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  • Karl Thunemann

Despite Anxious Times, MemoryAbounds

Suddenly, the patch known as memory sprang back to life. These recollections—nearly lost, arose in a time long, long ago, when story mattered more than formal facts, when spinning a story gave shape to the … well, usually the evening, but story could arise at any time.

Is one’s “memory” a singular entity, or might it be a phalanx of free-lancing specialists? Oh sure, there must be Memory Central … but the entire operation could be rather feudal, with vassals regarding fealty as optional. 

I cannot tell how this time began. Perhaps memory deigns not to tell—can memory make such decisions? —or is the origin a prisoner of incapacity? Either way, it does not matter. When my children were young, I began telling them stories. Their favorite protagonist—and mine—was a creature named Glorietta, a superhero whose principal superpower lay in her capacity to chant vehement incantations against the mean old witch who frequently disrupted the adventures of her companions, innocent young children. The children would join in—Mean old witch, mean old witch, can’t catch me, can’t catch me! —which perhaps added to its power.  *

But this is not how this tsunami of memory arrives. We think of stories—recollections—arriving on little chains: And then… and then … But memory has hurled this mass of memories far up the beach. It was hard to sort out, or even to remember which stuck in the mind first. Very confusing. How did “memory” organize this gift? Is one’s “memory” a singular entity, or might it be a phalanx of free-lancing specialists? Oh sure, there must be Memory Central, which I generally imagine myself to be addressing, but the entire operation could be rather feudal, with vassals regarding fealty as optional.  When Memory Central calls for a general action, it can never be sure which vassals will respond. And it’s almost impossible to conduct a forensic examination to discover which quarter was responsible.  Well, leave that for another day.

Stories for my children may have marked a beginning but did not stand alone. One day the kids were asleep in the back seat as we drove the Redwood Highway, and mileage indicators for the town of McKinleyville inspired me to spin a story to my wife about the town’s founders. Led by distant relatives of the future president, those who settled McKinleyville had set their hearts on creating a utopia amid the redwoods. Utopian ideals gripped the imagination of many in the 19th century. But of course many obstacles beset this group, and in the end McKinleyville just became a small town on the North Coast, and people seldom thought of its idealistic origins. After we had passed by the town, I confessed that the story was fiction. My wife said she was completely taken in—and why not, given my passion for local histories? –saying she thought the occasional long pauses marked my genuine efforts to recall details of this saga. Once my children were in school, I learned from someone—perhaps another father, even someone I knew? –of a man who spun together stories fueled by words proffered by his listeners. I soon made this process my own. Our children attended a school that went on a week-long camping retreat every fall and spring. I would start in the evenings with the kindergarteners and first graders dressed in their jammies. We took giddy adventures governed by a palette of silly and goofy words. And I would wind up with the fifth and sixth graders, sophisticated enough to hurl out challenging words. Sometimes I would forget a word or two, and as the story wound toward its conclusion, they would shout out the missing words. I was forced to use—now, here’s a nice word—my ingenuity.

And I spun stories in other ways—through the editorials and columns I wrote for the new daily paper, and in lay sermons I would offer at our small Unitarian church. (The school and church communities were intermingled—we got to know one another pretty darned well.)

You might be wondering what this has to do with meditation. Well, for a moment I do too—except to note that these story-telling practices arose at the same time I began meditating. The meditator’s tools—concentration and clear focus—are essential to telling stories.

But if this were the entirety of memory’s current gift, it would not seem so momentous. All I have recited here so far has lain near the top of my memory, easily accessible.  But I have not thought for years of the book that capped it all. A member of our community—a school librarian—gave me a children’s book: Frederick, by Leo Lioni, the great Italian artist and thinker who spent much time in America. It came with a fitting inscription.  I do not remember the occasion—a birthday, a community gathering? –but I felt deeply moved.

Frederick is a mouse who spends his time spinning tales when the other mice are busily storing food away for the winter. But the other mice appreciate him, as attested in these quotations: “I do work,” said Frederick. “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days.” And "But Frederick," they said, "you are a poet!"

I make no claim to be a poet. But years ago, reading a memoir by Robert Frost, I recognized I gather my material in a similar fashion—wandering through an open field and paying attention to whatever attaches itself to me—burrs and other spiny growths.

For several years I kept Frederick in a spot where I often noticed it, but I have not seen or thought about it in the six-plus years since we last moved. It must be tucked away somewhere. I cannot imagine I pitched it.

And now I have a glimmering: These new and—all right, recovered—memories bring me to the cusp of expressing gratitude for that wretched diagnosis, mild cognitive impairment. I still have some literary chops, and the blog format caters to my weaknesses—and my remaining strengths. Writing short pieces on broad themes—always retaining room for vectoring digressions and heresy. Amid impairment, I have found a new path back to my essential self.  

What can I say to my once-reviled memory but—

Gee, thanks Memory. Thanks for guiding me back to my roots. What a pal! ________________________________________________________ *Only now, 70 years later, do I finally draw a connection between my own dreams of a mean old witch that haunted my early childhood, rumbling up the driveway in a Model A, then thumping toward the flimsy back door, Thanks, memory, for the forgotten connection. Were you waiting to see when/if I would notice? † President McKinley did play a role in the naming of this town, but not as I imagined. Initially it was a group of communities, struggling to settle on a collective name. When the president was assassinated in 1901, they discovered a name that would unite them.   ‡ My wife readily produces the book. Pasted to the inner front cover is a newspaper column opinion piece I wrote—way back then, before 1975—about the great allure of dropping out. I Feel as if I could have written it last week!


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