Memory can sit in the mind like a lump of clay to be shaped. Since my brother’s violent death, now decades ago, I’ve been intrigued by how people shape memory’s clay. Few people consciously consider memory’s power before thoughtful shaping. We treat it as though there is no control, and perhaps at times there isn’t. Traumatic events catch us unprepared to handle a lump of horrific memory clay that quickly solidifies. Over three days I’ve coincidentally had the media plop in my lap six examples of how people handle memory.
- Joshua Foer’s newly released book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything was reviewed by Steven Rea with The Philadelphia Enquirer. Rea describes Foer’s training for the U.S. Memory Championship as a “witty, engaging first-person account….” Foer uses memory as a game requiring workouts like a baseball pitcher needs spring training. Memory becomes a tool to benefit life.
- The new book, Fire Season, Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout, is by Philip Conners and was reviewed by Ben Fulton in The Salt Lake Tribune. For Conners, time spent at a lonely U.S. Forest Service outpost provided a serene mental space for him to, “[S]urf through memory a lot of the time.” The book becomes a thoughtful meditation on work and land management, akin to writing by Edward Abbey or Barry Lopez. Not appearing to be haunted by mental demons, Connors enjoys the free flow of thought as it peacefully connects him to a deeper part of himself and nature. Memory is a friend.
- Memory often becomes a landmark. “Forgive but never forget,” is a legacy of the Holocaust, that was used in a local story this week about a student dressed like a Ku Klux Klan member at a high school event. The several stories that have emerged from this are unclear about how aware the student was of the white costume’s history, but knowledgeable or not, he bumped into the landmark of racial bigotry made by collective memory. This lump of clay stands taller and stronger than any one person.
- Desperate Housewives is a TV soap opera, but its swift story lines reflect real stories to be found in everyday lives. Character Beth Young (Emily Bergl) took her own life days before Renee Perry’s (Vanessa Williams) big fashion show (death is such an inconvenience). The neighbors all retreated from agreeing to go to the party, but Perry persisted with stubborn, intentional, enflamed emotion. Turns out Perry’s mother took her own life when Perry was a child, but as she told Gabby (Eva Longoria), “I chose life.” Yes, the solidified memory lump that feeds the unresolved, forever lapping fire behind us that drives us blazing into the future. Is that to be applauded or pitied? Does it free our life or own it?
- Then I saw columnist Peg McEntee’s article on male adult sex abuse survivors. Here memory is being re-opened twenty years after a horrible thud of experience hardened it into something ugly that never went away or dissolved. Instead, the men carry a secret nightmare from childhood and now, far too many other experiences revolve around it to sabotage their lives. So the memory must be examined, perhaps shattered with insight, forgiveness, and compassion until the man walks through a passageway of carrying the memory differently.
- In Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Judith Toy writes of her sister and two teen-age nephews who were murdered by a neighbor in 1990. The experience hurled her inward to deal with the clay of memory hardening in the reactive pain of trauma. Years were spent reviewing, replaying, renaming feelings as they surfaced and threatened to engulf her until she faced and reshaped them with a hand that could live with them. Through a religious and spiritual background, she finished her article with: Hatred never ceases through hatred: hatred only ceases through love.
Not all painful memories eventually evolve to love, but it is important to look at those lumps of memory clay in our history and thoughtfully decide where they need reshaping. Only by acknowledging them can they be put away to rest and leave us to a well-earned peace.