I recently went through a collection of some old–and some ancient photo albums. I don’t do that very often and, when I do–well, I don’t know about you–But I find it to be a bitter-sweet experience. There they are: babies now in diaspora about the country, some with their own babies, some with adult children. Photos of those now gone from sight if not–for better or worse–gone from mind. Photographs are pictures of memories. Some warm our hearts when the picture stirs us, some stir the long-stored grief of our losses. “Dreams of long ago.”
I find that many, if not most, of my photos are of holidays. Many of the pictures are barely distinguishable from others,at least in terms of content. There are Christmas trees, birthday cakes, tables with family and friends massed about the feast. Mostly, the changes as the pages are turned are the babies grown, the parents more grayed,the grandparents perhaps a little shorter, aunts, uncles, a friend perhaps now requiring a moment’s pause to remember. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, New Year, and of course birthdays come around (the alternative being unthinkable).– anniversaries of the times of our lives, stirring memories of how things were–last year, the year before, misty decades ago. And we respond to them because most of us have a deep desire–and, in fact, I don’t doubt that it is in general a human need–to keep the past in memory.
If it is a human need to keep the past in memory, it is surely because, no matter how many times we are told that we should live in the present, we know, on some deep level of knowing, that we cannot. T. S. Eliot said that”April is the cruelest month, mixing memory and desire. “But, actually, every moment mixes memory and desire. The concept of linear time –past followed by present, followed by future–is a peculiar myth supported neither by science nor our experience. There is no isolated moment in which to live. Our lives are lived in time that knows no tenses. Moments merge in an indivisible past and future. We are creatures who live by creating an identity–a sense of who we are and what we are, for better or for worse. To a considerable extent, our identity is constructed of our memory of the past and our intention for the future. For as long as we are able we stand leaning pressed by the past and leaning toward the future. How we are, perhaps–what our lives are like in the living out–has a lot to do with the interaction between our memory of the past and our intentions for the future.The best we can do with it all is to take the stuff of memory and continually make of it something fundamentally new and better.
Memory, essentially, is what we have to work with as we continually re-create ourselves. Memory is the stuff that dreams are made of. To be a faithful Jew is to live in a communal memory of that paradise, Eden, to ritualize the memory of the expulsion, the Exodus, the Trek to the Promised Land and, the Covenant as God’s Chosen People. To be a faithful Christian is to live in a communal memory of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, his miraculous birth and resurrection-and, his promise of eternal life. To be a Hopi Indian on the American continent is to have the communal memory of a people who emerged to the surface of this earth through the hollow log. These memories, whether recorded in sacred books or held in the oral tradition ,passed from storyteller to storyteller, are sacred because they are are the memory which constitutes the identity of living souls. And our individual memories are sacred because they also tell the story–fact or fiction–of who we are. I say “fact or fiction” Because, as we think about memory as the stuff of self-creation, one thing to be kept in mind about memory–a thing to be remembered about remembering–is that it cannot be depended upon for the facts.
Those holiday memories that we love to hear and read about have something in common. They are, as storied memories, near-idyllic, most of them. The memories are recounted over the sound of pure-white, crisp and crunching snow under the runners of shiny-new sleds, the air around the storyteller is filled with aromas of fresh-baked pies and roasting turkeys. The setting is isolated from the tawdry world like some science fiction story of a country town transported to the empty surface of Mars. Our memories are often versions of Truman Capote or Dylan Thomas tales.
There may be a nasty character or two in these holiday memories (worms in the idyllic apple). But nasty characters are quickly converted, turning out to have hearts of at least silver under the skin they put to the world. Memories, when we take them home again, have a tendency to be memories of Eden, of a paradise lost and longed for, childhoods in the garden among parental gods. Memories are not historical record. There is always some risk in memory as history fades into the mist. Memories are mythologies, stories, marvelous mixtures of fantasy and–to put it kindly–historically-based fiction. Perhaps that’s why Thomas Wolf said “You can’t ago home again.” The “home,” of course, is no longer there–as we remember it, and the “you” as the “you” was then no longer is. What we take for baggage when we attempt to go home again is the present self with its fable–our practiced and perhaps evolving, continually edited story of how things were.
