From the Board: November 2018

What is memory? What would we be without it?

All my experiences, all I have practiced and learned, all my conversations and connections, all my creations and catastrophes, collected in these neural networks that constitute me. I am memory, my personal history. Some memories are encoded in my muscles; dance steps, piano scales and guitar picking rhythmic  patterns. Some are olfactory; sorghum and black walnuts at great-grandmother’s house. Many are auditory; lyrics from mother’s hymns, grandpa’s ditties, adolescent love songs and funky folk songs. So many of my memories are collections of words from teachers;  aphorisms, poetry, philosophy, chemistry, physics, math, physiology, anatomy, the mementos from my long strange trip. I have been privileged to witness births and deaths, weddings and divorces, joyful reunions and devastating losses all stirred into this jambalaya I call my life so far.

These are just the memory traces that might be recalled consciously when triggered by a sensory association. They do not even mention the more ancient wordless memories encoded in the DNA of our  immune cells. These are the genetic patterns of deadly viruses no longer fatal because our Neanderthal ancestors gifted them to our African ancestors who spread them through countless Neolithic migrations. So now, when we encounter one of those genetic patterns, our immune systems remember the intruder and build the necessary antibodies to sustain life.

Memory is life-sustaining.

I know that I am only one of 7.6 billion pots of the similar ingredients. And when we die, there’s no replicating the particular recipes. Even if the recipes were all written into some unimaginably huge collection of detailed personal histories, they cannot be replicated. They can only flavor the memory pots of those whose lives they have touched. The meals they shared, the stories they told, the love they gave and accepted, the few words they wrote in letters or Facebook posts, or graffiti sprayed on boxcars,  or even little essays, these are the metaphorical pinches of spices for the interconnected web of life. Richard Dawkins might have called it the meme pool, but I think of it as more dynamic, a huge river of shared human experience, flowing into an ocean of stardust.

So let’s be sharing memories, bending the arc of history toward more justice and courageous love.

Loose Gems: by Craig Werth, 1999
I am surrounded by loose gems, some are strangers some are friends
One day may I be more like them, like one of those loose gems
In the dust beneath the couch, in some forgotten leather pouch,
Cold and wet, somewhere crouched is one of those loose gems
Off to the side or so it seems, tumbled out of the main stream,
Into a pool within your dreams, tumbled out loose gems.
No setting has been holding them, they came wrapped in words been told to them
Painstakingly unfolding them, enfolding words
They’re not the worst and not the best, yet sometimes sparkling past the rest
For each has been put to some test, to bear the name.
Less like diamonds more like rocks, stretching pockets, filling socks,
For every child is taking stock in all of those loose gems.
To many folks they ain’t worth much but to the ones with Midas’ touch
They are essential stuff and such, each of those loose gems
Yellow, brown or blue or red, some are living more are dead,
A few are rattling in my head, a few of those loose gems
And when I am up and done, by hand of time or smoking gun,
I hope you’ll think of me as one, one of those …
I am surrounded by loose gems, some are strangers some are friends
One day may I be more like them, like one of those loose gems

Robert Brooks
President, Board of Trustees