Memory: Something to be Cherished

Do you ever get something tossing around in your head that seemingly you can’t get rid of no matter how you try?  I get that way when I listen to music, for example, the lyrics wearing down my synapses like “We had it all/ Just like Bogie and Becall/ Starring in our old late, late show/Sailing to Key Largo.”  But sometimes it’s a memory that pops up, crazy like, since there’s no triggering context, maybe reaching way back into early childhood’s opaque alleys.

Sometimes something sticks because we associate it with an event or person that brought us great happiness or, alas, considerable pain.   Maybe we never forget anything really, the mind simply archiving everything that makes us who we are. While time may soften the edges of past experience, its essence remains

Freud built his formidable psychological schema on memory, which he argued was always latent, and thus influential on what we do and say, want and fear.  His former protégée, Carl Jung, contended memory transcended time and individuals, ultimately taking on evolutionary status as archetype, or primordial pattern, shaping both our thinking and behavior.  According to Jung, the repository of memory is defined best in myth, which reenacts the human repertoire of experience.  Its roman a clef  lies in symbols compressing our individual and collective destinies.

On the literary front, some of our foremost fiction writers like Joyce, Proust and Faulkner have made a legacy of memory in works like Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past, and The Sound and the Fury.  In poetry, the English poet Wordsworth famously defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity,” building his poetic artifice on reflecting past experiences.  Perhaps the bottom line modus operandi latent in literary creation is to keep memory, or human experience, alive.

Often memory over time embellishes or distorts as we add or subtract.  It’s a good reason to keep journals. Verbal photos I like to call them.  Poor recall is the nemesis in legal matters when witnesses can’t accurately recall what they saw or heard or when witnesses prove contradictory.

Too often we take our ability to remember for granted, when the truth is it begins to decline as we age and increasingly we can’t find those damned keys, or forget what we came to the store for, or that doctor’s appointment.  Nothing to be worried about, save when forgetfulness takes on habit such as:

1 .    We repeat the same questions.

2.    We struggle for common words.

3.    We find it difficult to follow directions

4.    We lose our way in our neighborhood.

5.    We put things in odd places.

6.    We can’t recall something recently learned.

If I lost my sight or hearing, this would be debilitating and surely grievous, yet I think not equal to the loss of recall, condemned to an eternal present and essentially returning me to an infantile state as in dementia and its acute species, Alzheimer’s, that wipes away everything defining my humanity and lending  my life significance.

I don’t know, nor do any of us, what Fate holds, but in the meantime, I choose not to take this gift of memory for granted but to cherish it by nurturing it through learning new things, exercising regularly and vigorously, and eating nutritious foods.

Doctors who specialize in aging increasingly report that dementia may not necessarily happen if we keep our brains healthy by doing the right things.  Dr.  Majid Fotuhi, Chair of the Department of Neurology at Johns Hopkins, informs us that Alzheimer’s has only a limited genetic factor.  It can be delayed and even prevented with lifestyle changes undertaken in midlife.

I choose to run with that hope,


Finding centeredness and discovering peace the Tao way


Whenever I fix lunch for myself, which is usually everyday other than weekends, I like to read something with it, since my spouse isn’t normally present to make lunch interesting.  The other day I found a book on the shelf I hadn’t read since it first came out in 1990, Diane Drehler’s The Tao of Peace, predicated on Lao Tsu’s monumental Tao Te Ching, deriving back to two and a half millennia ago.  Translated more than any other work except perhaps the Bible and the Koran, this brief work may just well be the wisest book ever written, though relatively brief in its 5000 words.

Rich in its gleanings of human experience, it teaches the Tao (pronounced with a d), a term difficult to translate but approximating something like Reality, or Nature, or the system of things.  I like to think of its as the Way, referring to “the way of things”.  You name what humans encounter, the Tao Te Ching deals with it, offering seekers an inner peace in an often troubled world through simple, balanced living that promotes a psychological equilibrium.

In its Chinese text, the Tao is essentially a poem replete with an ambiguity that actually enriches its capability for multiple interpretation.  Accordingly, you can find many texts that are hardly word-for-word translations, but adaptations of what seems the salient undergrowth of each verse or numbered section.  Some adaptations excel, capturing not only the essential simplicity of the original manifested through its economy, but also its rich resonance latent in its density.  The very best renderings are sheer poetry, mirroring the Tao’s intent in brilliant, often modern, metaphor.  Drehler’s readings constitute revisions, rather than translations, but are sumptuous and compelling in their summary eloquence.  Here are a sample few:

The Tao as enduring counsel:

Why did the ancients cherish the Tao?
Because through it
We may find a way of peace,
Leaving behind a world of cares,
And hold the greatest treasure under heaven (Tao 62).

The Tao as journey:

A tree that reaches past your embrace grows from
one small seed,
A structure over nine stories high begins with a handful
of earth.
A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step ((Tao 64)

The Tao as synthesis:

All life embodies yin,
And embraces yang,
Through their union (Tao 42).

Yin and yang, by the way, are the composite opposites of natural phenomena that must blend to achieve an equilibrium that sustains rather than destroys.

Yin connotes the passive, creative entity associated with the earth, the feminine, valleys, streams and night (moon); yang, the assertive, or male element associated with mountains, the heavens, and the light (sun).. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung drew heavily upon yin and yang for his concepts of anima and animus, the female and male, their synthesis necessary for humans to achieve individuation, or psychical unity,

One of my favorite Drehler renderings is Tao 76.

