The Power Of Memory

2016-08-07 Centering Thought ImageCentering Thought:  “If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.
~ Edgar Allan Poe

Memory has been called the most wonderful ability. While it can be retentive, serviceable, and obedient, it can also sometimes be weak and bewildered; a powerful, ongoing narrative we use to understand and manage our lives. This morning, we reflect on the power of memory both to connect us with the past and to shape who we are in the present.

Celebrant: David Gortner, Anchor: Lennie Martin
Music: Sarah Greenleaf

Reading:         “The Day I Ran Over Ruby and Frank,” Inez Unruh

It was the Dirty Thirties, during the drought and the Depression, and we lived on a wheat farm.  Dad was working on the harvester, I was handing him tools, when he decided to check the wheat for ripeness.  He set the spark on the car and told me to take it home.  He gave me a few brief instructions, then walked off across the field.

We had a Model T Ford.  The spark and ignition were on the steering post.  There was one pedal on the floor for locomotion.  You pressed down and the car started moving, you let up and it slowed.  Another pedal for the brake, and that was it.

I was a skinny undersized nine years old, barely able to see through the steering wheel, my leg stretched out full length to reach the pedal.  No matter, Dad told me to take the car home, so I took the car home.  I don’t remember being at all afraid.

When I came to the bottom of the hill, the car slowed.  Down went my foot, and the car picked up speed.  I careened around the corner into the yard and saw my sister dead ahead under a tree with the baby buggy and my six-week old brother inside it.  I panicked.  My foot froze, and I didn’t make the curve.  The car came to a screeching halt against the tree, with the baby buggy and my sister underneath.

To my dying day, I will recall in agonizing detail the buggy wheels floating slowly past the window.  I see my sister, clothes dirty and torn, with tire marks on her back, crawl out from under the car.  I see my mother and brothers come running, screaming and flinging milk buckets.  I see the three of them lift the car bodily from the buggy and tear the crumpled mass apart.  I see my mother clean dirt from the baby’s mouth, and I see him begin to cry as I sit crying and screaming on the ground.

A half-hour later, my father strolled in, serenely unaware that anything was wrong.  My mother was a verbal woman, and she made him extremely aware in a very short time and in no uncertain terms.  For two days, I burst into tears every little while, until my mother said, “Nothing happened!  Now quit your bawling!”

We tell stories at family reunions.  “The day John rode the boar backwards up the loading chute.”  “The day Lillian fell off the horse.”  The summer we raised the chickens.”  “The day Inez ran over Ruby and Frank.”  It’s funny now, it gets funnier every year, but it left me with the subtle conviction that what begins as glorious adventure will probably turn into monumental disaster.  Still, it has not kept me from adventure.  Sometimes I wonder if I could still drive a Model T.



Roger and I brought our first-born, Danica, home from the hospital when she was a couple of days old.  It was a spectacular spring morning in Northwest Arkansas.  The earth itself seemed to have been re-born.  Somehow, overnight, nature had sharpened her colors:  the forsythia had never been so yellow, the roses so red, the sky so blue.

That memory connects me to a day more than thirty-five years ago; takes me back to a time when my identity shifted:  I had become a parent, responsible for the welfare – the very life – of another person.  I remember the awe and the newness of that feeling.

What I saw and the emotions I experienced that day – these memories – are among the pieces of the narrative that is my life story.  They are of the past, but anchor me in the present.

In his novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving weaves the past with the present, through the voice of the story’s narrator, a native of New Hampshire who has become a Canadian citizen living in Toronto.  Reflecting on memory, Irving writes:

[It] is a monster…It…files things away.  It keeps things for you, or hides things from you – and summons them to your recall with will of its own.  You think you have a memory; but it has you!

Memory itself is a powerful, ongoing narrative.  We use it to understand and manage our lives, to provide us with context.  It is foundational to who we are as living beings, connecting us to the past and to people from our past; shaping us and shaping who we are.

Any of our senses can evoke memories of happy or sad moments of our lives; may fill us with calm and peace, or could return us to feelings of despair.  We’re complicated beings, so we can be moved in a powerful way by our conscious or unconscious memory associations. 

