During a late night walk with our dog Nova my daughter Lucy asked me what memories linger from childhood. (Clearly she has absorbed her father’s unusual conversation starters!) On a Thanksgiving weekend it was a well-timed question. Oddly all of the memories that came to me were moments, fleeting experiences of standing here or sliding down a hill there or skating on a homemade rink in a backyard. I had assumed these memories would be more substantial, they would point to some significant event, some turning point in my life, reveal some deeper truth about me or how I perceived others. No such luck.
I wonder when I retire and look back on my working life if this is what it will be like. I think the lasting memories will likely be less the content of these matters and more the smells, the sensations, the colours, the rush of adrenaline, the feeling of peace or excitement.
I watch colleagues, friends, and family, all busy accumulating, pondering how to hold all the things that have amassed in their homes and offices, worried all the time about how they will find room for all the “memories”. The cynic in me wonders how these things can hold memories if they are piled so high you cannot see what is underneath. My late mother and I would argue about such things. I remember her once confessing she could not let things go because she worried if items left the house memories of that person would leave as well. When I asked her how often she thought of the person given how those items were buried in the basement she looked at me and said, “You don’t live here anymore.” Ouch.
Apart from my arrogance and self-righteousness about all things related to storage my larger point here is that memories related to things are not effective. I do think our tiny brains are capable of connecting a few objects to specific memories but beyond that we are fooling ourselves if we think these items are keeping something special or someone special alive. Instead I would recommend being present in our moments of memories to the sensation we recall. If I am standing in Point Pleasant Park and suddenly remember being at my 8th birthday party with friends and family I don’t think taking a photo of the picnic table where it happened will make the memory linger. But I do think if I stand there and let the memory wash over me, try to remember the whole experience and what was going on then I will be filled with a deeper reality that I am loved and that I belong, two very human needs and joys.
The existentialists believe that we are all in the midst of becoming something. As a Christian I like how Jean Vanier transforms that yearning into the phrase “becoming human”. I believe we are all in the midst of becoming human, that these memories remind us of the qualities; the sights, sounds, smells, feelings, of what being human is like, of being loved, of loving others, of belonging, of welcoming others into an experience of belonging.
Things, items, objects, they can in a very limited way remind us of someone or something special. But having too much of those things only buries the few objects that carry that magic to our heart. The deeper memories, the ones we dream about, the ones that wash over us and take us to places of belonging and love, are not in our control. They are gifts, glimpses, visions, of what really matters. It’s best we pay attention, its best we simply give thanks.