The Tao as flexibilty:

At birth all people are soft and yielding.
At death they are hard and stiff.
All green plants are tender and yielding.
At death they are brittle and dry.
When hard and rigid,
We consort with death.
When soft and flexible,
We affirm greater life.

But as I suggested at the outset, the Tao lends itself to varied readings encompassing the canopy of human experience.  I like, for example, Brian Browne Walker’s recent translation from the Chinese, Tao Te Ching of Lao Tsu.  It covers all the verses poetically and with a special capacity for capturing antithesis, ever at the core of Tao’s yin-yang approach to experiencing life wholly:

Tao’s warning to  Nature’s despoilers:

Those who dominate nature
And seek to possess it
Will never succeed,
For nature is a living system, so sacred
That those who use it profanely
Will surely lose it;
And to lose nature
Is to lose ourselves (Tao 29).

In closing, I’m absolutely in love with Walker’s verse tribute, here in bold, to the tenor of this great work, which I think you’ll like as well:


       gratefully acknowledge

the wind and the rain,

the snow and the sun,

each and everyone,

the  trees, the water

singing beneath the

ice of frozen rivers,

the mountains

and valleys,

the cold ground

and warm grass

the light and the darkness,

the creatures, poetry,

music, family,


the gift and

mystery of my life,

the eternal



May life always find you blessed with peace, centered in the wisdom of the abiding Tao!


The enigma of coincidence

synchronicityChance often plays a key part in our lives.  In fact, it’s how we got here.

It also sometimes saves our lives.  I’ve come close several times, escaping only by a hair.

You might even say chance rules our lives, determining where we’re born, the culture that shapes our behaviors and beliefs, friends we make, and our life mates.

On occasion, I find myself asking What ifs.  What if I had chosen to do that instead of this?  Frost wrote a famous poem about it called “The Road not Taken” with its telling rejoinder,  “And that has made all the difference.”

In short, chance has this mysterious aspect to it, a sense that it’s more than randomness or simple caprice; that just maybe it’s the work of an entity transcending both ourselves and nature. This is especially true when coincidence, a kind of sub-species of chance, occurs. The famous Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, thought so and called it synchronicity, a way of happening whose effects are to be associated with meaning rather than cause.  Jung wasn’t alone here, as Arthur Koestler gave it prominence in his compelling, The Roots of Coincidence.

All of us can probably recount those odd, inexplicable intrusions of coincidence in our lives;  for example, you’ve just been thinking about someone you’ve lost connection with and, lo and behold, there they are.

Or you and your spouse suddenly come out with the same word or phrase.  When my wife and I were first dating we both simultaneously blurted out “deciduous” on that one autumn day graced with beauty.

Coincidence, or synchronicity  elements tend to fall into the two categories of time and space.  Those I just gave deal with convergency in a temporal way.  Those of space, on the other hand,  deal with place.  For instance, years ago, I was changing trains for Vienna in a small German town, Fūssen, when a woman with an American accent came up to me asking if I spoke English, as she needed train information.  As we talked she asked where I was from, and I told her Kentucky.  She then inquired if I had ever heard of Wilmore.  She had a sister teaching at Asbury University.  It so happened that I lived in Wilmore and was teaching at the same university.  And all of this in a remote station in a foreign land.  For most of us, that kind of synchronicity is hard to explain away as simple coincidence. and we remember it always.

The most remarkable occurrence of coincidence, however, happened when I was in India many years ago.  Taking advantage of the several hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany, I wandered into the airport bookstore and ultimately purchased Erich Fromm’s To Have Or To Be.  I didn’t suspect the rebound of this choice with its brilliant critique of Man’s insatiable penchant for acquisition that conversely preys on his well-being.  A few days later, I was at a tiger sanctuary in India, having supper at a long table with mostly Aussies and a fair sprinkling of Europeans, when across from me sat this Swiss couple talking about Fromm’s book!  Now mind you, this wasn’t exactly a hot, top ten item out of the NYT’s listing.  A densely written book about economics, most people wouldn’t bother, and yet here this couple was into it.  And then there was the oddity that had I been just a few places down the table, I’d have missed all of this.

Coincidence didn’t stop there, however, as three weeks later there I was sitting in the Bombay (as it used to be called) airport waiting for my flight to Germany, and  took out my Fromm again to pass the time.  Nearby sat the crew of an Air France flight waiting to board their plane to Paris.  Out of the blue, this beautiful French flight attendant got up and sat down beside me.  She told me she had been reading this book recently, too.  No sooner were the words out of her mouth, and she was whisked away as the call came to board.

How can something so unlikely like this even happen?  To this day, I can’t explain it.  At the time, I thought there might be some message being sent me from above, a signal if you will.  Jung, whom ironically I would take up in serious study just a few years later, held that it was important to be sensitive to such moments as they hinted at a higher reality transcending the causal that can only be perceived intuitively.

I suppose you can resort to the law of higher numbers to explain such phenomena;  for example, the more people in a room above 25, the more likely you’ll find two of them sharing the same birthday.

This is why many scientist believe there exist other worlds among the myriad galaxies that populate the universe.  Sooner or later, the unlikely proves probable, given the high numbers.

Still, this law of numbers seems incongruous to me in unraveling my Indian moment as I really don’t fly that much, or read Fromm-like books frequently, or am into making myriad connections with others, or simply encountering a stimulating focus that filters out competing dissonance.

One thing I do know is that life with its quirks can sometimes prove stranger than fiction, which of course makes it all the more interesting.

Do well. Be well,


%d bloggers like this: