The Roots of Memory

Near the end of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, the title character muses on the nature of remembering and history and the passage of time:

I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought. “Forty years” or “Fifty years” or “Sixty years,” I hear myself whispering. My life lengthens. History grows shorter. I remember old men who remembered the Civil War. I have in my mind word-of-mouth memories more than a hundred years old. It is only twenty hundred years since the birth of Christ. Fifteen or twenty memories such as mine would reach all the way back to the halo-light in the manger at Bethlehem. So few rememberers could sit down together in a small room. They could loaf together in the old poolroom up in Port William and talk all of a Saturday night of war and rumors of war.

I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. one by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cots. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.

Finishing a re-read of the novel last week, this quote spells out clearly why I liked the book more now than when I first read it years ago.

Berry’s words have been a part of my life since a friend introduced me to him in 2002, but I’ve always been more fond of his essays, polemics, and poetry than his fiction. Like many novelists, his stories are first and foremost outworkings of his core ideas. Whatever the scope of their narratives, they always circle back to unpacking some thesis or other—in Berry’s case, concepts of community (membership), care for the land (stewardship), and living within limits (simplicity). The philosophy-narration in his works is done with varying degrees of craft, such that someone familiar with Berry’s larger body of work might simply prefer to read him lay out the ideas in question more plainly in his nonfiction.

Jayber Crow is by most any standards a good novel, though—round and readable. Its exploration of the inner life of one man, his wrestling with questions of faith and hope and unrequited love give it a texture that transcends any untoward preachiness. As the quote above illustrates, it is a work of remembering, of setting a human being within a web of knowing and being known. Even where it makes overt gestures toward the themes of the decline of rural American life in the wake of the economic, social, and technological upheavals of the 20th century, these facts are so relevant to understanding our present place in the world that it feels crucial to the story.

Part of why the book resonated more this time around is because the world it records is even further away from the experience of most Americans now. When I read it first, my grandfather, born in 1924, was still living on his family land outside a small Georgia town where he’d been born. His sister, born in 1918, and her husband, born in 1914, still had their wits about them, telling stories of the Great Depression, working with the CCC, and life before cars and television. Their stories of farming, and making ends meet by hook and by crook, and the deep and wide knowing of a place and all who dwelt within it were still part of my life and experience .

That whole generation of my family is gone now. If my children and theirs are to hear those stories, warts and all, it’s up to me and others who have heard and remembered to keep a certain understanding of the world within their imagining. Berry’s achievement with Jayber Crow is the setting into print of the sound, sight, scent, and savor of the place that formed him and where he lives still (though with the cloaking veneer of fiction). The stories he conveys are likely based in things he grew up witnessing or hearing about, and the memory of his particular web of knowing is preserved for us all.

Knowing and remembering entail loss and grief, as Berry has Jayber tell us. You cannot grieve what you never knew. You cannot lament what you have never felt. The art of love is the art of memory and imagination—sifting through the debris of death to see what glistens. May we have the courage to remember people, places, and things as they truly were; may we discipline ourselves to call to mind that which was good and has been lost so that it may be restored; may we receive the grace to imagine a world as it might be so that we can live as though it is already.

Image: Oak and Limestone, Meigs County, Tenn., January 2021.

Questions for a Time Traveler

Have you ever stood so still
That you could hear the world breathing?

Have you stepped so softly through the woods
That you were startled by a crackle
As a wasp munched leaves to papier mâché?

Have you ever watched so closely
That you saw a hoverfly yaw,
As on an invisible string,
A perfect one-eighty, meeting
Your gaze with twin dimpled prisms,
Compound eyes scouring your mind.

Have you ever felt the wisdom of children
Who see a Nashville warbler fall to the ground,
Yellow neck snapped by a window strike,
And think clearly enough to give it a name,
So that they circle and say together
“Rest in peace, Sunflower” when it’s buried?

If a bird is worth such a prayer
And each insect deserves a poem,
Is every man who ever lived
And every woman now on earth
An epic, a novel, a ballad,
Waiting only for attention and a pen?

Image: Hearts-a-bustin, Hamilton County, Tenn., October 2020.

Tempo Poco a Poco

Each day, hour twenty-four gives one a rough time,
Piercing the illusion that there is enough time.

Sand in a voluptuous glass scours our hearts.
What hard, violent, rushing, unfeeling stuff, time!

Manage it. Curse it. Dance about it. Divide it.
The truth yet remains: you can never rebuff time.

For a moment, it hovers. For a year, it flees.
Tempus fugit, tempus cessat. None can slough time.

At the end of our days, full of sorrow and praise,
That silent watchman stands atop the great bluff: Time.

Photo: Giant Rolex, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Fairfax County, Virginia, April 2011.

Time out of Mind

When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:28-29).

Although there are many, many instances of Christ’s teaching to which this description applies, a striking example is this retort to the crowds (specifically the Pharisees) seeking a “sign” that he was indeed the Messiah. All the miracles he had performed (healings, feedings, raising the dead, etc.) were not enough, apparently, to convince them. Jesus, knowing their hearts, answered:

This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise up with the men of this generation at the judgment and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold something greater that Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold something greater than Jonah is here” (Luke 11:29-32).

What audacity! To us who know Christ as the risen Lord, this reads as a bold and powerful statement of truth. Those present, however, would have heard the Nazarene’s statement as a colossal affront, and smacking more than a little of insanity. “How could this carpenter’s son possibly know how God will judge us? Where does he come off thinking he is greater than our kings and prophets?”

Though Jesus’ reference to Jonah is far more than rhetoric (the prophet from Galilee, etc.), the real power of His words here is that they come from a place unbounded by time. There are no conditions, no subjunctive verbs; only blunt indicatives. He speaks not as though He merely envisions these things, but as though He is there (with the Queen of Sheba in Solomon’s court, in Nineveh, at God’s judgment seat) at the same instant He is with them in first-century Judea. That is authority. Jesus talks as if he were, in fact, the author of the story—the one who declares “the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10), the one without whom “was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3).

For the Lord, time is clearly different than what we know of it. Reading Laurus (a novel which plays with our understanding of time) refreshed an idea I’ve often wrestled with—that time itself is an often-overlooked aspect of man’s fall into sin. As it happens, this seems to be a concept borne out through the whole Bible.

Though not enumerated among the curses issued by God in Genesis 3, awareness of the passage of time in their finite lives must have hit Adam and Eve, as the reality of death began to set in. We all now live under that curse, and our remaining hours on earth tick from the moment of conception.

Whereas Christ sees all and knows all, “now we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). To be separated from Him is to be cast into time. Even so, we are made to yearn for the restoration of God’s design: “He has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecc. 3:11). We instinctively know that this life is not to be the sum total of our days, but in God’s wisdom, He has also shielded us from seeing it fully in our sin.

Because the Lord is faithful, it was never His plan to allow us to run our our days and stay apart from Him. Christ stepped into this world, into space and time, to accept the curse and take the punishment—yet without sin—”that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death” (Heb. 2:14).IMG_4715

Death, a hard and fast end to our sin, through Christ becomes as much a means of grace as a curse. With it comes a promise of resurrection, whether to life or punishment (Matt. 25:46); an outcome tied to these fleeting years on earth. Because of the curse of time and the reality of eternity, we can pray with Moses, “teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). The curse motivates diligence, for our days are too few to waste; the reality tells us what to strive for; God’s grace gives us the wisdom to see and obey.

Thinking about time in this way gives a new dimension to faith. It is, in essence, acting on God’s Lordship over time, submitting our fear of death to the reality of eternal life in Him. In this, we say with Job, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26). Because Christ “is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17), our trust in Him is nothing less than grasping the hand He extends from beyond the realm of time, allowing Him to hold us fast as the world gives way.

Thus anchored to eternity, Christians are able to endure whatever comes and to serve faithfully in our sojourn here. He never leaves or forsakes those whom He calls, at whatever point in the grand story their life falls. In His grace, our experience of time is enriched by this history and shored up by tradition, so that we have all the more reason to trust Him. Psalm 90 concludes with the refrain “confirm the work of our hands“; a plea that God allow us to build well upon what the godly before us started and support that which comes after.

With the eyes of faith we see the Day of the Lord; clothed in the righteousness of Christ, we even long for His appearing without fear. In fact, the Eschaton is not an event in time (though it looks like it from here), but the literal end of time, as the curse is reversed. Christ has declared: “Behold, I am making all things new…. It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 21:5-6).

It has often been observed that the biblical idea of hope is not wishful thinking, but resting in certainty. The brokenness of time can cause us to despair, but the eternal Christ bids us hope in Him. Nothing is beyond His concern, for the past is present to Him. Nothing can surprise Him, for nothing is future.

These are deep things. Paul wrote (in the same passage quoted above) “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). It is only with the eyes of faith (themselves gifts of God) that we discern these things at all.

A scene from Laurus (which I’ve seen quoted in several reviews) captures this beautifully. Arseny prays in a monastery and receives an unexpected reply:

“And so, O Savior, give me at least some sign that I may know my path has not veered into madness, so I may, with that knowledge, walk the most difficult road, walk as long as need be and no longer feel weariness.

What sign do you want and what knowledge? asked an elder…Do you not know that any journey harbors danger within itself? Any journey—and if you do not acknowledge this, then why move? So you say faith is not enough for you and you want knowledge, too. But knowledge does not involve spiritual effort; knowledge is obvious. Faith assumes effort. Knowledge is repose and faith is motion.

But were the venerable [that is, the saints of old] not aspiring for the harmony of repose? asked Arseny.

They took the route of faith, answered the elder. And their faith was so strong it turned into knowledge.”

Image: God’s Acre, Old Salem, Forsyth County, N.C., December 2015.