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And, just like that, my physical memories have been superseded, and I find myself feeling again.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

 

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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.

Faith in Hygge

3) My Faith in Hygga

I’ve always had an affinity for cold, dark winter days. While my friends bemoan the plummeting temperatures and pop vitamin-D like candy, I watch the sun descend midafternoon with contemptable glee. I light a candle, put on the kettle. I don’t even like tea! I’m just that giddy.

Life hasn’t always been so joyful. Winters in southwest Ohio -where I grew up- often felt like a cruel joke. For several childhood Christmases, temperatures jumped past 70 degrees. I sweat right through my flannel reindeer pajamas. January warm fronts prompted my sister to catch a tan on the front lawn. I could have kicked her.

My disposition isn’t entirely unique. Despite long, dark winters, Danes (and many of their Scandinavian neighbors) are some of the happiest people on the planet. The reason is hygge. Hygge is loosely defined as “a feeling of being warm, safe, comforted, and sheltered.” It is both a verb and a noun, an action and a feeling or atmosphere. Hygge sits at the core of Danish culture. It describes, as one author puts it, a way of being that “introduces humanity and warmth.”

While we were out walking on a recent blustery November’s eve, my wife turned to me, shivering, and said: “I don’t understand how you love being cold!”

“Say what? I hate being cold.”

“Then how can you possibly love winter?”

The summer after graduating from college, I worked and lived on the coast of Maine. No matter how warm the day, when the sun sets on the coast, cold air from the ocean moves ashore.

I was walking home one such evening, rather chilly without a jacket. I passed a house; lights were on in the windows, and I stopped for a moment. A lamp sat on a coffee table beside a book and a pair of glasses. I could hear talking, amicable in tone. I could smell fresh bread. Shadows fluttered along the wall from the light. It looked so very inviting, as if the home itself saying to me: “Oh! Well, do come in.” I felt a longing for something that I couldn’t quite name. I couldn’t, at the time, speak Danish (still can’t).

One of the key components to hygge is contrast. It’s the idea that there can be “a sense of distance between us and the outside world.”

When it comes to God, faith, for me, has always been a struggle. It’s hard to articulate why or what exactly I refer to when I say “doubt.” I question God’s goodness. I question God’s power, realness, and nearness. I question that God even cares. About me. (And everything else.)

Questions may be healthy, helpful even. But they are isolating. I find nihilism more convincing than cheery testimony to God’s faithfulness. My faith life often feels like standing outside on the dark street, looking in through a window. And I forgot my jacket.

But then there’s hygge, the reminder that darkness- and doubt- itself is not reality, but a contrast to the warmth and goodness of the light. The cold I feel is easily thwarted by an invitation to step into cozy peace. The light shines in the darkness, John writes, but the darkness can’t outdo it.

That’s why I love dark and frigid days, why I’ll always love summer nights on the coast of Maine. Not because I enjoy frostbite or wish to spend a Dickensian night shivering on the street. Rather, there’s some innate part of humanity that is awakened by the possibility of warmth. To truly be warm, you must be cold (“I believe! Help my unbelief!”). The coziness of faith exists when doubt is embraced as real yet powerless in the face of light. It’s that awakening, that contrast, the melody of emotion and sensation when you step inside on a freezing night, smell fire, hear laughter, and remember- all over again- the feeling of hygge.

Platitudes can’t buffer my faith any more than a single match can turn the nighttime into day. But hygge reminds me that only a small cabin with a modest fire is needed, not just to survive winter, but to downright enjoy it. It overcomes doubt and turns blizzardy nights into hope. And isn’t it a beautiful thing to embrace the darkness, not with fear or dread, but joy?

But for hygge to happen, you need darkness and sunshine, warmth and the cold.

Maybe that’s why lighting a candle in the middle of the afternoon and smiling into a black window is so uplifting. It reminds me that, no matter how long I am out there, wandering in the darkness of doubt, that there will always be a warm and inviting place for me in here.

And flannel reindeer pajamas? Those are just a perk.