Harvesting Memories

May 30th, 2011

Two elderly ladies were enjoying the sunshine on a park bench. They had been meeting at the same park every sunny day for over 12 years… chatting, and enjoying each other’s company.

One day, the younger of the two ladies, turns to the other and says, “Please don’t be angry with me, but I am embarrassed, after all these years, my memory is not what it used to be. . .What is your name? I just can’t remember.”

The older friend stares at her, looking very confused, says nothing for two full minutes, and finally says, “How soon do you need to know?”

Memory is here today and gone tomorrow. I have a reputation for having a good memory, because I can speak in public without notes and I generally remember people’s names. But as Meg says I have a selective photographic memory. When it comes to household chores, I tend to run out of film.

My topic is memory in honor of Memorial Day. It’s a beautiful thing if you can draw inspiration from the positive memories and find some healing and transformation in the difficult memories.

Memory and Gratitude

Memory is one of the basic ingredients of gratitude, which is in turn one of the basic ingredients of optimism. I’ve been involved in two tender memorial services in the last week. As I listened to the eulogies, it struck me that it would be SO powerful to tell each other’s stories like this while we are still alive. Imagine the gratitude if we took every opportunity to share memories and each other’s positive attributes while we are still around to hear it.

There is a funny story about a minister who is leading a memorial service. He calls on people to come forward and say a few nice words about the deceased. No one comes forward. He urges them, “Surely someone present today can say something appreciative!” Eventually a man comes to the microphone and says, “His brother was worse.”

In most cases, this is not a problem. Once someone has gone, memories come to us of good times shared and admirable qualities. They comfort and inspire us. These memories often lead to forgiveness and healing. Even when it comes to wars that you may disagree with or feel conflicted about, it’s appropriate to remember the people who have lost their lives in service. They no doubt had their mixed motives, like all of us, but our lives are built on the imperfect but well intentioned platform of those who have gone before us.

Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who created the amazing Mount Rushmore Memorial, was once asked if he considered his work perfect in detail. “Not yet,” he replied. “The nose of Washington is an inch too long. It’s better that way, though. It’ll erode to be approximately right in about 10,000 years.”

Memory tends to be like that. We erode the imperfections of the past into a coherent whole, integrate even the difficult memories, and move forward. In time, memories fall into place as they need to.

Memory and Change

We all have stories and a lineage. Our memories are built on these stories that are part fact and part fiction. It’s not so much that we retrieve memories. We reweave memories in a way that feels consistent. Many of our rituals and traditions are built on these memories. There is an old Jewish story that makes this point.

When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov felt anxious about the future for his people, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. He would light the fire, say a special prayer, and sure enough his anxiety would subside. Sometimes, his people would even be miraculously protected after his forest ritual. Years later when he was gone, it fell to the next generation to deal with the same anxiety. The head Rabbi knew the story of his ancestor in the forest but didn’t know all the details. So he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Creator of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer,” and sure enough his anxiety would subside and often a miracle would be accomplished. Another generation later, the same ritual would take place but with even less certainty around the detail. The Rabbi would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was always sufficient. The years passed. Finally the next generation brought the head Rabbi to the same point. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he said: “I am unable to light the fire, and I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was always sufficient.

Ritual and memory are like that. When I was growing up, our family had a Christmas ritual that we inherited from an English custom. Christmas pudding, steamed and served with brandy butter and cream. The earlier custom was to include certain items in the pudding before cooking it; silver coins for wealth, tiny wishbones for good luck, a ring for marriage etc. Whoever found the items in their pudding on Christmas day would get what they chomped on. When I was young, my parents would put coins in the pudding that they had collected from their parents; shillings and sixpence and the like. The coins must have gone missing, because by the time I was about 10 they were using current day coins. Then when people started losing teeth on their Christmas pudding and the hygiene of cooking metal in pudding was questioned, we stopped putting coins in the pudding altogether. But we still ate the pudding and brandy butter endures to this day. Just like the story of the Rabbis, eating the pudding and telling stories about the coins of Christmas past was always enough.

Tradition, ritual and memory are based on ever changing memory and culture. As Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Animal Dreams, “Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.”

