By Paul

What, really, do we mean by memory?  Without it, it seems safe to say, we would hardly be human, inasmuch as we learn from the past, or we hope to, and without the recollection of past events, of people, or of our thoughts and feelings and reactions to all that has occurred in our lives, we would in essence be starting each day anew.   It has been shown that animals also have memory, and they are more than capable of learning from past experience, just as we humans attempt to do.

Given all this, in one sense, it seems strange that we have what is called Memorial Day, a time specifically dedicated to remembering.  It has its own provenance, of course, having been created soon after the Civil War by various individuals who mourned the passing of sons and brothers and spouses and friends, who died in the horror of that terrible, fratricidal conflagration.

When I was young, in fact, as often as not the day was referred to as Decoration Day, especially by people of the older generation, because we would go to the graves of those who had died, not just soldiers in various wars, but the graves of any and all loved ones, and leave tokens of remembrance, flags mostly, or flowers.  In this sense, it is akin to the Mexican “Día de los Muertos,” the Day of the Dead, when families gather at graves to eat and drink, and generally to celebrate loved ones who have moved on to a different place.

Memory is like that.  It brings to mind not just what has passed, but the emotion that surrounded, and still surrounds, those thoughts of the past.  For surely we do not remember everything that has ever happened to us, all that we have said and done and thought.  That would be too much for any individual to live with, especially as we grow older and we have done, and thought, and seen more and more of life.  The very word “recollect,” in fact, comes from the Latin “recolligere,” meaning to gather together and to collect again, even to pick and choose, which is exactly what our memory does.  Another related word in Latin is “lignum,” which means firewood.  At first, that might seem like an odd connection.  What has memory got to do with building a fire?  But its original reference was to wood that had been collected together, chosen for that particular purpose.

And is that not what we do so often with our memory?  Given various stimuli, different triggers, people, places, tastes, smells, words, songs or pieces of music, dates on the calendar, or wounds that seem only to half heal no matter how hard we try to cure or be rid of them, all these bring back a burning rush of feeling, of thought, or of sensation.  We experience, or re-experience over and over again, love and loss, pain and happiness, desire and repulsion, grief and joy, the hoped for, as well as what we most feared.  We have with us still the regrets we live with, the delight we experienced in life, people we loved and still love, those we may have fought with and those who brought us pain, and the people whom we, ourselves, have hurt, wittingly or unwittingly, our dreams, our hopes, our fears, our follies, the roads not taken and the longed-for wonder of where these roads might have led.  No one escapes the power of memory, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we talk about it, or keep it buried in the tomb of our unconscious, from whence it springs on its own like unruly and destructive weeds in an otherwise ordered and well tended garden.

In his autobiography, Mark Twain said, “I grow old and my memory is not as active as it used to be.  When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now, and soon it shall be such that I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.”  These words, as ironic as they may at first seem, point up what a mishmash memory can be, how it gets intertwined with our wishes, our deepest desires and our wrenching fears.  It sometimes seems to be indistinguishable from our imagination.  Did I really do that to my friend and how did he feel, did she say that to me, did my father despise me as much as I remember, and did my mother mourn my leaving home at a young age to enter a monastery, as I recall her doing?

Some things, it would appear, are true, or at least factual, and I know they happened in exactly the way I see them in my mind, but others, more fuzzy, less precise especially as time goes by, begin to look more like barely distinguishable shapes or images in a thick fog.  When I am afraid, I may recall events in a darker light, as if they were shadows or phantoms that haunt the mansions of the mind.  When the sun of a brighter day shines and I am feeling strong and, dare I say, more fully adult, do I see the remembered past for what it was, for the real forms it took and the ways I dealt with whatever was troubling or confusing or, for good or for ill, mesmerizing?

All this to say that we must trust our memory as we would a dear friend who, we know, has his own odd tendency to exaggerate, or to embellish, or even to tell tall tales merely to entertain us.

My own memory of my parents is like this.  They died so long ago now that they have begun to take on mythic proportions in the movie of my life.  I cannot, for example, remember a single time when my father kissed me.  But that was true of all fathers I knew in those years of the 1950’s, the fathers of my friends and classmates, as well as my own.  And if he had, I – we, all of us – would not have known what to do in our embarrassment.  I do, also though, remember the blows, the harsh words, the fear with which I approached him, and the tender mercies of my mother, protecting me from him.  But were there other things that I do not remember?  Who can say what he does not remember?  And, if there are things that go unremembered, why is that so?