When we go home again, actually or in memory, we go home as we are now not as we were then. Perhaps we need to wonder whether it isn’t more a matter of whether we should go home again than whether we can..If, against all advice, we insist on going home again, we have to be prepared to make some revisions in our stories, which may mean making some revisions in who and what we say we are. “In plucking the fruit of memory,”Joseph Conrad wrote,” one runs the risk of spoiling its bloom.”
But memory, tricky as it is, needs revisiting from time to time. The characters is Toni Morrison’s award-winning novel Beloved often use the term “re-remember.” “I re-remember the time…” they say as they begin to recount events and stories. It’s an interesting word: re-remember. Perhaps it means remembering with some deliberation, making the conscious effort to re-call,–to bring memories up from dark, hidden places, into the light. Occasional trips down memory lane can do us all a lot of good if we make of them sometimes journeys in search of the self and its makers.
Our theology of personal history is an ancient as the gods of Olympus and the demons of hades. Like our communal religious memories,our personal memories are often sacred stories, filled with people become, in memory, gods and angels, devils and heroes. The devils and villains of our past may be maintained as explanations for our present state, the “demons” who “make us” do what we do and who “make us” be what we are. Our memories may make us hapless and helpless victims. The gods and the heroes are those who are uncritically worshipped, who are allowed no more ordinariness or humanness than the demons and the villains. Many are the doctors of the mind who have made their mansions and their Mercedes by helping he hapless exhume the skeletons of their closets.
There is, in all this, a sense in which in our memory we recapitulate the experience of the race. As we come to understand the gods and the demons who live in our memories, we come to understand the origins of the gods and demons of religious history. The personal gods and demons, created in our memories, like the gods and demons of religious history, relieve us of responsibility for our present lives and for the future we will create. They comfort us. Well-trained memories may exonerate us. Memories may be used justify us, and explain us.
And it is perhaps inevitable in our lives that there have been those who have in fact wounded us with wounds that continue to fester. There may have been parents, husbands, wives,children, friends,any of whom may have hurt us in any number of ways. The wounds we received and the pain we suffered may have been all too real. But if we allow memory to make demons of those figures, we give them greater power than they ever really had,and we grant them a kind of immortality in our being which continues their power into our present, binding our future.
The powerful demon, or demons, who we may see, in memory, as all-powerful, as having wounded our spirits forever, as having captured, bound, and possessed us, must be demythologized, restored to mere humanity.There are stories in the New Testament of Jesus casting out demons from the possessed who came to him. The means by which he cast out demons was to identify them, to force them to name themselves. By naming the demons, Jesus took away their power and they fled. A metaphor for our own psychic housekeeping. When we name our demons, we make of them ordinary human beings, people who have wounded us, perhaps, but still ordinary human beings who really do not have power over all time.
Also basic to the ministry of Jesus was the concept of forgiveness in the recognition of humanness.1 It is hard to forgive a demon, one who is evil incarnate,one whom story and memory has made evil incarnate. But an ordinary human being might be forgiven. The person who, in re-remembering, becomes an ordinary human being, might be forgiven because he or she becomes just like us–human: neither angel nor devil. We know what we, as human beings, are capable of.”Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This simple prayer incorporates the recognition that to forgive is as necessary for personal freedom as to be forgiven.
One of the creative journeys down memory lane might be to visit, in re-remembering, those figures we have given demonic power, to let go the hatred and resentment which certainly does them no harm but which entraps us in the past.
