Vol. 1 Issue 4, Winter 1997
CULTIVATE A MEMORY GARDEN
By Jean Jones Andersen
Memory Is Tricky. Practical details disappear when we need them; a scent or sound suddenly evokes with crystal clarity events, relationships and emotions we thought "forgotten."
We ask ourselves "Why? What happened? How can some archival ghost take precedence over immediate necessity?"
Furthermore, we can't seem to agree among ourselves about the past. Even without the complications of Alzheimer's disease or senility, we compare impressions with persons who shared the very same experience, and conclude that some of us must truly have been elsewhere. Police officers, insurance adjusters and news reporters shake their heads over conflicting stories, and parents listen in amazement (and sometimes horror) as their offspring recount memories of childhood that certainly never happened that way in parental recollection. Where questions of "objective" reality are concerned, the skills of observation and of intentional recall do respond to training. Numerous self-help books describe techniques to enhance one's ability to connect names with faces, to produce learned information for final exams, and to use written records and electronic gadgets to guard against the most disastrous lapses. While most of us probably couldn't rival Sherlock Holmes, we've learned to muddle through daily life with a reassuring semblance of predictability.
Attention And Organization certainly help to manage the infinitely-expansive load of data with which we try to cope, but capacity for recall does little to explain memory's natural selectivity. That selectivity, I suggest, involves the individual's sense of meaning, and goes directly to the core of one's identity and value as a person.
When a therapist spends years mining a client's memories, the issue is not so much "what actually happened," but what, for the client, was the significance of what happened? How has the person's interpretation of the past formed her or his present life, and what implications does "all that" have for the future?
To Struggle for Meaning is to become more fully who and what we're created able to be -- to dare to know MORE than "just the facts." The creation stories in the Hebrew/ Christian scripture (and in many other sources as well) present this expansion of knowledge as a distinct temptation and threat. It costs us the naiveté of immediacy: no longer can we pretend that we didn't know or didn't intend or didn't "mean." Suddenly we have responsibility along with the simple privilege of existence.
This does not exactly simplify life, you know? No wonder we occasionally cast baleful stories at the first person to "bite the apple." It must have been nice to live fully in the now-moment: no shred of remorse or guilt over the past, no hint of anxiety about the future. Either you're fine -- or you're dead; in which case it doesn't matter, you're fine anyhow, or you don't know it if you're not. Barring the occasional encounter with active pain, that must have been a real paradise!
Eden’s Are Limiting, however: if we can't reflect on and learn from our experience, and if we can't imagine some future state different from the present, then we're doomed to repeat the same patterns over and over. We couldn't farm, or build, or write music; we couldn't tell stories, or invent or research or explore or experiment. Apparently, over the millennia, the game seems worth the candle: we continue our eternal quest for greater consciousness and the ability to discern meaning in the patterns of our lives.
Rituals Help. In all times and cultures peoples develop regular, special ways to recognize and celebrate turning points in the individual's or tribe's life. We know that these "rites of passage" are vitally important to the process of individuation -- of discovering and proclaiming who we really are as mature individuals or societies.
In the 1990s in the United States of America, however, there are few -- if any -- universally recognized rituals to mark the stages of our growth. Sometimes, in fact, it seems as if we're losing ground rather than developing. At other times, we're breaking new ground: no one, so far as we know, has been here before to erect guiding markers. What is the proper protocol to acknowledge the changes that occur when human beings become able to create or destroy whole species of life forms, or visit other planets, or travel through time?
Bioethicists and philosophers struggle with the implications of such developments -- but there are as yet no "memory markers" to help either the maturing individual or society as a whole cope with new demands. "The old order changeth, yielding place to new," and those who now "be grown too weak and old" to protect the form of civilization that they cherished (and perhaps too rigid to adapt creatively), "dr[a]w back in wrath," while a new generation attempts the task. Thus in 1869 Alfred, Lord Tennyson, described the coming of Arthur to fifth-century Britain, and so it is in our time and place.
Today's global miasma of anarchy and despair finds many of us "unhomed" at a personal level. For better or worse, there is no longer a single normative culture in which everybody experiences confirmation or bar mitzvah at the proper age, or in which life-long, heterosexual marriage is the explicit, unquestioned expectation of any "normal" human adult. No longer are "slaves" and "masters" tidily confined to appropriate roles -- nor men and women either, for that matter. Habits and courtesies and even legalities that once were universally acknowledged and widely observed are now moot. Our particular melting pot includes so many seasonings that it's hard to identify any one in particular.
To This We Must Add the rootlessness caused by industrialization, the transportation revolution, technological innovation, social climbing, corporate greed and military exploits -- all interpreted to our gullible ears by media divorced from any allegiance beyond the balance sheet.
Few families have been undivided by one or more of these enforced transformations and migrations; few remain in a familiar neighborhood with deep friendships and strong social networks for support in times of trouble; fewer still are able (or indeed wish) to continue in the careers or lifestyles of their parents. Children today often learn "foreign" languages not through school texts, but because their playmates and classmates have birth languages -- and traditions -- different from their own. There is much of value in diversity, and there is much at risk as well.