Memorial Day is designed to bring these things to the fore, lest we forget.  We remember those who have died, first and especially in all the hellish or the just or simply the foolish and idiotic wars the country has fought.  We recall the days in late May, when the sun was shinning and the grass grew new and green and seemingly ecstatic after a long winter covered with the snows of January and the slush of March or April.  We see in our mind once again the picnics of days gone by, a snapshot of us all gathered at the lake or in a park or simply on the back porch.  We taste again the food cooked by those who loved us, by those who looked after us, by aunts and uncles who were part of our lives, giving us unwitting lessons in how to live like adults in a world that seemed to us at times only to be overwhelming and more than we ever thought we could come to terms with.

And each new day we make yet other memories for the day after.  That is the way we live, by acting in the present, by living the moment to the fullest, but by seeing it again and feeling it, experiencing it once more later, as we sit quietly, or lie awake in the long hours of a sleepless night.  Familiar faces, long gone perhaps, but still present in the moment of memory, visit us again.  We laugh or cry or rejoice, and feel the longing for what once was, and is still, but in a way different from what had been.

That’s Memorial Day.  That’s the day of remembrance.  That’s what it means to recall who we were, who we are, who we have become, and what it means to be fully, painfully, joyously, gloriously, and so yearningly, so vulnerably human.


By Paul

I was born on the Day of the Dead, which has always struck me as more than a little odd.  November the 2nd, All Souls Day in the old Catholic tradition which I grew up with, is set aside to celebrate everyone who has died, or at least “all the faithful departed,” as it was said when I was young, since the unfaithful were damned to hell anyway, and there was little reason or need to remember them.

Somehow the notion of being given the gift of life (and it is a great gift!) on the very day dedicated to a special remembrance of death still strikes me as both curious and instructive.  Although as a child I thought of it as strange and a bit disturbing, as an adult, I have come to understand it in more of a mythic or symbolic kind of way.  It’s well known today, for example, that in traditional Mexican culture there has long been a close connection between life and death, and not necessarily a negative one either.  Indeed, almost all cultures which relied on agriculture, as opposed to primarily hunting and gathering, had a special place for death in the stories they told themselves about how to make sense of the world.  Everyone knew that it was only when the seed was buried in the earth that life could begin to stir.  Additionally, it did not take early farmers long to realize that the dead and decaying plants of the year before made excellent fertilizer, the very stuff in fact from which new life grew most abundantly.  So, the equation was a very natural one to make: from death came new life in a most dramatic and tangible way.  

In Aztec mythology too, Mictlantecuhtli, the god of Mictlan, the land of the dead and the lowest region of the netherworld, fought with Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent and bringer of rain, who had descended into Mictlan in order to gather the bones of the ancestors from the previous fourth world in order to make a new creation.  He was just about to escape when Mictlantecuhtli caught up with him, which caused Quetzalcoatl to drop some of the bones.  These bones fell and got smashed, which is why some people are shaped differently from others, and some are smaller, some larger.  The point to be made is that it was necessary to go underground to the abode of the dead in order to create new life.  So once again we see the emergence of these old agricultural myths playing out in the everyday lives of the people.  There is even speculation, as well, that elements of the Christian faith originate from these ancient mythic themes, with Jesus, the Son of God, who died and was subsequently buried in the earth.  New life sprang from him when he rose again from the dead, just as buried seeds do to this day. 

In Celtic mythology, too, we see the celebration of Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”) at this same time of the year.  Samhain was thought of as the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.  It was a time when cattle, those life-giving beasts for the old peoples of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, were slaughtered both as offerings to the gods, and to sustain the people through the long, cold winter months to come. Bonfires were lit, and in some places still are, and the bones of the slaughtered cattle would be burnt therein.  It was also a time when the veil between the two worlds, that of the living and the dead, was considered to be particularly thin, and the dead could come back and walk among the living.  As with Mexicans today, this was not necessarily seen as all that morbid or lugubrious, but instead as a time to reconnect with loved ones who had passed on.  Even so, certain rituals had to be followed very closely, or great harm could come to the living.  The sídhe (pronounced “shee”), those remnants of old Celtic gods now called fairies, were also known to frequent the world of the living on Samhain.  Some of these fairies were not necessarily thought of as all that benevolent, to say the least, and people would sometimes dress up in disguises in order to fool the sídhe into thinking that they were other than who they actually were.  Herein, of course, we see the beginnings of the modern costumes worn on Halloween, which is celebrated the day before All Saints Day (Nov. 1st), and otherwise known as the “Eve of All Hallows,” or “Hallows’ Eve.”  

