey Han Solo,
Han Solo – this is your friends’ latest nickname for you, but you have been known by many names. Han, Hannah Spanner, Ham, hamg6, butch, H., The Big HC, Hurricane Hannah, the list goes on… Han Solo is my favourite though because Han Solo is the name of the coolest character in Star Wars – a series of action films set in space. You probably won’t remember much about them in reading this because I don’t actually know a lot about the films writing this. I’ve seen them but I never really took them in. When I went to watch the latest movie with our friend Stu, he was annoyed because he had to go to the toilet. When he came back, I thought I correctly informed him that he hadn’t missed much in his absence. It turned out a whole planet had exploded that was integral to the storyline. Stu still teases me for that. But the thing is, I still don’t really remember a planet exploding. I remember sitting in a cinema, relaxed and happy, watching some mindless action film on the screen with a best mate. Memory is a funny thing, it doesn’t often work on cue, or on demand.
I don’t know how it is for you now, but in 2020 a lot of people think of dementia as a bad thing because of the loss of memory – like memory is a good in and of itself! And I guess that’s one of the reasons Annelieke – a friend and colleague of ours – has suggested we write letters to our older selves with dementia; there is a need to reimagine more positive possibilities of life where our mind doesn’t always work how we want it to. Whilst Annelieke was inspired by the letters people wrote to their younger selves, I also remember a book by Maya Angelou where she wrote a letter to her daughter (a daughter who was only ever really born through Maya Angelou’s words) in order to impart similarly wise, thoughtful or critical advice onto a younger generation. The idea is that people learn things accumulatively through time, through their experience of living in the world, and that they have something to impart to a more naïve self.
Just as Maya Angelou’s daughter came into being through her writing, so do you, my friend, self, and other. But I fear that there may be a presumption here, in this one-way letter writing, that I somehow know more than you; that I am now at a time where I remember our life, our friends, and our positionality in the world. That I have some knowledge; some social facts that are at least particular to us. I am afraid I am going to disappoint you here – just like when I was in the cinema and Stu was in the toilet. You’ve lived a life that I can only (quite literally) imagine. I wish I could ask you questions, engage in a mutual exchange. But these one-way letters force me to think about what there is for me to impart; what knowledge do I have that could at all be useful for you to hold on to?
It is so seductive to see life as a learning curve and to see dementia as a loss of that learning. Though many people mistakenly see time as linear, they don’t see human lives as linear – they see it as a bell curve where we peak in the middle and then begin our inevitable decline. I want to flatten that curve, make it a line – but allow me and you to hop about up and down it at our leisure, without the external pressure of what we should remember and when. We shouldn’t have to always stick in the present, with a taxonomic recollection of all the memories which are supposed to have made us up to some real or true representation of ourselves today. If we lose memories that doesn’t mean we lose ourselves. The people we meet, the places we go, the things we see and touch - they get under the skin. They change the way we talk, act, be in the world, just as we also make the world, the things, and the people around us. In fact, if I could keep these habits, these practices, and lose some of the memories, that could be kind of nice; to escape our mind and just be. Because memories can be bad too. I hope you are free from those times where it feels like planets, worlds, really do explode.
This isn’t the first time it feels as if our brain has a mind of its own. It happens rather frequently, though sporadically, throughout our lives. I guess the one thing I do fear that you forget is the motions, the processes of dealing with this somewhat awkward position, where our mind runs off without the feeling in our toes. Our body rarely works within its own boundaries. Many of the scholars we have read suggest that we work in assemblages - we need people and things around us to help us out and work together and all that stuff. But they often forget to mention that our bodies can also split off into a multitude of different directions, implode and explode at the same time; parts ricocheting with some things and fusing with others. This can be confusing and painful. But I’m starting to think that if we embrace it, it could also give us something – allow us to explore and accept the multiple versions of ourselves.
In some ways you are now in a position where you can do this more freely than ever throughout time and space. Whilst I’m meant to stay stuck together in the present, day-to-day rigmarolling, you can let yourself go off with some of these pieces, explore them and see what they’re up to – who and what they join forces with or who they would rather not get to know. Go on walks in the Lake District with mum, hang out in the pub with friends, travel the world. Be the serious academic who has to try and be clever; but be silly too – dance and skip down the street, make up songs with friends, and ask all the questions even if they seem ridiculous. Don’t get scared if you do come across those sadder, badder, memories though. Come back to this letter and remember that we worked through them together, and we can do just that again.
This coming together isn’t like a centre and the peripheries – we don’t have a core soul that makes us the same person throughout our life. Though we have a lot in common, me and you are not the same person (as if anyone can be limited to being just one person!). We are Hannibal, Hannah Bear, Thunder, Hancie, and just Hannah. We have multitudes of different threads that tangle together and collect in a matted mess. What’s great about this is the way in which these different selves speak to one another – each with advice of their own. I often thank past Hannah for ironing my shirts, so I don’t have to do it at 6am in the morning, or I make future Hannah a packed lunch for the next day which I know she much appreciates. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that this coming back together can be useful when we need to look after ourselves, or hold ourselves together. And maybe this letter allows you to come together with this 28-year old version of me, drinking a can of cider on the London-Brighton train back home from work, even if some of the others are no longer accessible through your memories.
As I said earlier, my biggest fear is that we’ve done so much work to understand how to do this coming together – to keep our head more firmly attached to our toes – and this is the only thing I am worried about you forgetting. So here, finally, are the few vain attempts at words of wisdom that these letters demand, in case they’re of any use to you now: Your time and resources are valuable, it’s okay to say no to other people. Look after yourself. Don’t forget (as you often do) that you need to eat, wash, sleep, and cross the road safely. It’s okay to get angry – but try and catch it early and point it in the right direction. If you make one mistake, face up to it, don’t just create ten or a hundred more. You’re not an arsehole, you’re awesome – tell yourself that and your actions tend to be more awesome than arsehole. Most importantly, don’t forget to check back with your body and to listen to the feeling in your bones, it tells you some important stuff when your brain feels frazzled.
But I’m also hoping there are others there to help you with this bit – you have learnt now that it’s okay to let others help you, so let them. Just because you are Han Solo it doesn’t mean you are on your own – in fact your friends gave you that name and you wouldn’t have the coolest nick name ever without them.
Keep on being you, us, or whatever you feel like being today.
Hannah Cowan is a researcher at King’s College London and is interested in activism, social inequalities, and health. She is passionate about bringing non-academic communities and researchers together to help find everyday ways of resisting the reproduction of inequalities.