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June 2014

You Get Bigger As You Go

"When one breaks camp in the morning, he turns back again and again to see what he has left. Surely he feels he has forgotten something: what is it? But it is only his sad thoughts and musings he has left, the fragment of his life he has lived there. Where he hung his coat on the tree, where he slept on the boughs, where he made his coffee or broiled his trout over the coals, where he drank again and again at the little brown pool in the spring run, where he looked long and long up into the whispering branches overhead, he has left what he cannot bring with him, - the flame and the ashes of himself."   

(John Burroughs)

Some people seem to have no attachment to place. They float over the crust of the earth, dipping a toe in here and there, and yet when they move on it is as if that other place never existed, is forgotten, and they are free to begin again in the place in which they find themselves. I had a neighbor like that once who, in a brief conversation, said to me that she thought she would just move to this or that town, start over, as if she were deciding where to have dinner out that night, an easy decision when you are unmoored.

I can't do that, wouldn't want to do that. I left a little piece of myself everywhere I lived. And I don't want to lose any of it.

In the first 18 years of my life, I lived in two houses, one in a post-WWII suburb of cookie-cutter frame houses on a street with the Fifties name of Idlewood. The next was on Surry, in a neighborhood of colonial style homes, unfenced backyards, station wagons and Oldsmobiles. In the next seven years, I lived in eight different places - dorms, apartments, condominiums, and even my in-laws, etching memories into the walls of them all. In the last 30 years, I have lived in one house, and its hallways and rooms are deeply furrowed with memories, with conversations, with joys and sorrows.

My workplace has also been full of leavings. In the building where I have always worked, I have had at least 11 different offices in 30 years, on every side of the building, overlooking a courtyard, a heat-soaked roof, the city skyline, and the trees of a residential area. Sometimes I walk past a former office and look in on a younger person there and see myself, hear some almost forgotten conversation I had there, still hanging in the air, remember laughing with a former colleague, praying for a co-worker there. Such memories provoke thankfulness and a sense of fullness.

I confess to a bit of sadness at the loss of these places and times. Yet it's not usually nostalgia I feel when I remember, nor some vague sentimentalism. I don't idealize the past I remember, as remembrance is skewed by the present. But I do miss it like you might miss a distant relative. Sometimes, I try to return: I put my hand on the screen door of my childhood home, open it, and go inside. I walk down the hall and turn into my bedroom. What am I looking for? I'm not sure. I guess I'm looking for me, for the fragments of the me left behind.

In the latest issue of The Mockingbird, Ethan Richardson leads off an issue devoted to identity by noting the difficulty of perceiving ourselves rightly. He addresses what is called the End-of-History Illusion, which is "our tendency to believe, contrary to past evidence, that who we are now is who we will continue to be forever," which is, obviously, false. He points to Henri Nouwen's embrace of the "unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments," a self emptied of self, one perhaps captured in John the Baptist's statement in light of Jesus' coming that "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn. 3.30).

But I think there's more to it than a shrinking of self. When Paul said that "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17), what he points to is a new identity that we are growing up into, a re-identity, a becoming who were were intended to be all along. In light of Christ, we decrease, yes, but only as we increase and grow more into the people we were intended to be all along. All those fragments of me that I left behind, the sum total of all that I experienced and all that I thought of myself all become a part of the Me that He is re-creating, one just a little lower than the angels (Ps. 8:5). Bruce Cockburn said it in a song: "You get bigger as you go/ No one told me - I just know/ Bales of memory like boats in tow."

Underneath the melancholy of remembrance lies joy. One day, the Author of Life will gather up all the fragments I left behind, all the little bits of me, and put me back together again, redeeming and remaking all those bales of memory. When I break camp and turn back on that day, everything will be there, never to be left again. None of it is lost to flame and ashes. Every bit of it will be redeemed and become a part of the Me in Him.