Snowy Earthquakes All the Time

6) Snowly Earthquakes All the Time

It’s a clear morning, the kind when the sun unveils delicately, like a baker unwrapping a loaf of fresh, sensuous bread. I’m at a window, overlooking a blanket of new snow upon the woods. I find myself returning to my first memory of snow.

It takes place in a car with my father. It’s our grey minivan— faithful and clunky. We’re parked with the engine on. On the radio is a musical number from Cats. My father is explaining the concept behind Cats, which is entirely lost on me; I was not a budding thespian, nor high.

I place this memory in late autumn. Humid snowflakes fall around us. Their life is brief; they drop like tiny parachutes anchored to rocks and melt upon impact. Tired windshield wipers raise and lower themselves, removing slush in uneven strokes.

The novelist Anthony Doerr notes that there’s more to an individual snowflake than meets the eye: “Take a snow crystal…it looks rigid, frozen in place… (but) on an extremely tiny level, as it freezes it vibrates like crazy, all the billion billion molecules that make it up shaking invisibly.”

Snowflakes are not static; they constantly reshape their own existence in ways we cannot identify, yet always observe. That, Doerr says, is what gives them their shapes: “tiny instabilities.” We see change happen without knowing it. “On the outside, the crystal looks stable, but on the inside, it’s like an earthquake all the time.” The same can be said for memories; tiny vibrations are always there.

The faith of my childhood was simple. I was raised in church and never doubted the reality of Jesus as God any more than I doubted the realness of the bread and (albeit, sacrilegiously cheap) grape juice of communion. The world constructed by my faith tradition was a world of knowns. It was like dancing without pausing to ask where the music came from and if there were any other tunes. Remembering this now feels like watching an autumn snowflake melt in my hand.

The memory of listening to Cats with my father was, at first recollection, static. “It’s just a memory,” was my initial thought, said in the tone of a housewife holding her prize sweater: “oh, this old thing?” But this just a memory is vibrating with questions—little earthquakes of life: why are we parked and what are we waiting for? Why are we listening to Cats? How is it- in my mind- autumn, yet snowing?

Childhood faith (“this old thing?”) is likewise far from simple but is made up of a billion billion questions, even if I didn’t know it then. The snow I saw for the first time that autumn evening had a life of its own; the faith I felt as a child was the same way. Thousands of years ago, my ancestors caught a break in the evolutionary cycle long enough to look up into the night sky and ask “why?” The acceptance of this little earthquake makes doubt feel less like darkness and more like the first step into a snow-laden forest as the sun also stretches its legs.

To such an end, Cats is also a guide. The number titled “Memory” is sung by the character Grizabella, a cat whose days of glamour—faith of a child, if you will— has long since passed. “Let your memory lead you,” she instructs. “Open up, enter in…”

Again, I find myself standing at the edge of the forest. There’s fresh snow; taking a step forward feels exhilarating if slightly foreboding. But a melodic, feline voice invites me to “let the memory live again.”

“Let faith live again.”

Remembrance is a discipline, one to be handled with care. Memories aren’t things to be thrown around nor should they be an object of belittlement or self-deprecation (“what, this old thing?”). But I also think that memory, like faith, is a lot stronger than I give it credit for. While their composition may seem as simple as an autumn snowflake, its nature is that of an ongoing earthquake, tiny enough not to tear it apart but strong enough to make it dynamic and shifting. I have to let these vibrations not startle but fascinate me.

“Let faith live again.”

On mornings with fresh snowfalls, I consider it a discipline to wake early and take those first steps into the woods. Sometimes this is opening a Bible; sometimes it is quietly staring at the snow. Either way, I answer Grizabella’s call; I enter in. And, with my first step, I feel the rumble of an earthquake.

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Yams & Stuffed Animals

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A professor I know grew up in Ghana where he would sometimes spend the day working on his uncle’s farm. After work, his uncle insisted on providing him a load of yams to take back home, a 12-kilometer walk. On the way, he passed over a stream where many travelers with similar burdens would stop for a drink. One day there was another man who was carrying a large load of yams in his arms, a few too many to manage. As my professor watched, the man lost his grip on the yams so that they slipped and fell as if they themselves plotted the escape. He scampered about, trying to recollect them. But each yam he picked up seemed to push another from his grasp.

I’m coming to feel this way about memories.

As a child, I had scores of stuffed animals. All were intimately named and loved with a pastoral affection. I insisted on having them sleeping in bed with me each night.  All of them. Suffice to say, the bed was filled to capacity and inevitably one or two would take a tumble. Bedtime became a precociously anxious affair. It simply wasn’t possible to hold everyone so dear.

“We shed as we pick up,” the playwright Tom Stoppard once wrote, “like travelers who must carry everything in their arms.” I find this to be the case with memories. Every year, I seem to forget more experiences and more recently. I think of that man running after his yams or my five-year-old self trying to share a bed with thirty-odd stuffed animals. Should I take up scrapbooking?

The last thought gives me pause. When I first encountered the memory of my childhood bedtime, the picture that came to mind was, well, not a picture at all. It wasn’t anything physical that aroused my memory but was the emotional recollection of those nights.

But when I dig deeper, I find physical memories: my childhood bedroom was painted dark blue, with wallpaper at about eye- level (of a child, that is). On the wallpaper were mountainous ocean scenes starring orcas, my childhood obsession. The bed was twin-sized, with brightly stained wooden beams. There was a bedside dresser with three drawers, the handles of which painted red, yellow and blue. The carpet was soft, like the knock-off luxury carpets of a three-star hotel. When I think of the room, I feel a sense of appreciation for the childlike wonder and mourn the possibility that I have since lost it-

And, just like that, my physical memories have been superseded, and I find myself feeling again.