Music can be a potent spark.  That’s the case for one of the songs in our hymnal, for Roger and for me.  For a long time, it was a vessel of difficult memories from when I was very ill.  Chemotherapy had devastated my immune system, and what began as an opportunistic infection became life-threatening.  My vital organs began shutting down.

I was unconscious during most of the eleven days I was in Intensive Care.  My memories of that time are scrambled, unreliable.  But what I do clearly remember is Roger’s voice, as he sang: “Come Sing a Song with Me.”   It was a sort of lifeline for me then, but even now it’s not always easy for either of us to sing.

The great Oregon poet, William Stafford wrote

There is a thread you follow.  It goes among
things that change.  But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what things you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it’s hard for others to see.While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and grow old.
Nothing you do can stop times’ unfolding.
But you don’t ever let go of the thread.

What a lovely image.  But we know that the “thread” of memory can get lost.  Billy Collins, Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, reflected on memory loss in a verse he called “Forgetfulness:”

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Collins is witty and clever.  He tells a story that might resonate for many of us.  But when we lose our grip on the “thread” of memory – “misplace” our memories – we could feel truly adrift, for we have lost a part of our very selves, a part of the perspective of what defines us.  I’m humbled by the knowledge that some of us, in this faith community, are experiencing, either first-hand or with someone we love, this daunting and challenging situation.

Alzheimer’s disease has been called “the long good-bye.”  When a common memory base that frames relationship is gone, what is left?  Even the present is affected by memory, for without the past, the present has no context beyond the moment.  Without memory, each of us comes to each moment bare of the trappings of life – bare of interpretations and definitions framed by the past.

A good friend and colleague, Amy Carol Webb, conveys that pain in a song she composed as a conversation with her mother.  The lyrics always move me:

I won’t forget you, even when you do.
I won’t forget all the precious things about you.
I won’t forget the beauty that you are, ‘cause I keep everything about you written on my heart…I’ll remember when your remembering fails, ‘cause I keep everything about you in the small details…That’s my picture up on your wall.  I keep it there to help you on the days you can’t recall…You look at me as though you knew me many years ago, but you can’t quite remember when.  So I say my name and you say yours, and then you ask my name again…. You’re leaving me, one memory at a time, and it’s a long, long good-by.

Some time ago, I read about Paula Wolfert, a master chef and author of eight ground-breaking cookbooks.  She suspected that she knew what was happening to her, years before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  It’s not uncommon for symptoms to be attributed to aging or fatigue, and when she reported difficulty navigating her way through complex interview questions, those were her doctor’s conclusions.  Who hasn’t experienced, at some point, knowing an elusive word is on the tip of our tongue, but we’re unable to access it?

Then, one day, her husband suggested they have omelets for lunch; and Paula, who had studied with “perhaps the greatest omelet chef who ever lived…drew a blank.  [She said] “Wait a minute, how do you make an omelet?”

Now, when she cooks, Paula Wolfert refers to her own cookbooks for the recipe.  And yet, her long-term memories remain crystal clear.  When she can’t remember how much cream to add to the tangerine sauce [which will complement the seared scallops she’s preparing], she remembers where she discovered the sauce:  On her first trip to Southwest France in 1978, from a rising star…chef… Jean-Louis Palladin…

[Cooking] the reduction is a throwback to an earlier time, and it sparks memories.  As she watches the bright orange sauce bubble and thicken, citrusy scents float up and the recollections rush back.  “I remember now! [she says] The spoon draws a line through the cream when it’s ready.  I used to tell people, ‘You just catch a glimpse of the bottom of the pan!’  She shouts that line with the oratory and enthusiasm of [a motivational speaker].

[And when she tastes the finished dish], her face brightens with the delight of someone who has just bumped into an old friend.  “That’s Jean-Louis! [she exclaims].

Ambrose Bierce wrote in The Devil’s Dictionary that to recollect is “to recall with additions something not previously known.”  That sounds suspiciously deliberate, but sometimes our memory honestly plays tricks on us.  Studies have shown that memory changes over time, is subject to error and distortion.  It is fallible, vulnerable to suggestion.  Expectations and beliefs can color people’s recollections, and gaps in memory will be filled to create a “life story” which is found satisfying.  Take the case of Ronald Reagan, for example.

