Do You Remember …

The Rev. Alison Cornish

February 20, 2005 –

A few years ago, my family – my parents, my brother and his wife and son, and Pat and I – were gathered together for a dinner celebrating my mother’s birthday. As a present, my brother had framed up a picture of his youngest son, Andy. At the time of our gathering, Andy was already 6, but the picture was of Andy when he was about 2 years old – an adorable picture of a bubbly and energetic baby.

Andy took a close look at the picture – at his younger self – looked up at those of us sitting around the table, and said, “tell me about when I was young.” My first thought was “but you are young.” Then I realized what he was getting at – he wanted to know about that Andy – the one in the picture – the one he had already grown past remembering.

One by one, each of us – his parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle – told Andy a story about “when he was young.” He laughed with us at the cute things we told him he had done, marveled at his own precociousness, and was wide-eyed when recounted trouble he just barely avoided. Andy was building a storehouse of memories about himself. In fact, he was learning that most intriguing lesson about memory – that we don’t remember everything that happens to us. The memories that constitute our personal identity and give us our self-awareness are constituted of a bit of this and some of that – a photograph, someone else’s recollection, our own dim awareness. It was a lesson about the complexity of memory.

In preparing today’s service about memory, I was struck by the paradoxes of memory that contribute to its complexity. Daniel Schacter, the author of our first reading, points to one of these paradoxes in his book’s introduction, “memory’s fragile power.” I had never thought of those two words side-by-side in connection with memory, but they work – how powerful is the pull and presence of memory, how necessary to our very existence. And yet how easily memory can be lost – temporarily or permanently – with the myriad of effects that loss brings.

Another paradox. Memories come into play as we retrieve them from our past – yet this retrieval is both voluntary and involuntary. Much is written about how and why the processes of recalling memories work the way they do, we all experience times of desperately wanting to remember something that we simply cannot access – or being reminded of something when we least want to be. When it comes to memory, it seems true, our mind can seem to have a mind of its own.

Yet another paradox. We rely on remembered information and experiences to perform the most basic and the most complicated of life’s tasks. Each day we recall skills and lessons already learned that are far too numerous to catalogue. And yet, our memories, our recollections of our pasts, are incredibly subjective. Memories are built from fragments of experience, and scientists tell us that “what we already know shapes what we select and [choose to remember from our present].” It requires enormous trust to know that the knowledge we need to live our lives contains so little objectivity – and even less given the passage of time.

And remember the lessons of Wilfrid Gordon’s “basket of memories?” Wilfrid explored just a small collection of memories – warmth, sadness, preciousness, humor, and something from long ago. But what is sad for one person is another’s delight – precious for one, another’s discard. Memories are so individualistic – yet when they’re shared, we learn as much about ourselves as we do others.

So, it is with these “paradoxes” about memory before us – its power and its fragility; its ability to play “hide-and-seek” despite, and sometimes, in spite, of our will; our complete dependence on a subjective “catalogue;” and the infinite variety of feelings that memory can evoke – that explore the subject today. As a non-clinician, I am not prepared to give a lecture about how memory functions in terms of physiology or psychology. But as a minister, what I am interested in is the role of memory in each of our spiritual lives, and how memory functions in our communities of faith. I am interested in how, when we are in relationship with one another, memory becomes so very important. And I am interested in the memories that are being formed now, in the context of our post-modern culture.

Here’s a story about the fragile power of memory in one life. When I served as a hospital chaplain a few summers ago, one of my assigned units was the Geriatric Psych ward – that is, elderly people who had both medical and psychological problems. Many people housed in this locked unit were non-verbal. Reeba was partly verbal. She was confined to a wheelchair that she would propel up and down the corridor with one foot with incredible dexterity. Reeba had a head full of white hair and bright blue eyes, and sought interaction from anyone walking down the hall. She’d lock eyes, and start a sentence, “Help me to …” “Would you please …” “I need to …” Problem was, Reeba never finished a sentence. No amount of guessing at what the rest of the sentence might contain produced any results. She would look sadly at me, and I at her, bound by our mutual helplessness.

One day I was sitting with Reeba, racking my brain as to what to try doing differently. Since I was a chaplain, I finally tried the obvious – “Reeba,” I said, “would you like to pray?” She looked at me. “Yes.” “Really?” I said. “You’d like to pray?” “Yes.” It was the longest sustained exchange we had ever had.

I asked her what she would like to say to God. “Goddammit.” I paused. A slightly unorthodox way to begin a prayer to the deity, but OK, I’m a Unitarian, I’m flexible. I took her hands in mine and began a prayer of lament, “Goddammit, this is so frustrating – this is so hard,” I began.

The next day, bolstered by this seeming success, I again asked Reeba if she would like to pray. She answered yes, and then she spontaneously prayed the Lord’s Prayer – word for word, unaided. When she finished, she dropped my hands and crossed herself. I asked her how she was feeling. “Lonely,” and she started to cry.

Each time I saw Reeba, I asked her if she wanted to pray, and she always said yes. We prayed for happiness, for help, for anything she named that day.

What is lodged in our nonconscious memory, and how we gain access to it, is still mysterious even for scientists – no one can say for sure what was going on inside of Reeba’s mind – which synapses were firing, and how, and why, or what log jam broke that morning. The remarkable, yet momentary, recovery of herself posed questions to me – as a chaplain, and as a Unitarian Universalist.

