Monday, August 15, 2005

The Cruelty of Memory

Memory can be cruel.

I was out by the UC Davis exper- imental fields yesterday, and they reminded me of the Manitoba prairies. Davis, and much of the Central Valley, is as flat as the prairies, and much of the land is tilled and worked like the fields of Manitoba. So when I look out at the empty fields here, in this part of California, I can't help but think of my childhood.

I remember trudging across a recently harvested field, near Portage la Prairie, with Tom. Our dads were sitting in a duck blind in that field, watching for the migrating Mallards and Pintails to congregate or fly overhead, we were walking toward the duck blind, looking for our hidden and patiently waiting hunter fathers. Our dads had arisen much earlier than we did, so just the two of us, eight years old, walked across the field that mid-morning, after the frost had melted and the soil was a bit wet. Partway to the blind we looked up to see a honking, lone duck fly over our heads. Tom made like he had a rifle in his hands, and made a noise like he was shooting at it, too. I just watched it, awkwardly pumping its wings, a shadow against a bright blue sky.

When we got to the blind, Tom said to his dad, "we saw a loner, flying low. If I had a rifle I could have shot it easy."

I remember that same year, being at a cabin near a field, a field a lot like the one right by my house here in Davis, except that one had huge round bales on it, spaced out evenly. That day, in the hot late-Autumn orange sun, Chris and I played on and around that bale for what felt like hours, getting straw in every nook of our clothes, and every cranny of our bodies. We ran and climbed and laughed like the kids we were, and when we left the bale, we left it tattered and worn, ousted hay lying all around it in a pale yellow circle on the dark brown earth. We walked back to the cabin and under the pall of early evening, satisfyingly tired and hungry from our play.

We moved away from Portage the next year, before I saw another Autumn day there. I haven't heard anything of Tom for years, and I think Chris is now a doctor near Ottawa. I'm here in Davis, looking out at field that only looks like it is one of those fields from my childhood, an unkind doppelganger, a lonely reminder that I am no longer a child. I sit here watching a lone crow flying overhead, circling and searching for a place to land, while I sit here on the ground, still under the weight of happy memories.

A few years ago I was part of a small group that met for Bible study and to read and talk about books. We each took turns leading the group, and when my turn came around, I led us in a reflection on the book we were reading, Kathleen Norris' "The Cloister Walk." I played songs on the CD player, like Neil Young's "Everybody Knows this is Nowhere" and Tom Waits' "Stone Blind Love," songs about traveling, songs about not belonging. I said that the Christian life is kind of like that, it is a life of searching and longing, where we know that life isn't quite what we know it should be. I said that the Christian life can be a life of not quite fitting in. Most of us sat silently that night, thinking about the songs we had just heard, all of us except one young woman who wasn't sure that we should turn to Neil Young for this kind of guidance.

But as I continue to read stories from the lives of ancient Christians I am struck that this idea of Christian sojourn is common. Jesus sent out his apostles into world, with nothing much more than a friend by their side. St. Paul's travels were extensive, and those roads he traveled must have been lonely too. When Clement of Rome wrote to the Corinthians early in the 2nd century, he opened the letter with a salutation from "the Church of God which sojourns at Rome, to the Church of God sojourning at Corinth . . . " Clement's letters are written to a people who don't belong, a people who are at once sedentary and moving, a people who don't quite fit in where they are. But there they are, living in Rome and Corinth nonetheless.

So I'm not sure I should trust my memory. Those were good times I remember, without a doubt. But wasn't I picked on and punched by those strange kids outside the Lions pool? Have I forgotten that I was a really bad soccer player, one of the only players never to score a goal that year, besides the one I scored in practice when the ball trickled past the goalie only because I miffed the kick and the ball rolled way more slowly than the goalie expected? If my memory makes me think that all was good then, and all is not so good now, memory is not just cruel. It is a tyrant.

It is a tyrant because it prevents me from seeing what is good here. It forces forgetfulness of the present, a time when there is no memory because we don't remember what is happening right now, we can only live it. But what if I thought about right now? I am enjoying my evening strolls, and I love knowing that the bird with the yellow beak and the white stripe is a Magpie. Dave, Dina, Everett and Julian have traveled here from Berkeley for barbecue chicken. Joe, Julie and Grace have stopped in on a trip through Northern California for Chinese food.

Yes, life here is sometimes lonely, and I don't always feel like I fit in. But this is all part of the life I have chosen. Besides, when I am careful with how I remember, I know this life can also be good. When I am not comparing my life now with some glorious, counterfeit past, I know there is always good times and bad. Just like there was good and bad back in Manitoba, and just like it is here good and bad now, here in Davis, California.



Anonymous Rachel said...

This post rings a lot of bells for me. I am prone to losing myself in memory (this is both the good, and the bad, of keeping a few different kinds of regular journal -- I can always look back to see where and how I was on this date in years past, and sometimes that's fruitful and sometimes it's not) and it's easy to sentimentalize things that are past.

In truth, every period of time has its challenges and its blessings, and sometimes I think the only factor which determines whether a day (week, month, season, year) is a "good one" is me -- whether I can face it with grace and see(k) the blessings in it, or not. It's all epistemology, not ontology.

I'm fascinated by your notion that the Christian life may necessarily be one on the fringes, a life of not-quite fitting in. That's definitely my experience of Jewisdh life, and I'd always assumed it was because Jews are literally on the fringes, being a minority -- but now I wonder whether there's something about being a person of faith that places one more on the margins than in the center. I think empathy and compassion can more easily be cultivated on the margins, though it can be lonely out here, too. Maybe those two things are related.

Anyway. Thanks for giving me this opportunity for thought.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005 5:07:00 PM  
Blogger Ruth said...

I was called Ruthie Toothie and I'm still self consciences about my teeth because of it.
As a "4" I know all about living in the past.
Lately I haven't had time to live there, Sam had the flu last night and was up sick, Audrey only likes Mommy these days (very tiring) work is demanding I see my husband only when we're both exhausted...
But somehow as I sit here reading and typing, both kids asleep... I know life is good... it's bad... and it's really really good.
I wonder what I'll think in five years when I look back on this crazy time.
Thanks for indulging my 4ness.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005 7:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This really resonates with me too as I sit here in Grande Prairie. I have days of longing to my "other life", the life where people know me as me and not as Dillan's wife. I miss my people, the ones who know what I am doing and who care about it (that's what happens when you move to the town that someone has lived in their entire life).

I feel out of place and like I will never quite fit in. But you are right, Preston, I remember the good times and not the difficult and I cherish those times. I hope that I will look back and cherish these times. I do have alot to be thankful for here. I'll keep working on my identity here.

Saturday, August 20, 2005 8:51:00 AM  
Blogger Kim said...

Oh I LOVE this post!

I just got back from vacationing in my family's summer house (I hadn't been back there in 20 years!). I so often miss the East Coast of my memories. I often feel that I don't quite fit into this new world. There are many things to blame -- after all, I am in Southern California which bears almost absolutely no resemblance to my old life (even the ocean is different...), I am a Christian (which seemed to change just about everything), I am a wife, a mom (also pretty life altering) -- but I think you nailed it when you said : "the Christian life is kind of like that, it is a life of searching and longing, where we know that life isn't quite what we know it should be..."

Wow. This is still resonating in me. Great Post!

Saturday, August 20, 2005 3:33:00 PM  
Blogger Kim said...

I went into my archives to see if I could find one of the many posts I wrote about my own "searching and longing" and general discontent. This one was about wanting to move... I'll spare you by not dredging up every single post (since this discontent is such a common theme for me...).

Sunday, August 21, 2005 7:37:00 AM  

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