Memory as Present and Alive: Mystery of Spirit and Body

I heard a song a few days ago that I hadn’t heard in about two decades. However, several fast, flickering memories formed behind my eye.

(Think about that for a minute–where we “see” our memories in our brain–the visual recreation of things that are not tangibly in front of us to “see” with our eyes, connecting physical body to immaterial soul.)

I didn’t force myself to remember these particular memories. I didn’t meticulously try to recreate them based on the knowledge that I must sift and pull from a long-term memory file to match the song like I would go through a checklist of folders on my computer. It happened completely subconsciously and instantly. Triggered by a particular collection of notes and lyrics, my brain matched it to familiar faces and a trailer building covered in soggy, melting spring snow. Then I recalled the old, Richland Bible Church’s carpeted auditorium, a band playing in dimmed lighting, and laughing with two friends. A couple of separate but matched memories were present: listening to that song on a CD at lunch in high school and watching the band play live on a weekend, as if they were real before me in the present. I would argue that they were real before me in the present, because they had imprinted my soul in a particular, mysterious way and they were called back to life.

It’s funny how memories work that way–we bring the past to the present to live and have space,to hold our attention and contemplation, and this is true whether pleasurable or traumatic. By all that is pragmatic, we may say that those memories do not serve a purpose to us years later, as we may no longer cultivate those friendships or live within the same circumstances of the past. We’ve moved on, we say. However, those memories do serve a purpose, not one that is merely coping with time gone by, or the wish that our wrinkles weren’t so deep or our hair not so gray.

When those lyrics and memories are brought back to life in the present, they are deeper and have more rooting, more meaning. We begin to form a story around them, being a storytelling people by nature. With particularly fond memories some call this, in psychology or counseling circles, romanticizing the past– remembering people or events better than they really were and filtering out the bad or mundane. But what if, rather, it is the soul’s way of capturing what we know to be good and eternal in particular moments, from known people and experiences, while leaving that which is temporal to the graveyard of buried past? We understand, as humans who have thought about this enough, that there are plenty of things that should be left to the past, but many that are good to call forth and revive, to imbibe with new life, to see where they fit in the story. And I would argue that those things that are left to the past are never truly forgotten, they are like the cuts from a draft that help build the true story that is seen and read, but should live in the present and future, as we have learned to use, or leave, the memory of them in a way that is beneficial or appropriate.

Certain memories are triggered by odors, music, voices. For we remember not just what we can picture or hear in the mind’s eye, but the ideas that surrounded us or the emotions experienced, what we knew and believed at the time. In phenomenological research we call this lived experience, where sensory exposure or encounters cannot be separated from the meaning we attach to them. The physical experiences, events, encounters with others are infused with meaning at every turn then, and as we continue to recall them, that meaning builds upon itself. I remember the nausea more than anything, when I smell the Chanel bottle of perfume I used to wear while pregnant. I remember the lullaby of the lake at twilight as I fell asleep in the cottage every time I smell tea tree oil. The song I heard happenchance transported me back, time traveling for sure, but it also meant something more, meant something deeper, because I was twenty years older than I had been when I first sang and loved to drink it down and tried to follow its lesson. I was no longer a seventeen year old trying to navigate friendships and high school, but a wife, mother, and teacher with the responsibility of a life well-lived after encountering failure and success multiple times. And so, the song was more complete and alive to me in the present than it ever could have been in my youth. My life experience made the words grow outward:

“Yesterday I lived for me
And I was so alone as I could be
Then I saw You and how You give yourself away
And I want to live for You today

I’ll give, I’ll hold nothing
I’ll give and I’ll hold nothing back

My love is a lot like me
Wanting nothing less than everything
But I know, You’re the only love that’s true
And only giving makes me close to You

My hands are open, so take what You see
And I’ll keep nothing, hold nothing back from me”- Small Town Poets

Those words meant something to me very visceral back then, but it means something more to me today with a larger collection of years at my side. This song then followed with the memory of a similar song that I would listen to at that time. I could speak those words from memory:

“Empty again/Sunken down so far/ So scared to fall/Might not get up again

So I lay at Your feet/All my brokenness/I carry all of my burdens to You

All of these things/Held up in vain/No reason no rhyme/Just the scars that remain

Of all of these things/I'm so much afraid/Scared out of my mind /By the demons I've made

Sweet Jesus, you never ever let me go

Oh, sweet Jesus, never ever let me go

So happy to love/Yet so far to go/You lead me on to where I’ve never been before”- Jars of Clay, Much Afraid

These matching, cascading memories build up a synthesized story between soul-belief and action, especially moving from past to present and to future, and it is why the meaning we give our experiences that turn into memories that we call into the present are so important. We can give those memories good or bad meaning, valuable or harmful.