If we draw from our sources, particularly those words “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder … which moves us to a renewal of the spirit …” there is no question that my encounters with Reeba renewed my spirit. But there is also the wonder that somehow the words “would you like to pray” allowed Reeba to reach back into some place in her own life where a prayer was stored, intact and precious. Her moment from her religious past was there all along, perhaps awaiting a protocol less biomedical, less therapeutic. Could it be that recalling a memory – particularly one as powerful as a prayer – is as healing as any other modality?

Moving from the individual to the communal, there is no doubt that a religious community IS a basket of memories. Our churches, synagogues, mosques, and meetinghouses are some of our most memory-laden institutions. These sacred homes carry the history of a community in so many ways – witnessing and recording births, marriages and deaths; as spaces for gathering of the larger community; portals for newcomers to find their way, and ports of departure for those moving on. Individually and collectively, members join the stream of living history each and every time they cross the threshold.

We also reenact history each and every time we gather. Our liturgy – the rituals of our Sunday service – helps us to do this. Liturgy carries the traditions of both our Unitarian Universalist faith, and of our individual community. “We light this chalice, sign of our liberal religious tradition…” “We gather each week, from our separate lives …” We hear these words and we call to mind other times the chalice has been lit, all the joys and sorrows and concerns candles, where yours “long ago burned away.” Every religious tradition has its liturgy, its way of inviting the past into the present. But Unitarian Universalist congregations – and services – have the added charge to help mediate the former religious traditions so many of us carry within. Like Wilfrid’s basket, some memories are precious, and some sad, and others warm – thing is, all those feelings can be directed at the same thing! Singing hymns, or theistic language, or praying – all of these evoke different memories for different people. The challenge in a Unitarian Universalist community is to be both understanding and respectful of individual’s pasts –where folks have come from – and at the same time build a new context for shared memories. Here in this congregation we are doing just that as we build our new home.

The shared work that has gone into designing, and raising money, and building this home has generated new stories that are already part of our now common history. When we move to the meetinghouse later this spring, we will carry across that threshold a basket of twenty years of memories. It will contain the memories of people now gone from our midst. The more attention we give to these common memories, the stronger our community – and the more gracefully it will bear the diversity we are and will be.

Now, about the subjective nature of memory and relationships. As a minister, I have the privilege to meet with couples preparing to be married or joined in union. Before each wedding I officiate, I meet with the couple several times, getting to know them and helping them to write a ceremony that truly reflects who they are. In our first meeting, I ask the couple to tell me their story – how and where they met, what drew them – and kept them – together. What always amuses me is that that even with these freshly minted couples, memories already diverge. How things happened, who said what (and why), what happened first and next … already more than one story exists. And this is just the beginning.

Memories may fade, change, even strengthen over time. Memory is never frozen.

But when memories are created through relationships, shared existence deepens connection. Think of the history shared with siblings, or childhood friends, or a marriage or union that has lasted many years. Telling stories together of times past fills in the gaps in our own memories, keeps our own pasts alive for us. When changes happen in the story – when the relationship changes, or ends – well, then we begin to lose some of our own history, our own memories.

When my friend Val died, not only did I lose someone that I loved, but I also lost her version of our shared history. Losing Val meant losing our reminiscing – our recounting of our shared years together. Without Val, my own memories of that time are shifting, changing, becoming less distinct. When we lose our relationships filled with shared memories with those we love through separation or death or dementia, we grieve losing those we love. But we must also acknowledge that we may lose a part of our selves, and mourn that loss as well.

Finally, a word about memory within the world in which we all live, for memory is an active player on the larger stage of life. What interests me as much as what and how we remember – and how memories are used – is how we actually create memories.

Scientists call this “encoding” – how we record experiences so that we can successfully recall our memories. Encoding involves physiological changes that preserve the effects of an experience over time – and that assist us in activating or retrieving a memory. Researchers are still exploring this process of encoding and retrieval, but we can also find artists and writers who have long been intrigued by this question. Remember Marcel Proust, writing In Search of Lost Time? In a most dramatic moment, the novel’s narrator, Marcel, is visiting his mother, who serves him tea and pastries known as petit madeleines. After dipping a madeleine into the tea and tasting the mixture, he is overcome by an unexpected and entirely mysterious sense of well-being. He is baffled, mystified. Then comes the extraordinary instant when the mystery is solved: the taste had elicited a long-dormant memory of his childhood home, the pastry and tea given him by his aunt, and all his feelings of that time.

While this story inspires the writer, and the scientists, to ask questions about voluntary and involuntary recollections of memory, I am interested in what it tells us about memory-making.” Not so much Proust’s flash of memory as its genesis. Scientists tell us that “encoding and remembering are virtually inseparable – we remember only what we have encoded.” We remember what we pay attention to. That’s how new memories are formed.

But paying attention today means encountering modern life with its homogeneity and breakneck pace, its tendency to “skim the surface,” and rapid rate of change. Where do we find today the distinctiveness of foods, environments and experiences that give rise to memories? Would a McDonald’s hamburger, intended to taste exactly the same no matter where it is served in identical restaurants worldwide – would this hamburger have a chance against Proust’s madeleines? Do cyber-communities and relationships lodge in us the same way as sitting side-by-side, holding one another’s hands, seeing one another’s eyes? When multi-tasking is the order of the day, can we take in the smells and colors and sounds of one particular moment, chosen from all that chaotically surround it? To what are we paying attention? Are we paying attention?

Schacter offers this pithy, but chilly, prophecy about memory: “what has happened to us in the past determines what we take out of our daily encounters in life.” In very real ways, our memories not only constitute our past, they shape our future. May we remember his words as we attempt to live mindfully through our days, as we build new memories from fragments of experience.

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