You may have read about an interview of Ron Reagan, about the memoir he had authored about his father, the former President.  In this interview, he described how he had come

to understand how… parts of [the older Reagan’s] life that didn’t fit into the narrative he had adopted [and had been edited out].  There is the oft-told story of how [Ronald] Reagan came upon his father, Jack Reagan, passed out drunk “and burping up corn whiskey” by the front door of their house.  His first impulse was to step over him the way he was able to ignore so much that was unpleasant growing up, but then in his telling, this undersize 11-year-old grabs his father’s coat and muscles him up the narrow stairs to the bedroom.

Ron Reagan went back to the house and imagined how this could be with the slight boy shouldering the rather robust father and concludes it probably didn’t happen that way.  He also concludes that Jack Reagan wasn’t the ne’er do well that his son made him out to be, that he always worked and supported his family, and while he drank, wasn’t an alcoholic.  [Ronald] Reagan didn’t exactly embellish, but it was his coming of age story, “and if he gave Jack too many lines, it distracted from the story… It all got lost in the editing room.”

Marcel Proust got it right when he said, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”   And sometimes that’s a blessing.  It’s a little like the formation of sea-glass. A colleague, Paul Boothby, explains:

When a bottle breaks on the rocks, the fresh edges are jagged and sharp; and could easily injure anyone who touches it in the wrong way, cutting deep the unwary wanderer.

But over time, with the action of the waves and the gentle tumbling of the surrounding stones, the sharp edges of glass are worn smooth, that broken piece of glass becomes accommodated to its new reality, its new shape.  It becomes a pleasure to behold and soothing to hold in the hand for it has gained a unique beauty and embodies its own story.

So too with our emotional wounds, when we are freshly injured by betrayal or loss, the injury may leave sharp edges to our personality – bitterness, spite, selfishness and resentment, injuring the unwary innocent who may cross our path.

Over time, however, if washed by saltwater tears and compassionate understanding, and the gentle abrasion of wisdom’s hard lessons, our emotional wounds can also heal, to form a new beauty, embodying our story in the depths of our experience.  And then, too, our new shape, our experience and understanding becomes a comfort to other people.

That’s the way I view difficult memories. The sea-glass, in its smooth state, no longer conforms to the shape that it once had.  We might never know whether it was once a bottle that contained beer or bath salts or had some other function – but the essential character has not changed.  It is still glass.  And so it is for us.

The song I told you about Roger singing to me when I was so sick now attests to hope, giving voice to a great mystery that carries each and all of us through the world.  The larger context of bringing Danica home from the hospital includes having had several miscarriages before that joyous event.

You may have heard me say before that life carries us along – tragedies occur – and the rough edges of our memories eventually wear smooth.  Memories become more poignant, more nuanced, within their larger context.  The beauty of the sea glass, even though it no longer fills its original function, is more evident than ever.

Our memories may undergo embellishment, for any number of reasons, or may be lost entirely, but our character – our essential self – remains.  When all is said and done, whether we remember or not, we are remembered.  That “thread” weaving through all is more than memory, it is our very being.

And as Lewis Carroll has the White Queen say to Alice, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”  Telling our stories, sharing memories, we create a bond and forge meaning that transcends time, space, even death.   Memories have power. They ground our lives in traditions, and expand our resources, enabling us to meet not only our own needs, but the needs of those yet to come.

We hold memories in trust for those who can no longer remember – stories shared, values lived through the work we do together; memories that will outlive us all – through our inter-connectedness.

This morning’s reading comes back to me, the story of Inez running over her siblings Ruby and Frank, in the family Model T.  She still remembers in agonizing detail, she says, what happened.  But her memories have further context now.  The sharp edges have softened, as the story has been told again and again as a shared memory.  Even people who were not there remember the memory.  As for Inez – well, it has not kept her from adventure.

May we remember always the blessings of this community of memory and hope, as every day we shape the memories of tomorrow.  Blessed be.

Selected Resources:

Boothby, Paul, “The Rocky Shores of Memory”Clift, Eleanor, The Daily Beast, “Ron Reagan Goes on Defense,” January 25, 2011.

Hogan, Linda, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World, New York: Touchstone Books, 1995.

Thelin, Emily Kaiser, The Washington Post, October 29, 2013.