“Remembering to Remember”

“Remembering to Remember”
A Sermon by Joe Cleveland
Delivered at First Parish in Bedford, Unitarian Universalist
Sunday, May 27, 2012



“Letter Home” by Ellen Steinbaum

I love you forever
my father’s letter tells her
for forty-nine pages,
from the troopship crossing the Atlantic
before they’d ever heard of Anzio.

He misses her, the letter says,
counting out days of boredom, seasickness,
and changing weather,
poker games played for matches
when cash and cigarettes ran out,
a Red Cross package—soap,
cards, a mystery book he traded away
for The Rubaiyyat a bunkmate didn’t want.
He stood night watch and thought
of her. Don’t forget the payment
for insurance, he says.

My mother waits at home with me,
waits for the letter he writes day by day
moving farther across the ravenous ocean.
She will get it in three months and
her fingers will smooth the Army stationery
to suede.

He will come home, stand
beside her in the photograph, leaning
on crutches, holding
me against the rough wool
of his jacket. He will sit
alone and listen to Aïda

and they will pick up their
interrupted lives. Years later,
she will show her grandchildren
a yellow envelope with
forty-nine wilted pages telling her
of shimmering sequins on the water,
the moonlight catching sudden phosphorescence,
the churned wake that stretched a silver trail.[1]


We worry about remembering.  How many of you make To Do lists so that you remember what it is you have to do?  How many of you have made a To Do list and then forgot where you put it?

I have a vexed relationship with memory.  Sometimes I can remember things and other times, not so much.  Some things I remember a lot about and other things I forget.  If I remember correctly, my mom started calling me the absent-minded professor when I was ten or eleven.  Nose stuck in a book, thoughts who knows where, I am still prone to leaving half-drunk glasses of milk on tables and half-drunk cups of tea by chairs.

I have never been confident in my ability to memorize.  The one assignment I was terrified of in my high school English class was the one where I had to memorize and act out a scene from Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.  I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to remember all of the words.  I have always been nervous about studying languages because I am intimidated by remembering another whole set of words.  I don’t know if anything impresses me more about some of the people here than that they seem to have learned to speak a little Hungarian.  And guess what I’ve been most vexed about in my first year of my internship here at First Parish in Bedford?  Learning your names. Don’t quiz me.  OK, you can quiz me. But wear your name tags!

It brings to mind a poem that I first heard a songwriter named Peter Mulvey recite from memory.  It was the first Billy Collins poem I had heard.  Peter had memorized it and it is called “Forgetfulness” and at the time, I thought it was hilarious.  And I think I remember John Gibbons including it in one of his sermons here this year, but I forget if that is actually so, so here we go, perhaps, again.  I do not have this memorized.


The name of the author is the first to go
Followed obediently by the title, the plot,
The heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
Which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

As if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
Decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
To a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
And watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
And even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

Something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
The address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
It is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
Not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
Whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
Well on your way to oblivion where you will join those
Who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
To look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
Out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.[2]

I find this poem quite frightening, now.  But perhaps I can take comfort that I am not the only one waking up in the middle of the night to check the date on something, or to write something down on a to do list that I’ll forget where I put in the morning.

Unitarian Universalism has a vexed relationship with memory.  On the one hand, we love the new and don’t want to get bogged down in hide-bound ideas.  We want a proactive, progressive religion that isn’t afraid to let go of what holds us back.  Here’s Emerson:

“Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”[3]

And this is indeed good advice. It can help us to do what needs to be done.  It encourages us to have compassion for ourselves and to use that self-compassion as a basis for being able to get out of bed in the morning and try again to be our best self.  There is a time to let go.

But we seem to surround ourselves with memories and markers to times and people past.

I still find it a bit surreal to live in the Boston area.  I grew up in Minnesota and though I was not fond of history — having to remember all those names and dates, right? — I did remember a few of them.  Lexington & Concord.  Bunker Hill.  Walden Pond.  And now I live here and I drive around and there’s Lexington and Concord and people just living there like it’s just some place.  And there’s a carload of kids piling out to go for a swim in Walden Pond.

But these are not just places.  There are monuments and plaques and things everywhere.  My folks were in town for a week — just left this past Wednesday — and we visited a lot of these places.  They had never before been in the Boston area.  We saw Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house and the house of Louisa May Alcott.  We saw the statue of Henry Thoreau by the model of his cabin.  We saw the Fishermen’s Memorial and the Fishermen’s Wives Memorial in Gloucester.  All those names of people lost at sea.  We saw the Old North Church and a statue of Paul Revere.  We had dinner at a place called Longfellow’s Wayside Inn where there was, of course, a bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  And at the bar I ordered a Coow Woow, the oldest known mixed drink in America.  Coow Woow.

We love to remember.  We surround ourselves with memories.

I took my folks to the Lexington Battle Green.  And they wandered around, taking pictures of the monuments there.   My mom points to the house beyond the statue of the MinuteMan on the tip of the green.  She says, “How would you like to live there and see the MinuteMan statue out of your window every day?”

But that’s just it.  We live with the MinuteMan statue out of our windows every day.  Or at least I think we aspire to live with a statue out of our window every day.  We gather our memories around us.  We surround ourselves with them.  I get souvenirs all the time.  My wife, Kristin, teases me about this.  Around my desk, I have — well, I’m in the middle of moving right now and so I had to pack them up so I have some of them right here.