Much of this mythologizing has become commingled in my mind of late with another event in my life which took place recently.  I returned just this past week to New York in order to attend the 50th reunion of my high school graduating class.  However, to refer to it in this way is actually something of a misnomer, because the group that gathered was much more than classmates who happened to graduate from high school at the same time.  Instead, at age fourteen we had entered into what was then known in the Catholic parlance of the day as a Junior Novitiate, a kind of very strict religious boarding school meant as preparation for entrance into a religious order upon graduation.  This was followed by the Novitiate year, when one takes the robe, as well as a religious name, and becomes a novice.  This is a year of the strictest possible religious discipline.  We kept silence almost all of the time, and spent the majority of our days either in private or communal prayer, or in manual labor.  People still do not believe me when I tell them that I remember digging sumac roots out of the solid, frozen earth in the middle of a snow storm, simply because the Brother Director had told me to do so.  This was known as “holy obedience.” 

Very few of my classmates remained in the religious order I had joined.  Some thirty of us showed up for the reunion, several with their wives, who must have thought us all very odd indeed, and I will admit that, before going, I had some degree of hesitation about attending.  I was wrong to feel any hesitancy, however.  In the end, I rediscovered a very fine group of men, many still Catholic, but some of whom (as I think of it anyway) have now outgrown any need for organized religion.  But all of them have gone on to distinguished careers either in academia, or the sciences, psychology and counseling, the military (perhaps not so surprisingly), journalism, the arts, and in even politics.  The timing of the reunion, so near to the old Celtic New Year of Samhain, or the Mexican Día de los Muertos was, I am sure, accidental.  If you actually believe in accidents, that is.  But it nonetheless made me think of the connection between these kinds of events. 

First of all, there is a way in which all or most of us have, if you will, resurrected into a new life.  We have gone on to create these new forms of ourselves out of defunct monastic ones and made lives which now fit our contemporary individual needs and our own requirement to grow and prosper in ways that corresponded to our talents.  In the process, we learned what we needed to discover both about ourselves and the world around us, a world which, prior to our departure from “religious life” was a thing of mystery, full of anxiety and fear for most of us. 

Having entered upon this life at age fourteen, it is obvious that six or seven or ten years later, when most of us had finally left the confines of monastic life, we knew almost nothing about “the world.”  It was of course a place of wonder and delight for us, as much as it may have caused a degree of trepidation and consternation.  All of the things that boys are supposed to learn during adolescence, how to date, how to work for a salary and make a bit of money, how to travel, to explore, to investigate the world, and especially how to rebel against outside authority and to create one’s own inner authority, all this was new to us.  In that sense, I suppose it could be said that we were, of necessity, late bloomers.  But bloom most of us did, each in his own unique way. 

So, it may have turned out to be quite appropriate that our 50th reunion took place so close to these other events in mythic time that I have mentioned above, when one year is ending and a new one beginning, and when what has died is now celebrated as the beginnings of a new life to come.  Mythology, in this sense, is still very much alive and applicable to our everyday lives.  And maybe it wasn’t so bad after all to have been born on the Day of the Dead, if we think of that day as the ending of one phase, and the subsequent beginning (the resurrecting) of a new one. 

In the end, I am glad that I went back to New York for the reunion.  I did almost, but not quite, get caught in Hurricane Sandy on the way out, but even that can be viewed, if you have a mind to, in a symbolic way.  I had visited my past, and I saw that it was still alive and vibrantly contributing to my present.  And I had seen, too, that I had been able to escape the worst of the roiling, crashing, battering parts of that past, which can cause such damage and destruction in a person’s life.  That, to my mind, is the real meaning of the Day of the Dead, a time when the past rises and contributes in a positive way to the lives we are actually living.  It is a kind of Samhain of the saints, a new year filled with hope, and with a renewed eagerness to go on living, laughing, and creating – always, let us hope, creating.