My mom always made my brother and I apologize when we said or did something unkind to one another when we were kids. Even if we didn’t want to. Even if we didn’t fully mean it. We had to sit at the kitchen table, facing each other, until we broke into giggles. She wasn’t teaching us to falsely apologize or to say hollow words to get on with our day. She understood the connection between soul and body, which is that our actions produce our beliefs, and ultimately, our beliefs produce the meaning we give to our experiences. When we do something repeatedly to form a habit, it becomes ingrained enough to reflect upon. By habituating us to admit our faults straight away and to apologize and forgive without holding a grudge, we were learning to act in humility and grace toward others before letting bitterness take root. And that meaning I attach to it is not one that says my mother just wanted her children to be quiet and compliant, but one that sees what is to be put into the fuller story of what it means to be a parent raising children. This habit was drawn upon countless times and in significant ways in my adolescence, early adulthood, and into my marriage and motherhood and profession. I am thankful for the gift of this habitual formation teaching the mystery of soul-belief grounded, rooted, to produce outward, material action.

So from those flickering, subconscious realities of the past, which were truly real and lived out, we call them, carry them, to the future with roots now, and act on them.

E.H. Uminn

I knew in my youth that those days were good and I wanted to remember every second of them. I am so grateful that I observed and memorized it all in my mind, because now they pull up often, filled out with wisdom, things I’ve learned and grappled with in the years that have followed: truths like companionship and forgiveness, love and mercy, humility and empathy. Things that happen are like seeds planted with one-dimensional understandings or encounters, and now I’m standing in a forest, branches reaching outward, in the late spring of my life full of foliage and blossom, green and filtering sunshine, and the strength of those lessons and memories built upon one another are food for the growth that continues, daily, yearly. I am reminded to continue to observe and memorize and add to them, like the commonplace book of life, full of testimony to the truth of human existence and our relation to God and His eternal existence, unlike our own. I observe and photograph and record to build this story.

I read with my students every year about a Dutch family who hid Jews during the Holocaust and Nazi occupation, and her words flooded me in that moment I heard the song, too. She learned that love can equal pain, but it can be perfected, because love is bigger and greater than anything that tries to block it or shut it in. How, mysteriously, do physical circumstances breed a belief in us, but those circumstances don’t ultimately define the faith? In the midst of defeat and devastation, how does the human heart move toward survival, to move toward purpose and not despair? In the same way that memory of real events and people produce belief in us as we fashion them together to make meaning, and therefore the narratives that we fashion either build, or raze to the ground. Ultimate meaning then, whether we fully come to understand it, is still present. Because we, in our finite minds, give human meaning and understanding to memory, but God gives ultimate meaning to the whole of our lives.

God’s love is freedom, bigger than any despair, giving an intangible hope that cannot be burned away but shows itself in something actually done, in a disciplined life and body, in choice of behavior and word. We have the ultimate victory.

E. H. Uminn

It then pulled me to the memory of other songs, like Moonlight Sonata, with its beautiful, fluid, haunting rhythm which defines so much of what I believe life is, when the unspeakable describes a truth understood by the heart. In Beethoven’s gift of genius, he found the unspeakable to describe beauty and richness shrouded in mystery and suffering. And that is like memory. They are seeded gems that have to be dug out of the mud and wretchedness, but only for those who are willing to look for them and recall their wealth rather than to recall their despair.

When I was in my late twenties there were circumstances that were extremely taxing and demanding for us. The specifics aren’t important, but during that time I was tightly closed off from admitting the difficulty or sadness. In our society we’ve been trained to believe that not speaking all of the pain without filter is ignoring it or denying it, as if we needed to proclaim over social media all that we would to a therapist. I do believe you can discipline yourself to be in waiting, to be in patient expectation of good, while accepting the reality of what occurs around us. But on a human level I knew that if I let just a tiny bit out, the dam would break (and it did, with violent force in ugly and vulnerable ways). I remember the most vivid, summoned memories of that time are standing in church, at the original Bethel on S. Westnedge, gripping the back of a wooden church pew week after week, my head down to cover my crying every time we stood to sing. Or the smell of my toddler’s hair and fingers after eating waffles and syrup. I very graphically recollect this sythesis of mothering young children and walking through grief and joy at the same time, and by that I mean it brings a physical response of my heart dropping when I remember that I could not pray but one request during those years:

Lord, help me to keep faith.

E.H. Uminn

I didn’t know what else to pray, and I was disenchanted enough that I couldn’t pray victoriously or specifically. But I knew in desperation that I could reach out, as the blind and the lame had done when Jesus walked by, and ask pity and mercy. Only this: Lord, help me to pray and keep faith. So the memories to pull to the present are not all good in the sense that they include only happy faces and light hearts, but what is deep and good and true construct a foundation like the building of a tree root system, or the washing of stones down smooth on a sandy beach. I have a collection of beach stones from Lake Michigan that sit on my mantle, reminding me of this truth that I have come to love: years of rough winds and waves wear away the course raggedness and polish smooth. In the ten years since that time, I’ve lost family and friends in death, lost material possession, suffered health complications, and watched those I love encounter heartache, as we all have. But those realities are embedded into the larger story.