I have this pebble from the Sonora Desert on the Mexico-Arizona border that I stuck in my shoe one evening as part of a worship service to help me think of those who have died trying to cross that desert in quest of a better life.  I have this little pot given out at the first Community Worship service I attended at Andover Newton Theological School where I just graduated last weekend.  And I have this little collection of pocket-sized Winnie-the-Pooh books that I have read and re-read since I was a kid.  There is a rip across the spines of them now — my cat did that. He was hit by a car a couple years ago.  But I look at that tear and I remember him.

My mom has a fish bowl that is filled with dozens of pins from all the places she’s been.  We surround ourselves with memories.

Or perhaps I should say, we surround ourselves with occasions/opportunities to remember.  In an interview, the editor of Poetry Magazine, Christian Wiman, said this:

You know, we’re always remembering. There is no actual present. It’s the way reality is. It takes that long for our brains to process the instant. We’re always remembering events and we’re always projecting some sort of future, and I think [. . .] that’s how we get meaning in our lives.[4]

It is important to have opportunities to remember, to re-member, to put together the stories of our lives and our world and important to put together new stories.  This is one of the things that religion is for.

Religions have sets of practices that help us remember to remember.  I have heard it said that, from the point of view of Islam, the problem with people is that we forget.  We are forgetful and because we are forgetful God had to keep sending prophets to us.  We’d get the message and have it for a little while, but then we’d forget it and God would have to send another prophet to us until I guess this gets a bit old for God and God sends us Muhammad (peace be upon him) and says that’s it! Here’s the message one more time. Recite it!  (Qur’an, the word, means something like recitation.)        Religions give us disciplines of prayer, meditation, mindfulness, pilgrimage.  Religions give us holidays, holy days, special occasions for remembering.  Today is Pentecost when the apostles began to speak powered by the spirit, to speak without the physical reminder of Jesus sitting at table with them.  And a couple days ago began the Jewish holiday Shavuot on which they remember the gift of the Torah.  One of the disciplines associated with Shavuot is that of staying up all night studying Torah.  Sounds like seminary.

When UU theologian James Luther Adams said, “The insistence on discipline enables one to think and enrich the memory and ultimately to achieve self-identity [. . .]”[5] he’s making fun of himself a bit.  This is from a story he tells of when he wanted to be a concert violinist — despite his discipline, he couldn’t do it and decided to apply his energies elsewhere.  But he didn’t lose that sense of discipline.

Our memory gets better when we exercise it.  People can do amazing feats of memory. They memorize the Qur’an, the Bible, the collected works of Shakespeare.  Amazing.  A science journalist named Joshua Foer got interested in the people who do this.  He went to the U.S. Memory Championship but everyone he met there said they had only an average memory.  They just practiced.  Foer worked with one memory champion for a while using a memory trick that’s a couple thousand years old then thought that the best way to write about these memory athletes was to enter the competition himself.  And he won it.  He won the 2006 U.S. Memory Championship. He says memory is just about paying attention.  Getting good at memorizing the order of a deck of cards took a disciplined form of practicing paying attention.  Foer says, “Our lives are the sum of our memories. How much are we willing to lose from our already short lives by … not paying attention?”[6]

            It is important to pay attention.  That seems to be the message of so many poets, so many prophets, religious and secular: Pay attention.  I don’t think the goal is to memorize the order of a deck of cards or the phone-book.  And while it’s nice to remember stuff it could be that remembering stuff isn’t the point.  I think the point is remembering to remember.  Giving ourselves occasions to remember.  We feel that our lives are so busy.  Christian Wiman, the poet and editor, writes that it can feel that

Any attention turned toward the truth of the spirit is attention turned away from all we have come to think of as “life.” Thus we parcel out our moments of devotion—a church service here and there, a walk in the woods, a couple of hours of meditation a week—all the while maintaining the frenzy of our usual existence outside of those moments. This is inevitable, for the initial demands of the spirit are intense, but it is not sustainable, for the soul is not piecemeal. [. . .] only by claiming the most mundane and jangling details of our lives can that rare and ulterior music of the soul merge with what [Irish poet] Seamus Heaney calls “the music of what happens.”[7]

We surround ourselves with souvenirs and memorials and say “never forget.”  But anything can be an occasion for a remembering. Anything can be the occasion for a story.  I’m going to try to remember to remember.  I don’t remember where I got this rock that looks like a Russian tea cake or an about-to-be-baked snicker-doodle.  But I remember that I like Russian tea cakes and snicker-doodles!  Even if I forget who sent me the letter, I can still hold it, and rub the stationary to suede and think of

of shimmering sequins on the water,
the moonlight catching sudden phosphorescence,
the churned wake that stretched a silver trail.

Remember the gift of speaking and telling stories. Unitarian Universalism is a religion of both memory and prophecy.  Make yourself ready to receive stories.  Tell the stories you know of sacrifice and honor and people who laid down their lives for the friends and in hope of a better world. Make up new stories about what justice looks like.  Hold a poppy in your hand.  Pay attention.  Make today, make tomorrow an occasion to remember to remember.

[1] “Letter Home” by Ellen Steinbaum, from Container Gardening. © Custom Words, 2008.

[2] Billy Collins, “Forgetfulness,” Questions About Angels (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999).

[3] quoted here: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2012/05/25

[4] Interview with Krista Tippet. “Remembering God,” Being. 12 April 2012. American Public Media. <http://being.publicradio.org/programs/2012/remembering-god/transcript.shtml>

[5] quoted in The Essential James Luther Adams, edited by George Kimmich Beach (Skinner House Books, 1998). Page 1.

[6] Joshua Foer, “Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do”  http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/joshua_foer_feats_of_memory_anyone_can_do.html

[7] Christian Wiman, “Hive of Nerves” <http://being.publicradio.org/programs/2012/remembering-god/wiman_essay-hive-of-nerves.shtml>