The Weight of Memory

Clip_image002_34You get bigger as you go
No one told me -- I just know
Bales of memory like boats in tow
You get bigger as you go

(Bruce Cockburn, "You Get Bigger As You Go," from Humans)

While we may forget a great deal as we grow older, it's also true that, as more life has been lived, there are more memories piled up.  For one who has had a tragic life, perhaps this is a burden, like "boats in tow" that you can't cut loose.  But even with a relatively good life, there is a weightiness to memory.

Solomon was likely on to this.  In Ecclesiastes he surveys a life "under the sun" and calls it "[u]tterly meaningless.  Everything is meaningless" (Ecc.1:2). Remembering all he had done and all he had tried (he lived what we would call a very "full" life), he basically concluded by saying "what's the use?"  He laments the monotony of life, the boredom, the fact that there is nothing really new, and the brevity of life, and says "so what?"

I guess that's the burden of memory if what we see and experience is all there is.  For the materialist, if he is candid with himself, there is no meaning.  He may say life is what you make it, but that's not even true, as you can't make meaning.  All he has is the experience of the moment.  And memory?  Best to do all one can to forget or reinterpret the past to make it more palatable or happy, as this is all we have.  There really is no meaning.  That's really the plight of the post-modern, if he is honest.  No truth, no meaning, no memory that matters.  Pick a narrative.  Define your life as you like.  Be happy.  It's all you have.

On the other hand, the Christian says everything matters, and that everything includes memory.  We carry memories for the sanctifying effect they have in our present lives.  If we remember a hardship or trial, we also use it as a reminder of God's faithfulness.  For example, I'd have to say the two hospitalizations and emergency operations I endured are particularly unpleasant memories, but they are reminders of God's faithfulness and my own faithlessness.  They have present sanctifying effect if my memory of them stimulates me to greater faithfulness and reliance upon God.

Memories may be weighty, but they need not be heavy.  Jesus says "my burden is light, my yoke easy" (Mt. 11:30).  He is the one pulling those bales of memory with us, or even for us.  He's the one who bears the weight of our mistakes, our sin, and all the sin of the world.  He can carry it.  He can handle it.  I just need to let Him.

Automobiles and Togetherness

JetstarAutomobiles always seem to get a bum rap.  They are, after all, it is said, the reason for urban sprawl, for the rise of the suburb, for sexual promiscuity, for our dependence on oil, for pollution, for junkyards -- the usual litany of horrors.  Every technological improvement has its down side, I suppose.

Growing up, however, the car was a place I recall feeling closest to my family.  There's nothing quite like barreling down a road in the pitch dark on a late night ride out of town or around town listening to my Mom and Dad talk quietly in the front seat.  A good rainstorm, or cold weather, made it even better.  My sister and I would lie down in the back seat, talking, or, given my small size, I would curl up in the floorboard at my mother's feet, enjoying the security of a small place and the heat that blew from the vent down there.

We had an Olds, a Jetstar 77, I believe, a tank of a car that guzzled the gas, then $.26 per gallon.  I remember riding in it home from church sometime in 1969 or 1970, when we were stopped by the police at a roadblock and informed that a curfew was being put in place at 9:00 (it was just after 9).  It was the South, and my city was the focus of race riots, violence I really didn't understand at the age of 11 or 12.

The car was also part and parcel of every annual vacation, when I remember driving, driving, and driving all over the Southeast and Midwest, staying in small mom and pop hotels, my only requirement being that they had a pool.  No air conditioning in that car, and no seat belts.  Sometimes we'd stretch out in the flat area behind the back seat, just under the rear window.  Imagine space for that!  We'd stop for picnics beside mountain streams, eat at McDonalds when we felt extravagant, and, mostly, ride and see the sights.

I loved that car.  I loved riding in it with my family.  We were together, with no MP3 players, DVD players, or CDs --- nothing but our imaginations.  We counted blue cars, yellow signs, cows, billboards.  We played word games.  We even slept (a relief to my parents, I'm sure.)

I had a recurring dream as a kid.  I was in that Jetstar 77, driving the streets around my home, alone, at ten.  Around and around.  I loved it.  That's back when cars were cars and gas was cheap.  And being in the car was a family thing. And if you're under 40 you probably have no idea what I'm talking about.


Clip_image002_33"Remember that there's nothing higher, stronger, more wholesome and more useful to life than some good memory, especially when it goes back to the days of your own childhood, to the days of your life at home.  You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all."  (Alyosha, in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov)

I don't remember how young I was at the time, probably about six, but from my earliest memories I recollect a curiosity about how other people lived.  I was riding once with my mother to see my grandmother and distinctly remember looking around me at some small, white clapboard houses (smaller and shabbier than mine) and, seeing a woman come out of the front door of one of these small homes, wondering who these people are, what they do all day, how they live.  I'm sure it was but a momentary event, but it was, I guess, an epiphany for me: not everyone lived like me, not every place was like the town where I lived, and while I'm not sure I could yet think about what "other" might mean (my world was so small then), from then on I wondered what was "out there."