Some of the figures in our memories may also be angels, or heroes, those whom we uncritically idolize and, in idolizing them, create impossible, inhuman standards for our own lives and accomplishments, or, in trying to emulate them, deny ourselves the possibility of being ourselves and valuing our own uniqueness. I have had many heroes and angels in my life–and they have caused me as much trouble as my demons. For awhile, they inspired me,as heroes should. But some of them then became models of what, and how, I thought I should be. Time and the myth-making memory had erased their foibles, forgot their sins and their simple limitations of humanness and, made them gods. The gods of the past, like the demons of the past, restrict the present and bind the future. When I was able to strip my mentors of their divine statusI was able to free myself of images that were not me,and then be grateful to them for their gifts of real and abiding value. Gods must be thanked for everything, which leaves us grateful for nothing in particular. But ordinary human beings, who have their rightful place in memory, can be thanked for many things in particular–allowing us the sense of true gratitude which is so critical for our own humanness and, for our own capacity as gift-givers.
One more thing about memory–memory is re-creative. In memory, we recreate, not so much the past, but ourselves. We re-create ourselves as we recover and de-mythologize our demons and heroes, setting ourselves free to take responsibility for ourselves and to make our own choices. We also re-create ourselves as we re-remember, call back into ourselves,those experiences which delight us, enrich us, and encourage us.
James Barrie, the creator of “Peter Pan,” wrote “God gave us our memories so that we might have roses in December.” Remembering does that. It re-creates. It brings warmth and color into the drab cold of wintry lives. I believe, with the American Indian, the native African, and people of many other cultures, that there are ways in which memory does create something actual in ourselves and in the world. When the Hopi stories are told of the emergence through the hollow reed the people who hear the story “remember,” the creation. It happens again in memory and, through memory, the people are re-created.
There’s nothing terribly mystical about that. Whatever we call into memory becomes part of the present whole,becomes real in this time and place. Among the worst things missionaries did to indigenous peoples in a tragically misguided attempt to “civilize” them was to take away their stories. In forbidding the telling of the people’s stories and forbidding the children
to use their own language the missionaries took away their communal memories, and, in taking away their memories they took away their identity.
Memory also recreates us by re-uniting us with the earth from which we have grown apart. N. Scott Momaday is an American Indian author.He knows the extent to which our identity is bound to nature–and how much is being lost to our memory. He writes:

Once in our lives, we ought to concentrate our minds upon the remembered earth. We ought to give ourselves up to a particular landscape in our experience, to look at it from as many angles as we can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. We ought to imagine that we touch it with our hands at every season and listen to the sounds that are made upon it. We ought to imagine the creatures that are there and all the faintest motions in the wind. We ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk. In the remembered earth is the remembered self. Here, in the remembering of nature, is the re-creation, the renewal of self.2

Unless I write everything down and stick notes all over my car, desk, and refrigerator, I can barely remember what I am supposed to doing the next few hours. But I have taught myself to remember, in exquisite detail–like Momaday’s”faintest motions of the wind”–places, people, scenes and events and, by remembering, make them part again of my present being. When I’m feeling nearly overwhelmed, my being threatening to collapse about me into unrelated bits and pieces, I can often pull myself back together again by taking a few moments to be, once again, on the mountain-top chatting with the desert squirrel who came to welcome me, breathing in the pure air that comes from the far horizons in every direction, hearing the wings of the hawks brush through the wind. And I sigh a deep sigh as Memory re-creates me, transforms and rejuvenates. “Let the dead past bury its dead,” Longfellow wrote. That’s bad advice based on bad information. Another poet’s observation is better. T. S. Eliot said, “Time past and time future are each contained in time present.” Meaning, if we think about it, that time is not linear–not simply one damn thing after another. The past is not dead. Through memory, we may bring our demons to salvation, our heroes down to earth, and our daily lives into blessed wholeness.
Our freedom to grow and to become is rooted in our capacity to remember and, in remembering, re-creating–sorting through the stories and myths, humanizing the demons and heroes, empowering ourselves in remembered joys, re-creating ourselves, continually transforming ourselves by making the times of our lives into one time in which we are whole and free.