Sometimes We Feel Overwhelmed by all the changes: we selectively recall the past as "the good old days," and may even resent whomever or whatever we identify as agents of change. The desire to return to a simpler "Eden" is natural and understandable -- but useless. The angel with the flaming sword bars the gate: no amount of blaming or wishing will get us back to the "old home." The task now, should we choose to accept it, is to learn to till the wilderness.
How, then, can we provide, for ourselves and our families and friends, "memory markers" that will hold amid all the wild currents of a world in turmoil? I suggest that the answer lies in what is essentially very personal, very small, very simple. We need not and cannot wait for some "social solution." We must take personal responsibility to notice and validate the deep meaning in the events of our daily lives.
If we engage in the work of learning our own lessons, that process provides the thread of continuity that not only makes sense of an individual's life, but also binds together the lives of all who share the pilgrimage, consciously or unconsciously. This "binding together" is what creates the spiritual community that supports and nourishes each soul in every time, across all boundaries and through all changes.
The Process Is As Earthy and practical as the concept is mystical. The metaphor of making a garden in the wilderness is apt indeed: the ancient story-tellers knew their craft! Finding ourselves suddenly outcast, from what was familiar, we wander nomadically to see what we may glean in the strange land: our memories accumulate helter-skelter, dependent on our environment. Soon we start to notice natural patterns: we discover that some kinds of events, held in memory, are rich sources of nourishment; others produce psychological bellyaches. We learn to seek out and encourage the former, and avoid the latter.
Later, we learn about seeds: we can plant certain kinds of memories and, with luck, expect a good crop. We experiment with irrigation and fertilization, weeding and pruning.
Finally, we learn the discipline of planning for times of famine. Even when we "do everything right," there will be times -- sometimes long-- when nothing grows but weeds.
Present pain tends to obscure past joy; we forget our lessons, our coping mechanisms; we even wish to die. While no human "technique" can insulate us from the effects of trauma and tragedy in our lives, we can heed the prophetic warning, and store up rich memories during the "seven fat years" to provide resources for the "seven lean years" to follow.
Perhaps the ultimate stage of the memory garden is the one we can least understand or welcome during the spring and summer and autumn of our lives. When it comes, however, it is no longer a struggle. I think it happens naturally and gracefully if as we become old and wise enough for our memories to serve as mulch and fertilizer for the roots of a new generation. No longer tainted by braggadocio or self-pity, the stories we draw forth from our memories become compassionate and comforting -- and all who hear recognize their truth.
I suspect the secret is that we are the garden much more deeply than we are gardeners. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that the real harvest comes with our physical death, when all our precious memories are gathered to our true home -- the home we only feared we had lost and forgotten when we were born. Maybe indeed this is the one gift we can offer the Creator: the very essence of our experience. Could our memories actually be the "nectar of the gods" -- the elixir that supports and nurtures the holy Unity itself in its own activity?
If that be so, then perhaps eating the apple was no sin, but a yes-saying equal to Mary's. Then, the long sojourn in the wilderness is no punishment, but a pilgrimage undertaken in faithful obedience: we only thought it retribution, because growing sometimes hurts so much. If it is true in eternity as well as in space/time, that we truly create our reality by our perception of it, then this garden above all will bear fruit an hundredfold.
Journals of various kinds can be literal life-savers. Forty years ago, a mentor taught me to keep a "Blessing Book" to record beautiful things that happen to me or that I observe on a daily basis. When my world is painted in shades of gloom and doom, it really does help to turn the pages and remember all that treasure received and stored.
Writing about one's experience in a daily journal, even when all there is to say is grief and pain, performs the dual function of venting violent feelings in the present, and providing a reality check for use when -- having survived the immediate catastrophe -- one has a chance to figure out "what was that all about??"
Photographs -- especially captioned, or accompanied by narrative -- make such memories particularly vivid, and help us to share them with significant others. As our family has been reshaped from time to time, I have tried to recognize the changed relationships (as well as deal with the inevitable loss involved) by making a literal "gift of memory." When my son was ready to leave home, I put together a book of photos and recollections culled from my journals -- the story, as I knew and felt it, of our passage together up to that point. He tells me that one way he knows a relationship has become important to him is when he wants to share that book with the other person.
Finally, with all our cultivation, we need to recognize that there's nothing wrong with a wilderness, per se: deserts and rain forests, glaciers and oceans, and even the magma that spawns volcanoes all have their essential place in the scheme of all-that-is. On the other hand, human beings have a proper place in the scheme as well -- and some form of cultivation seems integral to the "kind of critter we are." Still, as we clear the underbrush, plant our vegetables and flowers, build our homes and institutions, we are wise to make regular retreats to mountain or ocean or desert wildness to get our perspective back in balance: we are not "all-that-is," nor even the reason for or master of "all that is," and we are unhappy indeed when we fail to stand in awe before something or someone so unimaginably great that it can provide Meaning for all our memories.
©Jean Jones Andersen, 1997
"Path" by Robert B. Campbell©1998,All Rights Reserved.
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