I now know that all of these cradling times in between, where everything is calm and pleasant, are the breath gulps we take before moving back into the work He has for us: to confront the brokenness and sadness of this world with the piercing light of the hope of the Gospel.

E.H. Uminn

Will and I planted trees on our property four years ago that started as no more than a foot in length from root to tip. Today, the majority of these trees stand twenty feet tall. We planted them to envelope our backyard, to create an oasis that we knew would take time, patience, and submission to weather conditions out of our control. I should state right out that Will and I are amateurs when it comes to gardening, much like high school grads are bright-eyed and eager amateurs in matters of adulthood, or like new parents who don’t know exactly what they are in for. However, we did our best to space them as instructed, digging deep and wide enough, mulching and fertilizing and watering. We even installed a constant drip hose system for the first two years. Some of the trees didn’t make it: they withered and died and so we brought more in and replanted. Some of those, too, withered and died. A few grew up strong and tall right away, while others took much longer as they grew wide bases before they started growing in height. Can you spot the numerous metaphors here? Today they stand as a symbol of rooted lessons in the soul that are good and strong in their infancy and immaturity but need continued cultivation, pruning, and protection to reach substantial growth, shade, and purpose. Now, we don’t have to “baby” those trees. We don’t have to water them constantly each day, especially throughout the hot, dry summer months. We let them grow and flourish on their own. They hedge in the yard, whispering to one another with their evergreen branches fanned and touching. Those trees hold meaning for us.

When I heard that song I recalled all of the parts of my baby self at 16, 17, 18 years old, my early twenties and thirties melding into mid life. I recall telephoning my parents a lot with worry and questions about decisions to make. Those memories mean something different to me now as I look over the changes that have come to my life, but also those of my parents, my grandparents, and my children. Now, I stand like one of our trees that is firmly rooted in faith that was given to me, that I was baptized into, and that my children are also planted into. Now I know that it is a faith and baptism worth giving up an earthly life for, and I am the one giving shade and gaining shade, whispering with those around me. I was reminded that after all these years it is no longer a burden to try and grow fast and accumulate accolade, knowledge, and position. In the humility and grace of life experience, I feel responsibility to whisper, to shade, to grow quietly.

And then, just today as I’m thinking on these things, I heard on the radio: “Do not look back, to the past, behind you, to those things that you have already handed over to God.”

And it all flooded over me like waves washing, that again those memories aren’t there to try and recreate, or wish I had done differently. Oh there are so many years that I’ve revisited the past to try and think about how things could be altered if I had another chance, if I had known what I know now. How I could have skipped over heartache or unimaginable circumstances or learned a lesson without losing something first. No. Those memories are not there to refashion, but to hand over to God, and He faithfully, gently allows me to recall them to learn good lessons, even today. And the biggest lesson to take away is to change my response to challenge, to discipline the body and the mind to live this beautiful, heartache life in faith and humility.

My grandma taught my brother and I that memorizing verses from the Bible was “hiding God’s word in your heart, that we might not sin” against Him. She also told me once that when she wakes in the middle of the night and can’t sleep, she recites Scripture to herself to help her fall back asleep. This is how I’ve come to understand Scripture…one that guides us to what is good and true, away from that which is evil and false, a large defeat and despair of heart. Simultaneously, it also is a constant comfort that I am not in control, that I do not have the burden of making all things new or right or good. I can leave those things that I’ve given to God in His hand, Lord, keep my faith, and when those recollections come as a rainfall of blessing, I can water them in truth and light. Thank God my faith rests in His hand, and my part is diligent discipline. And they are recalled like song lyrics over and over, where the words mean something more dear with each passing year.

And so, I’ve been sifting through these, my own memories, to bring them to live and move and breathe, to revive differently, in the present. But we do not do this with only our own memories. We do this even with others’ memories; we call forth the past in our traditions and histories and cultures. We keep the remembering in the present every time we read ancient or classic works, each time we contemplate the artist or composer’s achievement, when we learn a skill from a master, and enter into a continuation of what they embarked on and created back then, today. We learn what they themselves meant by their words, notes, and craft. Pulling that tradition forward is our life’s work, to always learn and invite others to learn from and participate in what we call the Great Conversation of humanity. To remember what is worth calling forth and giving voice to. So when our parents and grandparents are teaching us what was passed to them from their parents and grandparents, our ancestors come to live in the present with us, through memory, through lessons that should be recalled and revived.

This past Sunday the priest spoke about Christ’s ascension, his incarnation into a human body, tangible and real in history and time, his divine nature simultaneously incarnate. The past is still present and alive in the now, not a distant memory of something that happened back then, back there as a fabled story, but living and breathing and moving now, as the Nicene Creed affirms. And I believe our own memories that mature in our understanding of their meaning are a personal testament to that holy mystery we all share in.

We live in the present, and we bring the past forward to live and breathe, and in this way we circumvent time and space, if only briefly and through a veil, dimly. My we always do this well, until time and space are no more.

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