Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Uses of Memory (re-post from April 10, 2009)

My recent trip to New York has moved me to re-post this entry from almost a year ago, since, having returned, I am struck all over again by the fact that

New York is a city that is layered over and over again with the personal histories of its denizens. Certain corners are redolent, even overripe, with memory; certain neighborhoods become forbidden zones because of the heartbreaks to which they played host. And when one has tried to change one's life in a place that was the site of so much crash-and-burn, one occasionally feels as if it might be easier to do it elsewhere, and is tempted to take flight from the snares of memory.

So far, after a year and a half in a very, very different place, however, I still feel as if I'm in exile, and it's become no easier. Ironically, I've found that one can become a new person in New York City simply by moving to a different neighborhood, far more easily than one can by taking on the trappings of a very different way of life in a small town.  And the snares of memory are tighter now than ever after a visit back.  I miss my friends; I miss the beautiful people of the city of New York.  And I miss the end of summer, when the bark of the plane trees in playgrounds from the Bronx to the Lower East Side becomes mottled, and the acrid stench of summer has started to give way to the clear skies and the faint smell of burning in the air that presage autumn.  And spring in New York, when people pour out of tenements to sit on their stoops and play radios, and children dance on the sidewalks out in front.  And the hum of quiet that descends over even the noisiest streets once or twice today, like a passage of angels.  And being able just to go down to the corner and have a drink or a cup of halfway-decent coffee.  And many, many other things.

So here's the re-post:
The Uses of Memory

Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and all my will, all I have and possess; you have given it me; to you, Lord, I return it; all is yours, dispose of it entirely according to your will. Give me your love and grace, because that is enough for me.
-- Saint Ignatius of Loyola

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you will probably know certain things about me, its anonymous author: for instance, that I had a dramatic conversion several years ago, which led to gradual changes in my life and reasoning process from one way to its near-complete opposite; and that I consider myself a penitent. Having gone from espousing and living a self-absorbed, promiscuous, bohemian ethos that caused a great deal of harm to myself and others, to striving to espouse and live a Christian life, has been no easy transition. I struggle daily with the discipline and humility needed to shoulder the cross of my mundane responsibilities, and the past is always beckoning to me over that shoulder -- not so much the events of the past, which mostly ended in heartbreak and failure, but the sensations that accompanied and illustrated them.

I recall the way the light rallied bravely on a post-industrial street in early March in my old city; the taste of the coffee at a Puerto Rican lunch counter by the subway; the green glass bottles arranged on the window sill in a friend's apartment. The lime-green haze of the new leaves, like a diaphanous scarf caught in the black branches of the trees on Riverside Drive. The impossibly warm, nostalgic sound of my voice teacher's Bechstein. The buzzing haze of the city in summer, and the marvelously strange way that a hush would descend at certain moments over even the busiest street. The weeds that heliotroped and bloomed through chicken-wire fencing on a strip of auto-body repair shops in the Bronx. The playing cards I would often find on the street (I found a tarot card, "The Lovers," once). And the many, many goodbyes. While Rome is a city that is layered over with the history of Western civilization, New York is a city that is layered over and over again with the personal histories of its denizens. Certain corners are redolent, even overripe, with memory; certain neighborhoods become forbidden zones because of the heartbreaks to which they played host. And when one has tried to change one's life in a place that was the site of so much crash-and-burn, one occasionally feels as if it might be easier to do it elsewhere, and is tempted to take flight from the snares of memory.

Now I am elsewhere, with none of the sensations of my beloved city around me. And sometimes I mourn for the sights, sounds, and smells of the past, the beautiful fragments of a mostly unlovely life that shimmer even more in the refracted light of memory. And I wonder what God wants me to do with my memory. Must I ask Him to sever it from me? I suppose I would be happier and better-adjusted if I could forget the past. And these sense memories inevitably incur regret, because they suggest the past, which, since I cannot change it, leads to grief, and even depression. If God has forgotten my sins, must I remember them?

The quandary of conversion is that it must always be rooted in penitence. Can one be penitent and not mourn constantly? Saint Peter, according to legend, had furrows in his cheeks, gouged there by his incessant weeping for having denied Christ. And, according to Raïssa Maritain, the eyes of Blessed Ève Lavallière, a French actress and convert, were, after her conversion, always wet with tears of contrition for her past sins. Saint Ephrem the Syrian is said to have written:

The soul is dead through sin. It requires sadness, weeping, tears, mourning and bitter moaning over the iniquity which has cast it down . . . Howl, weep and moan, and bring it back to God. . . . Your soul is dead through vice; shed tears and raise it up again!

And yet, as Brother Roger of Taizé has noted:

It may be impossible to repent without feeling some regret. But the difference between the two is enormous. Repentance is a gift from God, a hidden activity of the Holy Spirit that draws a person to God. I do not need God to regret my mistakes; I can do that by myself. Regret keeps us focused on ourselves. When I repent, however, I turn towards God, forgetting myself and surrendering myself to him. Regret makes no amends for the wrong done, but God, when I come to him in repentance, "dispels my sins like the morning mist" (Isaiah 44:22).

What, then, is the place of memory in the penitential consciousness? Is it possible to mine the memory for beauty, and to use the beauty as a palliative for others? Is it the responsibility of those who are conscious of beauty to nurture it, wherever it is found, even in ugliness? Or must that beauty be left behind, even buried?

