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The Wonder Report: September 24, 2021
This is our last week to talk about memory … it’s been such a rich and welcome conversation for me in the midst of grief. Thank you for walking down the long halls of memory in your own life this month and sharing what you’re learning. The act of sharing our memories is one of the surest ways to help us feel connected to one another and to our communities. That’s what we’ll end with this week.
Let’s jump right in.
1. A Familiar Story
When I first started reading Wendell Berry’s fiction, I felt a strange sense of deja vu. It began with Jayber Crow. Many of the stories that make up that novel sounded familiar to me; the characters seemed like people I once knew. I tried and tried to remember if I’d somehow read the book and forgotten about it, but my memories weren’t specific enough. Maybe someone had once told me about it? That had to be it.
I read Hannah Coulter next, and I had the same sense. The farm Hannah lived on, the neighbors she visited with, the tasks she set her hands to: it was like I had known them myself. I could see them as I read. And not just with my imagination, but with my memory.
It wasn’t until I picked up A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership and saw the relationships between people, the way the land in and around Port William changed and developed with the decades, and how one generation of Berry’s characters was connected to the next, that I understood what was happening. These stories and people were familiar to me because Wendell Berry was born, raised, and still lives in the region of Kentucky where my dad’s family is from. And though the exact names and details might be different, reading Berry’s books was like sitting with Dad and hearing him tell the stories he’s heard and told his whole life.
The stories we tell from one generation to the next might seem like quaint relics, daily life mythologized for the kiddies. Sometimes my own family’s stories feel like that: Just this summer dad shared the story of a certain chemistry lab explosion he caused in high school that got more elaborate with our growing interest. But the point of sharing these memories is not just to pass down information; it’s to welcome in the next generation. It’s to invite newcomers into a story that’s been in the process of being written for millennia. It’s to catch them up on what’s happened so far so they can take over the writing of it, and the telling, when we’re no longer here.
But it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes, the memories are too painful or the audience unwilling to listen. Other times, nostalgia and shame work like glue, trapping us in the past with only our memories. Still other times, we use history like a weapon, holding others hostage by telling their stories to serve our own needs. However it happens, when we fail to pass the memories along or allow only our version to be told, the story eventually fades and the opportunity to graft others in dies with it.
A few years ago, Steve and I joined a small group at a church we were attending. The group had already been meeting together for years; many of them were neighbors and had grown up going to school together. During our meeting times, their shared history would inevitably come up. “Remember the time …” became a common refrain, and the group would hash out the details for hours. Sometimes, we spent entire evenings together while the long-timers tried to remember how so-and-so and what’s-his-face are related.
The stories seemed interesting on the surface, and in the beginning, I thought this was the way for me to learn more about the group. But as it turned out, no one invited us to participate in the story. They didn’t stop to explain who the people were or how we might know them. They didn’t offer to drive us to places where things happened. And they never asked us to share our own memories that might have connected to theirs in some way.
Too often, we think shared history or collective memory belongs in a museum. A past we can memorialize. But I think shared history also belongs in the laboratory, because it’s something that always being recreated, like a strange alchemy of old and new and now. we’re always creating together. It also belongs in the workshop, because it’s something we’re always remodeling and adding to. It belongs in the maternity ward, because it’s birthed over and over again in our children, and our children’s children.
And it happens this way in our very own lives:
Every time we ask, “Remember when …?” and include everyone …
Every time we ask, “What do you remember about …? and genuinely listen …
Every time we say, “That reminds me of …” and share a story of our own life that relates to something someone else just shared …
… we test the hypothesis again, we improve on the design just a little, and we welcome another member into the group.
I wonder … do you have a group that you share a history with? What’s been your experience with sharing your past stories and hearing others’? When you meet someone new, how do you begin to connect both your past and your present with them? Have you ever felt excluded by someone else’s memories?
2. The Persistence of Memory
Salvador Dali’s art often puts me on edge. But it also makes me think. That’s definitely true of this piece: “The Persistence of Memory.”
Here’s what the Museum of Modern Art says about it:
Those limp watches are as soft as overripe cheese—indeed, they picture “the camembert of time,” in Dalí’s phrase. Here time must lose all meaning. Permanence goes with it: ants, a common theme in Dalí’s work, represent decay, particularly when they attack a gold watch, and they seem grotesquely organic. The monstrous fleshy creature draped across the painting’s center is at once alien and familiar: an approximation of Dalí’s own face in profile, its long eyelashes seem disturbingly insect-like or even sexual, as does what may or may not be a tongue oozing from its nose like a fat snail.
I wonder … What was your first response to this painting? What caused you to look twice? What can this painting teach us about memory?
3. Journaling and the Art of Paying Attention
Down in my basement, in a plastic tub tucked away on a metal shelf, is a box of journals I’ve kept since I was a young teenager. They are filled with stories and poetry, sermon notes and lists, even the Psalms, at least one version copied in the large loopy handwriting of my youth, and another in the neater and smaller font of adulthood.
I journal to process what’s going on in my life, to puzzle through problems I don’t know how to solve. But I also journal to remember, not necessarily because I plan to reread what I write but because in the writing I’m more apt to nail down the experience in my mind. Also, because journaling causes me to pay attention. And as we talked about a few weeks ago, “you remember what you pay attention to.”
Recently, I’ve rediscovered that drawing and painting in a nature journal helps me pay even more attention than just writing itself. Not only am I paying attention to what’s around me, I’m bending down, zooming in, picking things up, touching them, smelling them, listening to them. You might say that my written journal explores the world inside my head and my nature journal explores the world all around me.
By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about nature journaling, I’ve found two amazing teachers:
4. Chains of Remembrance
As a writer, my memory is one of my most valuable tools. My writing life rises and falls on my ability to recall facts and details and quotes and stories. Which, of course, requires me to pay attention. But it also means I spend a lot of time trying to remember things.
Whether you’re a writer yourself who also relies on memory as a tool of the trade, or you’re someone who just likes to remember, here’s one simple way I learned to tap into my memories. I call it chains of remembrance.
I start with something specific: a year, a place, an object. Then I try to remember just one specific thing about it. After that, I try to remember another thing and another after that, allowing each memory to flow from the one before. Eventually, I have a whole chain of memories, often growing stronger and more specific as I go.
Here’s an example: this afternoon, I was driving down State Road 421 on my way to an appointment. I thought about all the times I’ve driven down that road. For one, I remembered that I used to commute up and down the road when I first got married and still worked in Indianapolis. Then I remembered the fall after my stepdad passed away, how I cried watching the farmers bringing in the harvest during those evening commutes. A few years after that, I hit a deer with my car on the way to a friend’s house … I thought of it again as I passed the exact spot. Later, the road reminded me of an essay I wrote about driving, the funny way my husband says the name of a little town along the way, and the tree in that same little town that people throw their old shoes on. When the leaves fall, you can see dozens of pairs of shoes hanging in the branches.
By the time I arrived at my appointment, I had a beautiful chain of remembrance.
Give it a try: Think of a year in your life and then try to remember as many things that happened that year as you can. Your memory will take it from there.
Thanks again for sharing this time with me. If you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. It’s one of my favorite features of this platform.
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Until next time,