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Posts Tagged ‘memory’

What’s amazing is that it feels like it was just yesterday.  It makes me wonder what it would be like to be a real time traveler, to be able to go forward or back in time by decades or more, and wake up and know where you are because you’ve lived it all before.  That’s how I’m feeling about the anniversary, tomorrow.  I’m the cajillionth in a line of people talking about this anniversary (and I won’t talk that much, I promise).  But I keep shaking my head, because the memories are SO present.

I remember not only what I was doing, but what it felt like to be on the school bus coming home, to see my mother crying when I walked in the door, to spend the wierdest Thanksgiving ever, with my aunt and uncle in a smoke-filled den, watching Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, for hours on end.

There were breaks for food, breaks for the adults to make drinks, breaks to get more tissues, and the sense that this was some bizarre drama in which we were the bit players. No one could remember when the last time was that this had happened;  all they could do was talk about Lincoln’s assassination, “Camelot,” and the beautiful young widow and the two small, adorable children in blue coats.  All I could do was watch them, and watch the TV.

And it was the end of some kind of innocence for me, and probably for many other pre-teens of my generation:  the time when it all seemed to go a little whacky, when the young hero I’d stood and waved to in Hyannisport the previous summer had been ‘disappeared’; the start of the time when people decided that if they didn’t like someone, they’d blow them away to make their lives better and fulfill some promise in their minds about how to change the world.

I started writing slogans that I found inspirational, writings from Anne Frank and Shakespeare and Aldous Huxley even, on the bedroom shades.  I’d lie there in the half-dark, looking at those words, wondering how they had been moved to write those things and wondering if I’d ever be a writer or a great thinker, or how one survived tragedy and disappointment so deep it hurt in my heart.

I started peppering my childhood minister, Rev. Wayne Shuttee, with questions about how there could be a loving God in the face of insanity and rage.  About why there was a world where such bad things happened. About how people find courage and strength to carry on in the face of such stuff.  Wayne answered some, helped me struggle some, and — with my church youth group — helped me believe that together, we could find the resources inside us to carve a new path… so that our lives, and maybe those of our children, wouldn’t be etched with the violence that wiped out those we looked up to and adored (even though we’d never really known them).

All that is hopelessly idealistic, of course.  And it was unfulfilled:  the men who wiped out Martin, Bobby, and a string of lesser heroes made sure we learned that lesson, again and again. Yet, we endure.  We continue to believe, with undying hope, that our world might be different some day.  Which brings us back, in some ways, to the unfulfilled promises of the young man who died fifty years ago.

Tomorrow, I’ll be the kid on the bus again, walking in the door and seeing my mother crying and trying to understand why the world had gone mad.  Just like yesterday.

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This weekend I spent time in Rhode Island with a group of people who have all been chairs (well, four of them are about to assume that role over the next two years) of the Star Island conference we attend.  About sixty people show up, and this group — diverse, smart, interesting and holding divergent opinions — come together to share stories and conduct the business of our conference.

My parents were members of this group, as were the parents of several others now present among us.  We are a self-perpetuating alliance, and we follow a sometimes-bumpy but always well-intentioned path designed to ensure the longevity of our conference, a legacy we seek to hand on to those who will follow us.

Some of our closest friends are part of this clan…people we love as brothers and sisters or kindred souls.  People who are like surrogate parents, people with whom we have shared the birth of our children, the death of our parents, the loss of jobs, the estrangement of family members, serious illness.  In other words, the stuff of life.

We eat lunch and meet on Saturday…a (too) long meeting, with a break for dinner.  In the evening, there’s poker playing to raise money for our conference financial aid fund, partying, dancing, more catching up.  And then on Sunday, after breakfast, there’s a fund raising silent auction (again, to help our financial aid program), and we worship together with a lay-led service of music, reading, reflection. After that, we all fly away, only to (with heaven’s grace) gather again on Star Island in the summer.

Today, as one of the worship leaders, I started to sing the Appalachian folk song “Bright Morning Stars” as a way of drawing us together in a not-very-worshipful space.  I had the song worked out in my head, and I stood up, and started the first verse:
“Bright morning stars are rising,
Bright morning stars are rising,
Bright morning stars are risng,
Day is a’breakin’ in my soul.”

As I began the second verse  (“Oh where are our dear fathers, Oh where are our dear mothers, Oh where are our dear fathers, Day is a breakin’ in my soul”) I looked out at the faces.  There, I saw the Vermont psychotherapist who tells Vermont folk tales and whom my father, a social worker, adored.  I saw the ‘elder statesman’ couple of our group, the sometimes-cranky-but-loveable retired radiologist and his wife, an artist, therapist, and ultimate sensible and upbeat surrogate mother.  And then, the retired lawyer and his wife, former conference treasurers, who had been my parents’ closest friends for decades.

