What Stays With Us?
My wife Philomena teases me about being a sentimentalist. I love that nostalgic feeling of remembering times past that are no more. I’ve always been like this. Even when I was a teenager, I would walk past my elementary school and have strong feelings of nostalgia for the good old days when I was in first grade remembering my wonderful first grade teacher Mrs. Logan. After I moved to California in my 20’s, whenever I’d return to Newark, Delaware I’d have major nostalgia moments walking down to the old decrepit and mostly abandoned railroad station to watch the Metroliner trains zoom by at top speed. When we were in high school, best friend Geoff, who was best man at our wedding (and now gone may he rest in peace), and I would walk down to that train station together, knock back a can of soda and complain about not being attractive to the young women we were interested in. We bemoaned the cruelty of fate that life was passing us by just like these fast trains were leaving us behind on the platform of life. Oh, the bitter-sweet existential anguish we enjoyed!
When our son Andrew was born in 1992, we didn’t have cell phones to record all the special moments of our child’s life. But I did get my first video camera. So we have A LOT of video of those early years. Nothing can get my nostalgia going like watching those videos and remembering those happy years living in Florida as a young family. Andrew didn’t inherit this nostalgia gene from me. When I suggest he watch them, he gets disgusted and would be happy to discard all my old videotapes.
Nostalgia isn’t something I experience just for my childhood or family. I experience it here in our congregation too. When I look through old photo directories, I am always moved by the faces of the people who have died. I remember devoted members of our congregation that gave so much of themselves to the life of our congregation. I remember happy times and events we participated in together. Some of those members I have on video that I can watch again and re-experience their vitality that I enjoyed.
As I reflect on those experiences now with many years of life that have past, I ponder just what happens inside me as I remember the past. As we are learning from contemporary research, what we remember is quite likely not what actually happened. This is one of the interesting things about having as much video of my life as I do. Philomena and I have a video of our wedding ceremony. We have video of Andrew’s first steps. I have recordings and video of services I’ve done here. I have video of the first sermon I gave in my internship at First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York in 1988! I can check my memory of what actually happened and can document the drift that happens in my own remembering – though I do tend to have a pretty good memory of what actually happened.
What interests me more than getting the facts of what happened is remembering the feelings. Though my face might reveal what I was feeling, the videotape can’t capture them. At our wedding, the Rev. Carl Thichener, the UU minister who introduced Philomena to me, started on the second page of the script for the service. At that moment, I realized he was nervous as he was doing our wedding. It had the effect of putting me completely at ease, even though Philomena and I were going to read a poem to each other that we’d memorized and we would be speaking our vows to each other from memory (we are both performers at heart).
In my spiritual life, I have had some very intense experiences that called me to ministry and continue to motivate and shape it. They continue to live in my memory, not as experiences I want to have again necessarily, but as tastes of being alive that is vital, connected, connecting, and present. Rather than wanting to return to them, like recreating a perfect summer day with sunshine, soft breezes, and good company, I ask myself, what are the barriers that prevent me from experiencing that kind of consciousness right now?
My favorite way to use memory is to cultivate loving kindness. The reservoir of positive memories is a refreshing source that can fill up my heart when times are difficult and I feel dry, disconnected and thirsty for love. When times are hard, these memories are very valuable ways to stay connected with the Spirit of Life and find meaning and purpose again. In these conflictual times, we need all the resources we can muster to keep hate out and hold love in.