I woke up around 4:00 a.m. this morning with that line in my head.  One moment I was asleep, it seemed, the next moment my mind was surfacing–groggily, and to the sound of a strange noise and that line was just there, in my head, like something you see out of the corner of your eye, no matter where you turn. The noise I heard was the “whirr-whirr” of the bread machine, which we had set on timer mode. It had cleverly switched itself on sometime before 4:00 a.m. to start its business of kneading the dough and baking a perfect square loaf of bread for us. I did manage to go back to sleep, but I woke again at 6:00 to the almost overwhelming smell of baked bread.  The line from the poem sprang into my head again, almost immediately.

It’s been at least seven or eight years since I last read that particular poem by T.S. Eliot.  I had no idea why I woke up with that line in my head; I haven’t been thinking about that poem, or about Eliot at all. I know the brain does strange things when sleeping, but I wondered why my subconscious had chosen to pull out that line from the dusty recesses of my brain (it is feeling pretty dusty in there these days) and move it to the forefront of my brain, where it rattled about over and over again all morning long.

I grow old…I grow old…

Was I worried about growing older?  Wearing my trousers rolled? Measuring out my life with coffee spoons?

It wasn’t until I was cutting up the newly baked loaf of bread for L. this morning and my knife crackled into the crust that the connection was made clear. I was amazed, then, by how memory can be so triggered by something as simple as the sound of a bread machine in a quiet house and the smell of freshly baking bread.

The last time we used the machine on timer mode was about eight years ago.  We had just acquired the bread maker and in the summer of 1998 we were living in our funky apartment in upstate New York.  Bread machines seemed all the rage among our group of graduate students–everybody had one; everybody was making bread–why, it was the Summer of the Bread Machine.  Scott and I would toss the ingredients in about dinnertime and by 11:00 we’d have a new loaf ready to eat.  Sometimes on the weekend friends would stop by on their way back from a bar outing and we’d invite them in and have wine, fresh bread and cheese and talk into the night. Coincidentally, at around the same time we were whipping up batches of fresh bread while we slept, I was also studying for my qualifying exams. I read constantly.  The Summer of the Bread Machine was also the Summer of Books. I would take the bus into school, arrive there around 9:30, shut myself into my little office, and read and read until about noon.  Then I would take a break, head to the gym, and swim laps for about 1/2 an hour. Back to my office for lunch (a packed sandwich and a soda from the machine in the hall), and then more reading and notetaking until about 4:00 in the afternoon. It was also the Summer of T.S. Eliot and his other Modernist pals.  I must have read just about everything by and about Eliot that summer.  By the time August came I felt as if he and I were kindred spirits–I knew him so well I could have walked into a room and started discussing any number of literary topics with him and known exactly what his responses would be.

And it was also probably one of the more personally and selfishly fulfilling summers I’ve ever spent.  We didn’t have kids, so my time on campus was entirely mine and entirely guilt-free.  By the time 4:00 p.m. rolled around I had put in a full day’s work, so I could enjoy my evenings without feeling as if I should be doing something else.

So when that bread machine cranked on at 4:00 a.m., in an entirely different context and about 8 years later, my mind must have kicked up that line from Eliot’s Love Song; almost a reflexive action, perhaps. It’s amazing to me how powerful unconscious memories can be: a smell, a remembered line from a once-loved poem–like a time capsule opened, spilling out its contents into a different time.

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