And I lost it.  I had gotten caught by a flood of emotions and memories, all tied up in that room, which I had not been expecting and which my head could not manage.  My life is inextricably bound up with these people, and my heart controls these emotions, no matter how hard I might wish for it to be otherwise.  I tried taking a deep breath to stop the sobs.  Nope.  I motioned for my husband, who (saint that he is) dove under the table to join me in the center of the room, holding on to me.  Together, we got out that second verse, and then the third (“They have gone to heaven shouting…”).  I was a mess, for I had forgotten what the people — even away from the place — mean in my life.

I resonate with what my friend, Rev. Nancy Wood, wrote about her experience last summer on Star Island: “I spent time with friends I really love … here they were again, rocking beside me, through grace alone. I watched my children fly kites and play on rocks, make new friends and eat too much ice cream, sing their hearts out in the talent show and sail out into the harbor on a homemade raft. I shared meals with really interesting people and there, breaking bread together, they told me the stories of their lives. Through it all, I could be present for what was, not needing to make the moment or the people or the place into anything other than what was right there.”

That place, these people, those feelings…all these things, our hearts control.  Not our heads, the place where we make tough decisions, manage large businesses, decide what investments to make.  These people own my heart, and probably I, theirs, at least a little.  It is surprising to come to the realization that it is so.  So often I want to be smart, on topic, incisive, a player. Here, I am at once the little girl on the swing in the breeze on the island lawn, the teenager with the flowing hair heading out to East Rock to watch the sun rise, the woman in love going off with her beloved to share a quiet moment in the tall grass, the reluctant adult, mourning her parents passing in the old stone chapel with the community of souls she has known for so long.

“All life is one,” the hymn says, “a single branching tree.”  With these friends, these symbolic parents, and the memory of those gone to heaven shouting, I continue to be blessed.  They speak to my heart.

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A couple of weeks ago we paid another visit to the in-laws on Cape Cod.  My sainted mother-in -law, who will be 92 on August 26th and survived a near-fatal infection this winter, kept diaries during many of the periods when she traveled.  She wrote in journals while in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Fiji, in Georgia and Michigan while volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, during the years she spent participating in Shaker Seminars, and she kept records of different vacations she went on.  She wrote a couple of entries in a book when she took a trip to Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to visit the civil rights sites Martin Luther King, Jr. had traveled to; she kept more notes during many other journeys to craft shows when she and my father-in-law were selling their Shaker boxes or exploring some new location on a vacation.

Phoebe is curious about everything and loves to read.  She’s also — at nearly 92 — experiencing short-term memory loss, which means that she forgets what she’s read or discussed recently and sometimes, she forgets where she is.  My father-in-law wants to reduce clutter in their small apartment, and he’s keen on throwing out books and papers that he deems unnecessary.  And so Ben and I found three bags of diaries behind the couch, waiting for us to take them away (because we had asked my father-in-law that they not be thrown out).

When we asked Phoebe if she was content to have her diaries taken away, she said, meekly, that she would like to go through them and re-read them.  So although my father-in-law was not happy about it, I said that we would not be taking the diaries away until Phoebe had had the chance to re-read her reflections from those earlier parts of her life.

We hold on to memories and lived experience in different ways:  through photographs, sketches and paintings, journal entries, the stories we pass on from one generation to another.  My father’s story of buying a gallon jar of mustard for his older sister’s engagement party, when a small jar had been desired, became legend:  his father, a poor man, declared, as the little boy came home with the mustard, that if the boy had paid for the mustard, the family would be keeping it.  The parable was:  if you make a deal, you stick with it, no matter what.  I’ve remembered, and told my children, and I hope they’ll hold on to it – as well as the reason why the Weiners tend to keep lots of mustard in their houses.

The Soules are known for what they don’t say — that is, if you don’t ask the right question, you might not find out something pretty important.  But if you ask, you find out about Phoebe and Dick’s Sunday School classes taught by Jimmy Carter, about their travels to Tibet and other exotic locations, about rebuilding Star Island after the war had ravaged the old hotel and cottages.

If we are lucky, our lives are built from our own lived experience and from that of our elders and beloved family members.  We pass on the stories, both true and mythical, to our children, and they to theirs.  This is the way I got my grandmother’s Chili Sauce receipt (from the 1880’s) and my Aunt Estelle’s Chopped Liver recipe; this is how Ben learned about his great-grandparents’ experience when the Confederate Army burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania,  where the Gillan family lived.

The text of the old Quaker hymn says, “My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation, I hear the real, though far-off hymn, that hails a new creation.Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing, it sounds an echo in my soul — how can I keep from singing?”

Phoebe’s diaries sound such an echo.  By holding on to them — even if she never does get to reading them all — she maintains a connection to her past, and to all the journeys that have shaped her life.  They are like gold, and like other pieces of a life well-lived, are worth our protection.

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