“I saw them in all the times past and to come, all somehow there in their own time and in all time and in no time…”
Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow
Some time ago it really struck me when reading Wendell Berry’s fiction how he portrayed growing old, and the deepening connection one feels to those who have gone before you. Now years later his sentiments are much more real to me. I find myself thinking about death, or rather I should say thinking about the dead, more than I did before.
There is a great Christian practice of remembering our dead in prayer. I reflect now on another aspect of remembering our dead—remembering them in our daily life. This is an aspect of memory that is a powerful gift to those of us still living, here.
Memory is always about presence. And life itself is about presence. The whole power of memory is in its making present, in the present, something that in some sense is not present. Were there complete vision there would be no need for memory, since vision is the ultimate presence.
But in our life as it is now, memory is a kind of promise, and a preparation, for something yet to come. It prepares us for the not-yet by making present the has-been.
Today is seven years since the death of my father. For me it has been seven years of trying and learning to remember. It is something I need to work at. Sometimes I wonder: should I try to remember just certain good things, or do I also remember what I might deem to be failures—both mine toward him and his toward me? This is a nuanced matter; one I will not easily resolve.
Yet I know this much, that often as I go about my life I am reminded of things my father said and did. (Indeed, I am blessed to have reminders, both in persons and in many little things, all around me.) And from what he said and did I can learn—sometimes much more in the memory of them now than I could have learned then.
What an inestimable blessing. My life experience is much broader than what I have experienced myself. And I am certainly not alone in my experiences even now. I never have been. I never will be.
Wendell Berry (1934-) is a farmer, essayist, novelist, and activist who lives on his homeplace in northern Kentucky.
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