One morning a while back I was walking across a field near the house. I was taking particular care, because several of the cows in the herd had recently given birth; and while bulls and cattle generally are amenable beings when treated with respect, the atmosphere palpably changes when babies are around.
The herd itself was at the far end of the field, apart from one lone cow off to one side, by the lip leading down to the mill stream. I didn’t know the farmer, and I wasn’t quite sure why the herd had left her alone; but her look at me was so forlorn and empty of challenge that I wandered over, and she accepted my approach almost as if I had been a friend. She didn’t budge or demur, but directed my gaze with supplicating eyes (no, really); and I saw a calf, in the middle of the trickle of the mill-stream below, up to its knees in mud, with thoroughly dried mud caked everywhere. It looked exhausted, and hungry, and as if it had been there throughout the night. It tried but couldn’t escape when I slipped down the bank; and it didn’t have energy to struggle significantly when I put my arms under it to lift.
When the calf was back up the bank and with its mother, it felt as if the mother and I were friends. When I went back the next day, the herd was all together, and the atmosphere was as one would expect: Keep your distance, stranger. No exceptions; and no glimmer of recognition, nor expectation of it from me.
One of my favourite experiences of cattle in those fields was having my daughter on my back in a backpack, scrambling down in the river, and her singing bringing the cows to the fence lining the river above, on the other side. It never failed.
That is the river along which she, my daughter, built a tiny but intricate house for fairies; while her younger brother and I skipped stones and waded.
One of my earliest memories is racing out into the street to ecstatically greet some adult who turned out to be a stranger; while in a more recent encounter, in a meeting at the British Library, a person who drew out no associations when they approached turned out to be someone I had worked closely with in organising and running a conference session only months before.
At least once in any public meeting or event, especially if I have not prepared by reading and re-reading the delegates list, I will abash myself by one mode of tumble into the abyss or the other. Nor is it absolute or predictable. I gave two oral history trainings on consecutive days in neighbouring museums last year, and only in leaving the second and trying to understand both the warmth of welcome from the curator and its cooling did it dawn on me that they had been part of the intensely engaged and creative training on the day before. I recently followed a very old friend down the street without any sense of recognition until we stood next to each other at an intersection; my astonishment doing mid-air pirouettes from the internal Olympic high beam of identity reconstruction, in split seconds, cried out, from her reaction, for explanation. But how do you graciously explain a failure to recognise someone you know well?
Because my default position in life seems to be to like people, and because I am happy to stand in Will Rogers’ shadow with that particular lariat in my hand, the face blindness can sometimes be a good and welcome friend. Some time after completing my PhD I met someone in the road who was leading a walking tour of my subject-town; and it was only after the warm and lively conversation, drawing the tour members in with the kinds of details and appreciations that only students and lovers of a place can have; and only after the tour had moved on, and was well down the road, that I gradually realised that the leader of the tour was someone who had offended me in the course of my work more than anyone ever has; and indeed did something unforgivable. My face blindness generously saved me from diminishing the reservoir of joy in the world, and from diminishing my soul as well.
But knowing that it is going to open a trap door beneath my feet at some unknown point or points in the midst of an event, with a sense of humour I have not quite learned to appreciate, tickles my native apprehensions about venturing into the world. Conferences approach, and I approach them with trepidation.