Memories in Nature

Nature has always been the focus of significant memories both for individuals and cultures. The ancient story is told that while the Israelites were in exile, they were particularly desperate and anxious. The rainbow was their reminder that they were part of something larger than their circumstance. Before they understood how rainbows came about, they no doubt filled it with supernatural meaning.  They put the meaning on the rainbow that their God (hope) was larger than any natural disaster like a flood and larger than their exile. Another way to describe it is to say that they were comforted by the evolving reality that all things are constantly moving and changing. Despair and grief may feel like the last word, but there is always a rainbow close by the rain. Rainbows are universally loved, even now that we do understand how they occur. The meaning we place on rainbows, however, might be different.

I remember taking a wedding on a beach a few years back. Clouds were looming and the bride was getting anxious. People were constantly looking up at the sky to check for rain. A few drops of rain began to fall, smudging the marriage license. Just when we were about to turn and run for cover, the rain stopped and a massive rainbow appeared right above us. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. It was as if the rainbow was framing the happy couple like a gazebo. The rainbow was a reminder not to give up which was similar to the original intent of the covenant between the Israelites and their God.

There is always more to come. It’s such an important part of a covenant, whether it’s an agreement between two people or two nations or between humans and the earth. There is always more to learn, more to understand and more to come. We now know that there is nothing supernatural about a rainbow. It’s all about the refraction of light as it passes through water. There is nothing supernatural, but there is something magical about the rainbow. It’s AS IF the rainbow is coming from beyond. It’s the same with memories and ritual. There is nothing supernatural about memories that appear to come from nowhere. They are stored in the brain, even if you don’t realize it. Carl Jung described the personal unconscious as “lost memories, painful ideas that are repressed, subliminal perceptions, . . . and contents that are not yet ripe for consciousness”.  It’s all stored somewhere in the brain. It’s not supernatural but there is something magical about the healing qualities of recovered memories that can turn wounds into wisdom and pain into perspective.

Do you ever arrive somewhere for the first time and “feel” like you’ve been there before? Maybe it’s a smell or a sound that triggers your memory of another time or place. The memory could trigger a protective instinct or some kind of reassurance. For me, the smell of pine after rain in the woods triggers an incredible surge of optimism. A 20 minute walk in the woods takes me back to childhood hikes. The smell of the beach refuels me. There is a sign at our local beach that says, “No refueling on the beach.” I always smile at the sign because this is one of the places where I totally refuel. The beach takes me back to childhood vacations, hours lying on the sand before we knew about the dangers of sun exposure. In our blissful ignorance, we would spend hours refueling each summer.

Nature, in all its beauty, is a playground for the senses and a memory emporium. It’s a place to be inspired by happy memories and heal difficult memories.

Memory and Mystery

Memory remains one of the great mysteries of consciousness. How do birds travel thousands of miles and apparently stop at the same points each year on their trek? How do they know? How do new generations of birds know to continue the same route? Are they taking visual cues or following their nose? No one knows for sure. Then there is the clownfish; remember, Nemo? After clownfish hatch from their eggs, they spend 10 to 12 days in the open sea, carried out by currents. But they often miraculously find their way back to the reefs where they were born. Apparently they sniff for leaves that fall into the sea from rainforests near their coral reef homes. Memory fills their senses and brings them home.

Do you have moments of déjà vu and wonder where in your memory the experience is coming from? Do you sometimes say something and wonder where your information came from? Memory is a mystery to be mined for meaning.

Part of the beauty of imagination is when we have memories of the future, and understand with confidence what needs to be said or done. As the White Queen says to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” The Queen warns her that having memories that go both ways can make you giddy at first.

Maybe the point where memories collide in both directions is dreams. Dreams seem to be the brain’s way of consolidating memories. Dreams are a complex and confusing combination of memories, maybe a clearing house, where you put unlikely people in the same situation and play out frightening and delightful scenarios.

Memories are personal, subjective and evolving. As Philip Roth wrote, “each of us remembers and forgets in a pattern whose labyrinthing windings are an identification mark no less distinctive than a fingerprint”

Dreams and memories connect you with hidden powers. Deep down you have a memory of who you are at your essence, an essence that the anxieties and traumas of life have partially robbed from your conscious mind. Explore your dreams, memories and surprising thoughts to recover some of the power of your full humanity. Once you recover some of this essence, you will feel liberated to live through floods and rainbows, love and loss without overly attaching to any of it. For there is always more to come, more to learn and more to REMEMBER. Namaste.

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  1. Fabulous post! I especially love the line, “Memory is a mystery to be mined for meaning.”