Life by Memory

December 12, 2011 § 3 Comments

In elementary school, we learn the times tables by heart, through a process of rote recitation.  It doesn’t take long before we know that 5 x 4 equals 20, or 10 x 10 is a hundred.  This knowledge becomes so embodied, that even 10, 20, or 50 years later, the memory of it hasn’t gone away.   It’s the kind of knowledge that lives inside us, like our name, langauge, where we come from, and who we love.

If we stop to think about it, most of what we know to be true about life is based on memory – not just the kind of memory that tells us about a phone call that we need to return, or what’s on the calendar for Saturday night, but memory that makes sense of the world and gives us an identity within it.

There is perhaps nothing more sacred than a memory.  Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can return to certain people, places, or objects that remind us of what we hold most dear: our memories of how we want to be loved, our memories of a childhood long past, our memories of a country to which we can no longer travel, or our memories of a dream we once hoped to fulfil.   We return to city streets, to trees, beaches, and to one another, to regain what has been lived in, and lost to, the past.

Culture is passed along through memory also, and so is knowledge, but so are other things even less tangible like safety and love.  When we have these feelings we know that our memories have being cherished and protected by our family, culture, and society.

When I was living, working and travelling through Morocco in 2005, I was continually amazed by the relics of Jewish history I stumbled upon in dusty corners of mountain villages, or down narrow corridors of medieval medinas in large sprawling cities.  And yet, the Jewish comunity in that country has long since disappeared.  After the founding of Israel, and then the Six-Day War,  generations of Jewish life in that country came virtually to an end, as Moroccan Jews began a mass exodus to far-flung lands such as France, Canada, and Israel.

Upon returning to Canada and spending time with Jewish Moroccans who had decided to leave their country of birth forever, it struck me as profoundly fascinating that this community had such an elaborate and well developed tradition, culture, language, and religious expression that had developed in a county that was no longer accessible (either by choice or by fear).   For most immigrant communities, the culture of origin is still accessible through a place on the globe, and the culture often remains deeply embedded within a particular landscape.  In comparison, in Morocco, most synagogues have become museum pieces, if they are not left to crumble into ruin, and the traditionally Jewish neighbourhoods have been all but vacated, stripped and mined of their treasures and left derelict. It occurred to me that this immigrant experience was a life lived by memory, as opposed to a life lived in direct access to the living landscape of a culture and its traditions.

Since this year of discovery and travel, my creativity has been inspired and enriched by Jewish theology and stories.  I see Judaism as built upon a theology of longing to return to particular land, and ultimately, to union with something greater than ourselves — the ultimate homecoming.  Judaism is a spiritual life and community that thrives in exile (diaspora).

But the more I have looked at these ideas, the more I have seen them as, not only specific to Jewish history and stories, but as universal truths that live inside of the hearts and experiences of all people.

One of the most tragic things about being human, I think, is that we can’t go back. In every moment, we are asked to let go.  We are asked to move into something else: a strand of hair that has turned from auburn to grey; a smooth patch of skin that has started to wrinkle; a garden that has transitioned from abundant to brown, like the unstoppable journey of seasons who visit us and then leave.

One of the worst things you can do to another human being is deny her the sanctity of her memories. This is why wars are fought. We don’t fight so much over the resources themselves, like water and land, but over the sanctity of our memories that are found within them – the place we had our first kiss, birthed our children, spoke our language, said good bye to our parents.  Land becomes sacred because of the lives we have lived there.

Through our connections to landscape, and even to objects (an old torn sweater, a photograph, a piece of jewellery, a painting) we remember the past and sometimes, we think, if only we held on tight enough we could bring it with us and into eternity.

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