I became the resident travel agent.  I studied atlases, pored over maps, and sent my own postcards to far away state tourism offices and chambers of commerce seeking information to plan our trips, even though most of the planned trips were not taken.  Spreading the Esso map out on the tan carpet of our living room floor, alone, I almost felt transported just by following the red and blue lines that snaked across the pages, mouthing the names of cities and towns, wondering how far we could go and what we would find when we got there.

My uncle and aunt took me on a trip once to the Washington, D.C. area.  I rode between them, without seat belt, in the front seat, and directed them: "Turn here, not there; No, Uncle Clarence, not there."  Occasionally my uncle would pretend (he later declared) that he was lost, and I'd have to help get him out of the jam.  All our trips were car trips, and while my sisters yakked in the back, I sat in the front.  I wanted to see where I was going.  I still like knowing where I'm going.


Sub I suppose Idlewood is a good name for a street in a 1950s era suburb.  When my Dad came home from WWII, like many vets he married and set about having a family.  New houses were in demand, and developers began cranking out small three-bedroom bungalows along cookie-cutter grids with names meant to conjure up the leisure life of the suburbs, with trees, green grass, and good clean living, names like Gracewood, Fernwood, Friendly, Evergreen, and Idlewood.  I never thought much about those street names until now, though I walked those streets many, many times.

As far as I can remember, our Idlewood house was a small, white frame, single story structure, with three small bedrooms.  When you entered the front door there was a small living room, and you could see through to a small dining room as well with a window air conditioning unit.  Or perhaps a fan.  In fact, definitely a fan.  A very scary fan too, because I remember being frightened of it, convinced that a monster was in it or outside beyond it.

If I walk down the hall from the living room, that's where it all becomes quite dreamlike.  There's my room on the right, my sister's room on the left (with bunks), and my parents room at the end, but I can add little in detail about these rooms.  A three-year old's memory is episodic, focusing around things like monsters in the fan, the night the rat got in the house and my mother took me and hopped up on the kitchen counter, the rock I threw (accidentally, I hope) through our Greek neighbors front window, and the boys across the street who locked my sisters and I in the playhouse at the back of their house (they let me out through the window).

In back of my house was my favorite place.  We had some kind of a playhouse there, a homemade one, and perhaps a swing.  I remember standing at the back of that playhouse, on a hill, looking at an empty swimming pool behind us (I'm told it was a company that sold pools).  I was wistful, though I couldn't have told you that at the time.  I wanted to go find out what it was.  But at three, the yard is about as big as the world gets.  It gets bigger as you go.

I don't know the value of such random memories as these.  To anyone reading this, they likely mean little.  I'm not being sentimental nor nostalgic.  I'm just writing it down.  But I have to believe that what I am allowed to recall means something and has some purpose, at least for me.  God knows what.


Clip_image002_32"The school opened infinite vistas for this six-year old."  (Pablo Neruda, in Memoirs)

Well, not for me.  I remember many of my earliest days at school, and many are not good.  To this day, I do not wish to visit my old schools or even go near them.  You would think I was traumatized, but, in actuality, I doubt it was all that bad.  Nevertheless, there were some bad experiences.

One of those humiliating experiences was in the 5th grade glee club.  "Glee" is, I suppose, the hopeful way in which they referred to the experience.  At that age, there were sopranos and altos, with a fair number of boys beginning with girls as sopranos.  All well and good.  However, by midway through the year, with voices changing, I was only one of two boys left in the sopranos -- me and a guy named Brad.  Brad was the meanest, coolest, toughest kid in school -- and he was God's grace to me.  Nobody made fun of me for being a soprano (which was a great fear of mine) -- not as long as Brad was a soprano.  Actually, nobody messed with me at all, figuring that I was friends with Brad.  You know, the guy never even said more than two words to me that whole year.  I think he said "shut up" once.  That's it.  Grace comes in some odd looking packages sometimes.

And then there was the day I got glasses and had to wear them to school.  Now, some kids wanted to wear glasses.  I haven't the slightest idea why.  I guess they thought they were cool or something.  Not me.  They used to line us up in the hall to take the eye test.  I would excuse myself to go to the restroom in advance of this, walking by the eye sign (very closely) and attempting to memorize the bottom line so I could pass the test.  Ultimately, however, I flunked.  I still would not wear my glasses.  Finally, when it became obvious that my grades were suffering because I could not see the blackboard, it happened.  My third-grade teacher, Miss Morris (who was at least a hundred years old), stopped class and told me to "Put your glasses on, son!"  I shrank about 3 feet that day.  But I did do better in class.

For these and many other reasons, I never want to go to school again.  I'll bet Miss Morris is still at it, humiliating young boys.  And Brad?  He flunked out and went into politics.  Or did I just imagine that?