I recently had the opportunity to go back to New York to see the Bonnard exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum (the image above, "Work Table," is the poster for the show). Retrospectives of Bonnard's work are rare -- the last one in New York was in 1998 -- and I enthusiastically recommend this show, which closes on April 19, to anyone who can go. It is wonderful. Bonnard is an artist who has always been important to me personally, and in fact, in his late paintings, there is an apparent attempt to come to terms with painful memory. He paints mundane domestic objects with luminous, even joyful, intensity, and yet the shadowy human figures who cling to the edges of his canvases hint at a tragic personal situation that caused great damage in his life and the lives of those around him in the mid-1920s, several years before he began producing this prodigious later corpus.

Were the dreadful events in Bonnard's life, then, somehow salutary for the rest of us? The beauty of his late paintings give the viewer great joy.

My fondest hope is that, out of the dreadful turmoil of my own past, some small healing for others might also be brought forth.

Happy Easter (and Passover) and many blessings to all my readers.


Rodak said...

Thank you. You're killing me! But, thank you.

eaucoin said...

In this year's version of the passion yesterday, I was struck by the words Jesus said to Peter about his impending denial: "Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers." Picture Peter being tempted to despair as Judas did over his betrayal, and then the memory rising in his mind of what Our Lord had said. So Peter would always have had his failure in front of him so to speak, but also the purpose assigned him by God, to lead others to repentance and to continue with faith (in God's forgiveness). How much more confidently could he assure others of God's love and forgiveness after he had experienced so large a portion himself. I also feel strongly that when the apostles heard of Jesus' resurrection, they would have felt first incredible joy and then, almost in the same breath, remembered that they had denied or abandoned Him. Hence the risen Jesus' words to Mary Magdalen (in one of the gospels) in which he tells her to repeat to the apostles these words, "I am going to my Father and your Father, my God and your God." It seems as though Jesus was anticipating their anguish and assuaging it in a single breath. When you were at your lowest, you could reach the tip of His robe. If you find yourself there again, be assured, He will be very near.

Pentimento said...

Thank you for your kind comment, Eaucoin. It strikes me that, while God forgets our sins, as He makes explicit in several places in the Bible, we are constrained to remember them, if only to "strengthen our brothers," or to show forth the truth of Christ's mercy.

Rodak, you need to take a trip back to New York. But you couldn't stay in a hotel in midtown, of course. You'd really have to stay in Brooklyn or the Bronx, and give yourself a week there just to walk all over town.:)

Enbrethiliel said...


Pentimento, your introduction to your old post reminds me of a novel I read several years ago: The Other Shepards by Adele Griffin.

It is a ghost story with no "real" ghosts. The two main characters are the youngest children of middle-aged parents, who had them after their three older siblings died together in a terrible accident. Those older siblings, whom they never met, have turned out to be a tough act to follow.

I remember feeling fascinated by Griffin's use of New York City as a setting. There is one scene in which a guide shows a tour group a house that is supposedly haunted by a New Yorker who was a well-known local character in his day--a literal haunting, in that case. It made me wonder how many places are still haunted, literally or otherwise, by the people who once lived in them (especially if they lived life to the hilt)--and made me hope that I will, somehow, always haunt the places I love most in the world.

Pentimento said...

This sounds like a good book, E. It's going on my list.

Incidentally, I'm reading Meet the Austins now at your recommendation on the Madeleine L'Engle smackdown. Sometimes I wonder why anyone should bother with adult literature when children's literature is so good.

Rodak said...

Oh, I've been back to NYC, more than once. It hasn't much helped. The problem is that most of the places, and most of the people, that inspire my longing are no longer there. I've been gone a long time. So to go back is pretty much to go back as a tourist. The buildings may still be standing--I can get pics of them today from Google maps--but the rooms are devoid of the loves that made them places of warmth and shelter. *Sigh*

Pentimento said...

I know what you mean. I rehearsed for my recent gig at the university where I spent some of the happiest years of my life, and was really struck, there, by the fact that you can't step in the same river twice.

Retired Waif said...

It's so good to keep up with you through your blog... and a post like this is like a special treat for myself with my coffee. We should talk soon.

(Oh, and I've been blogging--I lost my domain name, but the blog is back up at

Rodak said...

you can't step in the same river twice

And, I suppose--that being an absolute truth--the lesson is that we shouldn't want to. We have the Cross (as sufficient unto) today, and we have Hope for tomorrow. Yesterday's gone.

Pentimento said...

So true Rodak.

Retired Waif, I'm happy to hear from you. Call me when you have the chance.

mrsdarwin said...

I've been reading through Isaiah this Lent, and for whatever reason I remembered your words about contrition and grief for past sins when I came across chapter 56:3-8.

'Let not the foreigner say, when he would join himself to the LORD, "The LORD will surely exclude me from his people"; Nor let the eunuch say, "See, I am a dry tree."
For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who observe my sabbaths and choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name Better than sons and daughters; an eternal, imperishable name will I give them.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, ministering to him, Loving the name of the LORD, and becoming his servants-- All who keep the sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant,
Them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; Their holocausts and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the dispersed of Israel: Others will I gather to him besides those already gathered.'

Pentimento said...

Thank you for posting that, Mrs. Darwin. (And you are doing something -- reading Isaiah -- that I only dreamed of doing this Lent, before forgetting it altogether.)