For Memory

Reading: For Memory by Adrienne Rich

Sermon, “For Memory”

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, two of my longest dearest friends came to visit with their new soon-to-be adopted 8-year-old son. We all met as undergrads, and even though in the last 20 years we haven’t lived in the same place, through a combination of letters and texts and calls, and a good number of cross-country trips, we’ve managed to remain close.

Whenever we get together, there’s always a pull to share some memory or another – it was such a formative time filled with BIG LIFE EVENTS.  But something about this visit made our memories feel especially tender, and alive.  Maybe it’s what it means to be forty-something together now, to find ourselves all with children, in the middle of life, career, marriage.

More than usual, it was as if we were trying to piece together how one choice led to the next; and then how these seemingly scattered moments turned into a whole life – bringing us here, now.And seeing in each other, still these years and years of history, the tragedies and the triumphs, that only we know the boring…. the truly embarrassing.

There are not that many people outside of family who have this stretched-out  understanding about any of us, and the ways that our lives could’ve gone – if only….

I found myself this trip especially trying to remember how we’d ended up as friends. Remind me, I said one evening over a competitive card game of Hand and Foot,when did you go from this random person I saw in class once a week, to this person I could not imagine not seeing every day? How did it happen?

It’s not that I don’t have my own memories, or that we hadn’t talked about all this a thousand times before.  But over this past year, beyond just the tendencies of my life stage, and age I’ve learned to be more skeptical of some of my most basic assumptions.  I’ve realized that doubt and curiosity, can be a healthy thing when it comes to some of my longstanding stories about how life “IS.” So I just needed to check in, to re-encounter these formative tales of friendship, and becoming and growing up.

This time of year, many of us find ourselves remembering and retelling old tales, or at least trying to recall these memories of ourselves and how our lives have played out – especially as we meet up with those others who call these stories, or a version of them, their stories, too.  And more especially, as we remember those who have died who were a part of these stories, feeling anew their absence, no longer remembering it all, with us.

The holidays can be especially hard for those of us who have lost loved ones, or who have strained relationships – for exactly this reason. It is a time pregnant with memories, so much so biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann would caution us to beware of the potential for “over-remembering,” by which he would mean, be careful not to be pulled by the past so much that we cannot experience the present, or allow ourselves to feel the possible, emerging future.  As the White Queen says to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”

Despite his warning not to overdo it, Brueggemann’s scholarship comes down strongly on the importance of memory as a moral and spiritual tool.

You can see this orientation in the quote on the front of the order of service. “Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair.”   This quote is what inspired this service, actually… I kept thinking about it.  I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the past year contemplating what produces hope and how to ward off despair,but I confess, I hadn’t thought of a connection to memory.

Memory is an extremely complicated concept, despite its omnipresence not just in the holidays, but daily, weekly, and generationally. Memories tell us who we are, and in most cases, we believe them.  Which is interesting since the more we learn about memory, the less reliable source we realize it often is.  I won’t go so far as to call memory “fake news,” but…almost.

To explain, I’m going to ask you to try out this exercise with me.  I’m going to read a series of words.  Your job for now is just to listen.

Sour nice Candy Honey sugar Soda Bitter chocolate Good Heart taste Cake Tooth tart Pie

So now, I want you to grab a pen, and jot down as many of the words that you can remember from what I just read.  If you don’t have pen, raise your hand, we can pass some around.

I have one more list I’m going to read.  Put your pens down.  Just listen.
Mad wrath Fear Happy hate Fight Rage hatred Temper Mean fury Calm Ire emotion Enrage

Ok once more, write down the words you remember me saying.

Now, let’s go back to the first one. Look over the words you wrote, and see if the word “sweet” is among them.  If you wrote the word “sweet,” will you raise your hand? And then for the second list, look over your words you wrote.  If you wrote the word “anger,” will you raise your hand?

All of you are in really good company. 80% of people who do this pick out sweet, and angry as words they remember.  By this I mean, you are in really good wrong company.Because….of all those words I read, none of them were sweet, or angry.

This is one of many fascinating things about memory.  It works by association.  You don’t necessarily remember facts, you remember the feelings and ideas associated with facts.

This is what researchers Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy describe as the difference between story-truth, and happening-truth. “Happening-truth is the bare facts, what happened at such and such a time.  Story-truth is the story you tell yourself about that truth, the details you fill in, the version that helps you make sense of the world.”

Memories include both of these – the things we heard and observed and felt, and also things we hear later, as well as suggestions from others, and they are filtered through our existing stories, the ways we understand ourselves and life.  Over time, all this becomes integrated so that we really can’t tell which part is which, it’s all just one seamless memory.

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus says that people are often really disturbed by this idea, because we feel “attached to our remembered past, and the people, places, and events we enshrine in memory” translate in our minds into our actual real selves, our real lives. But if we can’t trust our memories as real, then we wonder if we can really know who we are, or what’s real, at all.

As I started to learn this about memory, though at first I too was feeling pretty disturbed, I realized quickly that this might be really helpful and good news for my cousin Michelle.  Michelle is just a little older than I am, and is an accomplished pediatrician and advocate for children who’ve experienced abuse. She’s an awesome mom, wife, and friend.  And, Michelle has early onset Alzheimer’s.

Since her diagnosis, Michelle has been incredibly public about her journey, which means that even though she lives far away, when I saw her a couple of months ago for a family reunion, I wasn’t completely surprised that she sometimes forgot words, or where we were in a conversation, and sometimes I realized, for a moment or more, she forgot me.

