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.