I spent several summers in my twenties as a kayak guide in Maine. One of the islands we paddled around had a bald eagle’s nest. One summer we could see two chicks peeping their heads out of the nest. A senior guide told us that this was rare; the normal practice of bald eagles when more than one egg hatched was to evaluate the chicks then force the weaker one out of the nest. Instinct said that only one chick could survive; they had to choose the strongest.

Physical memories or emotional ones; which do we keep in our nests of time?

Scientists say that most emotional memories are the result of a cued recall. Meaning, that there is some sort of handle, a leg-up, to prompt the memory. Something experienced by one of our senses, something physical. But you can’t carry everything. And so, once recalled, the emotional memory kicks the other chick out of the nest. Emotional memories are, in short, bullies. And in more ways than one.

Memories built on emotion dictate a reaction; we’ve nothing else to grasp, nothing to go off of, other than our memory of how it feels. On the other hand, physical memories allow us to experience things all over again. Physical memories take our hand and lead us into the forest, rather than holding us at its edge telling us what it’s like.

What if we decide to carry the physical, and leave the emotional behind? Maybe this cognitive choice might allow us to re-experience the emotional and maybe, in such a small way, re-experience the memory itself again. If I intentionally accept the reality of not being able to hold everything and, instead of fretting over trying to, I decide what I’ll hold, I wonder what might happen? Could memory itself change?

I’m not sure that’s a choice we get to make. But, when it comes to how we handle our memories- those to which we do hold on- I believe we have some say in the matter. As I remember it, my parents eventually talked some sense into me. “Choose one animal to sleep with at night.” And, having been granted this limitation and choice, I slept much better.

 

Running Through Time

4) Running Through Time

I took up running at age twelve. On a sticky summer day, I put on my tennis shoes and ran a lap around our yard. Then I ran another, and another, after which I collapsed, face down, gasping, aching, and bemoaning my existence until my father came with the lawnmower and a persuasive case for moving. I had, roughly estimated, run a quarter-mile.

The next day, I put on my shoes and did it again, this time making it one additional lap. Same the next. Eventually, my stamina outgrew our yard, so my mother drove me around an adjacent neighborhood, mapping out a three-mile course with the odometer. Somewhere between now and then, running went beyond being a hobby, and became an integral part of who I am. I’ve spent more of my waking life running than any other singular activity. Strange, because I don’t remember much of it.

Novelist and runner Haruki Murakami is often asked what he thinks about while running. “Usually,” he says, “the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves.” Because if they did, they’d know the answer: “I don’t have a clue.”

I’m the same way. While some miles are painfully, inescapably real, most of them go by without my knowing the difference. I will sometimes arrive home not knowing how I got there or what I’d been thinking about with only my watch as proof of time having passed.

“Sorry about the other day,” a neighbor recently said.

“For what?”

“You were running. I nearly ran you over.”

“Oh.”

“You jumped into the ditch.”

I had no idea.

It’s not that my mind goes blank, it just goes…. I daydream. I think back on significant memories or times. Sometimes I write. I pray. Or none of it. It’s like I’m not even there.

In one of his more famous short stories, Ted Chiang writes of numerous alien ships that appear at various locations across the earth and a linguist who is assigned the task of learning their language. She discovers that through this language they not only communicate but also foresee the future.

According to Chiang, the aliens have a different ‘mode of awareness.’ (Kurt Vonnegut wrote of similarly-inclined creatures in Slaughterhouse Five.) We, humans, experience time as sequential:

one thing happens

the next event occurs

followed, inevitably, by another

and (to quote Vonnegut) “so it goes.”

We understand our existence as the relationship between cause and effect. Chiang’s aliens, however, experience all events at once. Stories exist in their entirety; single events are like toy figurines in a grander train set. It’s the difference between focusing on the overall story, or on the moments within it, that determines how they are experienced.

I’m running up the side of a mountain. It’s raining and the rock face is slick. I lose my footing and slip, tumbling until I catch myself on a sapling.

Mile 22 of a marathon. My girlfriend is in the crowd, cheering me on. So is a man holding a cardboard sign that says “Give up, you’re never gonna make it!”

The day is sunny and deliciously cold. A dog jumps on me as I run by.

I’m running in a crowd and overtaken by a man in a full-body chicken costume. Cluck-cluck-cluck, he says as he passes.

I’m lonely, depressed, the day is grey and as I’m finishing my run, it begins to snow.

What if all these moments weren’t sequential, but were themed? What if I’m encountering God in a composite, not causative, way?

I’ve noticed that when I go for long runs, afterward I tend to be remarkably present. Although my mind may be miles and years removed during the run, I return to the now with a keener focus.

Chiang’s character had a similar result. Far from a prophet or seer predicting doomsday, she experienced time more simply. Like someone re-reading a good story, she knew the ending, knew every page, yet didn’t skip a single line. She read with more intentionality than she had before. Because it’s not the ending but the story that matters.

Running has taught me how to reflect and remember. It’s taught me the brutality of impatience. It’s taught me that generosity heals. It’s taught me that adventure isn’t always glamorous and that life is fragile and yet durable.

There was no ‘ah-ha!’ moment for any of these lessons. It’s just that one day I started running and now they are.

My story of running isn’t sequential. I started at twelve but many days, even now, I start running and find myself back there. Or elsewhere. Or nowhere.

Or there comes along a lawnmower and a persuasive case for moving.