By the time I next see her, I know, she will have forgotten a lot more.

So many of us today love someone who lives with dementia. Or we have it ourselves. Dementia can create in us a painful spiritual crisis.  Or at least it can if we imagine that we are our memories, and our memories are us – from this perspective, dementia makes us wonder if there is some point in the forgetting when a person is no longer a person. Because as the memories dissolve, we wonderif the self dissolves, as well.   But, in this new understanding of memory – we realize that we have had this all backwards.

Our memories do not represent a set series of fixed events that when stacked back to back add up to us.  Even in a brain without Alzheimer’s or other dementia, memories are malleable, and constantly under construction – subject perpetually to what Loftus calls post-event-information – so much so that with the right combination of factors, any of us can be completely certain of a memory that never actually happened; and completely forget one that did.

If anything, instead of our lives being the sum of all our memories, our memories are the sum of us at any given time – changing and becoming as we change and become – so that as William Faulkner said it, “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.”

While in many ways this understanding of how our memories work runs counter to our common assumptions,at the same time, I don’t think it’s new news to realize that our individual and collective memories can be unreliable sources for truth.  We are all susceptible to what Brueggemann calls selective remembering, or selective forgetting –
whether due to our desire to see ourselves a certain way, or to avoid the pain of a past event, or even just because we were distracted and not paying full attention – or a thousand other possible reasons – we all at times consciously or subconsciously forget portions of our past.

As an example.  About a year ago, Sean and I started talking about the possibility of this congregation ordaining him.  We had just finished my installation ceremony, which we knew marked the first new senior ministry for Foothills in a quarter century. We wondered if the last ordination had been any more recent. We asked around, searched the church history, and eventually we found our story.

In 1991, Foothills ordained the Rev. Thomas Perchlik, who coincidentally was last summer called to serve the UU congregation in Olympia Washington where my sister is a member.

Thomas confirmed our understanding with good memories and appreciation, and we all marveled that yet again we’d be marking something in this congregation that was 25 years in the making.

We shared this story frequently as we got closer to Sean’s ordination.  And many who have been members since ’91, or earlier, remembered Rev. Perchlik fondly, and shared our excitement that we’d celebrate this historic first ordination by Foothills in 26 years.
The story, and our collective memory would’ve all remained just this, maybe forever, if wasn’t for a Facebook post about a colleague’s death shared a couple months ago.  It was a remembrance of the Rev. Stephen Mead Johnson, who was, according to the post, a complicated figure, but one who had done important ministry, especially in his service to the UU Congregation in Laramie at the time of Matthew Shepherd’s death.

The writer remarked that this was noteworthy because it was early in Rev. Johnson’s ministry – he’d been ordained just a few months earlier at the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins. This was 1998.  As in, seven years after what we had thought was the “last” ordination.Now, I know that the ordination of ministers is not everyone’s big news, so it’s not that strange that hardly anyone would remember or correct our big pronouncement of the first ordination in a quarter century.  But the fact that no one remembered, or brought it up – it was – funny.

I challenged the person who posted the story, thinking he must be misremembering.  But then a few other colleagues jumped in and said they’d been at the ordination, definitely at Foothills.  I asked if maybe Laramie was doing the ordaining, and we just hosted it, but the ministers in attendance said no.  Foothills ordained him, because he’d done his internship here.  Marc Salkin preached the sermon.  It definitely happened.  Now, from what I can tell from our database, over 150 of you who are active today were around at the time.  But for some reason, as a church, we just, forgot.

…..Here’s my theory.  Here’s what I know about 1998 in this church.  It was right after a major church conflict, a conflict that people still describe to me as incredibly painful. I’m told about 100 members left the church.

My theory is, the story we retained about that time in the church, it isn’t a happy celebration of ordaining a new minister sort of story. It’s a story of struggle, and conflict, and pain.  And this story-truth over time, overcame the happening-truth.

There are probably other factors, but that’s my theory.

Like I said, this happens all the time in our collective memories, and individual lives, this process of selection and curation.

But, as my spiritual director reminds me often, those things in ourselves that are unknown to us are also the things that control us. The things that are unknown to us, in us, control us.

And just as importantly, selective remembering prevents us from knowing the fullness of who we have been, and therefore who we might still be.

For example, our selective remembering keeps us focused on the story-truth that in 1998 we experienced a big conflict, but the fuller truth is that it was also a time when we claimed the unique power of congregations to ordain a new minister – one whose ministry immediately made a big difference in Laramie.

It is only in the bringing to consciousness, the surfacing and the revising of the fuller memories which is possible only in community  (because like truth, we all have a piece…)only through story, and song, rituals and prayer – where we intentionally re-member ourselves that we can claim a fuller freedom and the capacity to choose more intentionally the story we will live from.

And  here I think is where memory produces hope.  When we can hold it all listening and learning the threads that we have too-often neglected, or failed to fully know as our own In this we realize how resilient we can be what lives in us already what lessons we have learned from all these failures these triumphs we feel ourselves a part of this great arc of life that marches on that through it all marches on…As the poem goes: Freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine remembering.  Putting together, inch by inch the starry worlds. From all the lost collections.

In these next few weeks, as we encounter once again the ancient stories of Christmas, and Hanukkah, as we sing familiar carols, and share in the familiar holiday rituals we will inevitably feel the waves come in-and-out the waves of memories both bitter, and sweet.

As we do, we have the chance once again to re-member ourselves whole, holy, a part of this past that is still unfolding, still becoming a chance to claim for us all a resilient hope for the future that we can still create, by memory.

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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