Memory and Identity

So two of the main themes in my dissertation are memory and identity–two things that fascinate and confound me. Both are fluid, contested, constantly being shaped and re-shaped, negotiated, constructed, forgotten, and re-constructed.

There have been several seasons as I’ve been working on my PhD that I’ve had to burrow deeply into a cave in order to concentrate fully on my work. I’m just now emerging from one of those caves, after having the proposal approved by my Area a little over a week ago. I come out, stretch, blink, and re-acquaint myself with my surroundings.

Part of that re-acquaintance, this past week, included locating a dear friend of mine from college. He met a French woman our junior year and married her a few months later. As soon as he graduated, he moved to France and has never lived in the States again. We remained close for several years, back in the dark ages before Al Gore invented the internet. We wrote long letters on actual paper. Some of the letters I wrote, I actually sent. (Which is saying something. Most letters I wrote to folks usually languished on my desk for months until I finally gave up and threw them away. Apparently the post office confounds me as well.)

The two of us lost contact, though, after I moved out West. But this past week we were finally able to reconnect. When I opened his reply to my email, I could immediately hear his voice coming through. There are some friends where it doesn’t seem to matter how many years intervene, you can always pick up exactly where you left off.

Then, strangely, the very same day that I reconnected with S, another old friend contacted me. This friend goes back even farther than college and is someone I grew up with in church. We went through confirmation together, and youth group, and also attended the same camp for a couple years.

The confluence of these re-acquaintances was disorienting to me at first. I talked about it a bit with my spiritual director yesterday. I told her that I feel like there is an invitation in this to pay attention to the threads that have made up my life over the years. Even as I work on this project that centers around memory and identity, I am being invited to deepen my own experience of those themes in my life.

Last July 1, 2007, I officially started my position as a professor. It turned out, though, that I was still back on the East Coast for a previously planned, annual trip. Coincidentally (if coincidences happen at all), that particular day we happened to drive over to my old neighborhood where I lived until I was 18. It was the first time Monk had seen my house. We walked around the neighborhood and I told D and Monk many, many stories of the things I’d done as a kid–most of them involved mischief making of some kind, to Monk’s great delight.

In fact, the picture just below was taken that day, as I stood by the old creek (now very overgrown) and held onto the rope we used to swing across until some kid broke his ankle and we weren’t allowed to do it anymore. (And, yes, I did swing across the creek one more time that day, as did Monk!)

When we pulled up in front of my old house, (sold hastily after my parents’ divorce), we saw there was someone out tending the lawn. He was gracious enough to let us go inside the house and look around a bit. It was a powerful experience for me to be able to show Monk at least a little of the house that I’d grown up in–to see his nine-year-old self moving through the same space that had held my own nine-year-old self, once upon a time. Of course, it wasn’t the same anymore. The kitchen cabinets my grandfather had made weren’t there, for one. Even now, sometimes when I can’t get to sleep at night, I imagine walking through that house as it used to be, trying to remember every thing I possibly can about what used to be there.

But there was something significant in that experience for me. As I began my new identity as professor, I walked in the house and along the streets (and by the creek) that had helped make me who I was still becoming.

The year has continued to be full of such things: I’ve reconnected with my best friend who grew up a few doors down from me as well as with my best friend from high school. My high school class had it’s twentieth reunion, and though I wasn’t able to attend, I suddenly had a flood of names and memories come back into my life that I’d thought I had long forgotten.

All of these people and places–and so many more–have woven into me somehow, made me who I am, or who I am becoming. I do think the invitation, these days, is to re-member just how much this is so.

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