Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Memory of You

Recently, a young friend and neighbor of mine, the son of fellow parishioners, invited me to grandparents’ day at his school. I am not his grandparent, but the school, knowing that many children’s grandparents live far away, opened its doors to “grandfriends,” as well. That was my designation and my honor.

We had a great time for a couple of hours, me beside my twelve-year-old friend. I discovered that sixth-graders know far more about geography than I and that the quality of traveling magic shows seen on elementary school stages hasn’t changed much since my childhood—to judge by “The Stupendous Mr. Magichead.”

A few days after Grandparents-Grandfriends Day, my friend sent me a thank-you card along with a homemade bookmark. On one side was a colorful drawing of the two of us side-by-side, my arm slung over his lower shoulders. I am wearing a Red Sox hat, which is really quite handsome of my neighbor, given that his parents are Yankee fans. On the back side of the bookmark are the letters of my first name written down the left side and a series of descriptors starting with W-E-B-S-T-E-R. I won’t embarrass you with a list of my many fun and saintly qualities.

I cherish the bookmark for what it reminds me of: a generous, friendly boy who apparently looks up to me; his mother, a member of my CL School of Community; his father, whom I have enjoyed getting to know on our random walks around the neighborhood; and, by association, the many warm friendships I have made in our parish since converting three years ago. The bookmark is a sign of something very much bigger. It reminds me of my life in the Church and, by extension, of Jesus Christ.

I thought of the bookmark this morning as I was out walking before dawn, listening to the audio version of the first chapter of Moonwalking with Einstein, a new nonfiction book by Joshua Foer.

I will have more to say about this book in future posts, as it is concerned with human memory, a topic I find fascinating. But for now one particular line of thought interests me.

The book begins with the World Memory Championships, in which mostly men compete by memorizing the order of randomly shuffled decks of cards, lists of random numbers, 50-line unpublished poems, and the like. Foer says he was drawn to the subject of memory by a visit to the World Bodybuilding Museum, which showcased the world’s strongest men. The author wondered what it would be like to get the world’s strongest and smartest people together, and the resulting Google search for smart people led him to prodigies of memory. It turns out that these memory masters are not savants but ordinary people who have mastered methods of memory first developed 2,500 years ago by Greek poets and Roman orators (more on this in future posts).

I was struck by our modern obsession with human intelligence and wisdom as brain matter, circuitry, RAM, computing speed. By extension, memory is seen largely as the ability to retain vast amounts of information, the better to compute and produce effectively in a culture that rewards computation and production.

I realized that the memory—or pool of memories—launched by my young friend’s bookmark is of a completely different nature. It is a sort of memory of the heart, not the mind, and it is linked to values, not information. To be able to remember one’s own phone number, one’s computer passwords, or a sonnet by Shakespeare is one thing. To remember the teachings of the Church from moment to moment, to remember the Presence of Christ—the Kingdom here, now—is something else again.

For this kind of value-memory, we need reminders: icons, statues, the liturgy, prayer cards, bookmarks. I will continue to cherish my bookmark for what it reminds me of—Something no amount of memory training will ever help me remember.

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