A World of Light by Floyd Skloot

I must abandon the impulse for order… I have learned to savor the fragments themselves, and to live in the moment.
— Floyd Skloot

A World of Light is Floyd Skloot’s second volume of personal essays. In the first, In the Shadow of Memory, he wrote about the devastating impact of a rare virus he caught on an airplane that left him with permanent brain damage, the MRI scans showing dark pock marks of scarring across his brain. His ability to use words, the bread and butter of the writer’s life, was shattered. He had to walk with a cane, his memory was left fragmented and dissipated, and his sense of self became eroded. In the Shadow of Memory charts the gradual reassembling of his life and himself. A World of Light is the second instalment, in which the main focus is memory, its loss, retrieval and meaning.

As Floyd’s mind moves towards a kind of stability — his balance is partially restored, he can carry out most tasks, and recall key childhood events — his mother, Lillian, descends into senile dementia and Alzheimer’s. The first half of A World of Light concerns Lillian, and describes moving her to a Memory Impairment Unit. The essays on Floyd’s shifting relationship with the increasingly senile Lillian reveal in painful detail the particular difficulties of caring for a fragile, elderly woman who was once a frightening and abusive mother. Floyd’s memories of being beaten and locked in a box by her are all too vivid; sadly it is the traumatic memories, which seem to be the most resilient.

These personal essays offer a highly perceptive account of the shifting dynamics of family relations as the processes of aging take hold. But for Floyd, his mother’s mental deterioration is especially terrifying because it is a mirror of his own premature experience of the dissolution of the self through memory loss. The account of going bra shopping with his mother, for example, manages to be extremely funny but also taut with insight into the confusion of watching someone who you love, who also hurt you, lose their grip on the world.

For Floyd, whose memory of his childhood in Brooklyn is largely tattered, his mother’s memory loss means the disappearance of important information. Here the book reminds us how the memories of family members as well as our own tell us who we are, no matter how starkly they may contradict.

Floyd admits that his “impulse… is to formulate meaning out of the fragments of memory”. But it is hard to fathom the arbitrariness of which memories remain and which disintegrate. He tries to work out why he distinctly recalls a minor baseball player grounding out during a game he watched with his father in the 1950s; why is it that his mother no longer remembers who she was married to but she can retrieve melodies and lyrics of songs from 1940s musicals? It just doesn’t seem to make sense.

These fifteen essays move back and forth in time between Floyd’s present life in Oregon, where he lives in a circular wooden house in the woods with his wife, Beverly, and his childhood in Brooklyn in the 1950s. The essays are beautifully structured, moving seamlessly across decades. A name or a song will trigger a memory of a visit to his grandparents when he was a child, or a summer spent trimming the hedges of Brooklyn Mafiosi.

But these essays also move between two distinct sites: Oregon and New York, evoking a powerful sense of contrasting urban and rural environments. Considering his struggles to remember his past, it is impressive that the descriptions of Brooklyn and Long Island in the 1950s and ’60s are as rich and vivid as the portrait of the Oregon woods. Illness has shrunk Floyd’s world and forced him to concentrate on his immediate surroundings, and this means he engages with the geology, the weather and the vegetation around him with a visceral intimacy.

In A World of Light, Floyd Skloot reminds us that as we live longer and longer, more of us will experience memory loss. I found this account of the impact of the fragmentation of memory both extremely interesting and terrifying. It also reminded me that we need the people around us to recall the textures and events of our lives to show us who we are, as we cannot rely solely on our own minds to provide the sense of self we so often take for granted.