Memories You Used to Harbor: Sermon and Readings, March 17, 2024

OPENING WORDS Rev. Gretchen Haley
There is a quiet courage
in the choice to let go of the past,
in the choice to be present in this new day
to live for this hour, this moment
and to believe in its possibility -
to release the regrets,
to accept this gift
to believe that we are worthy still of happiness
of ease, of delight, and hope

MEDITATION “Ask Me,” William Stafford

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

READING “Forgetfulness,” Billy Collins
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 own 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.

SERMON The Memories You Used to Harbor

The former U.S. laureate poet Billy Collins, who is 82, puts a brave and humorous face on memory loss, and turns more somber in the last stanza.

Whatever it is your were struggling to remember
has fled away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
….
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Some degree of memory problems, as well as a modest decline in other thinking skills, are a fairly common part of aging.” … It goes on to say that normal age-related memory loss doesn't cause a significant disruption in your daily life.

I’m guessing there is room for disagreement with that coldly clinical statement.

Lewis Jenkins, whom the Poetry Foundation website calls a contemporary master of the prose poem, also gives memory loss a humorous twist in his poem “the Learning Curve.” Jenkins was 77 when he died in 2019.

This is “The Learning Curve,” Louis Jenkins
There are certain concepts that I only vaguely understand but that people talk about all the time. You frequently hear the term “learning curve,” for instance.
I suppose that refers to how one learns a new skill or gains knowledge over a period of time, described as an ascending arc from zero (knowing nothing) to ten, the zenith (knowing all there is to know about a thing).
Then comes the gradual descent, the arc of forgetting, back to zero. Then, feet firmly planted on the ground in the batting box of ignorance, the learning curve ball comes whistling past and slowly you come to understand that once again you are out.
Think back to geometry, algebra, trigonometry, calculus if you got that far. I know that more than a handful of you here were or are math teachers, but for everyone else: How much do you remember? I stopped taking math after one semester of calculus my first year in college. Even before my children were born, and possibly much earlier than that, I could not have told you what a differential equation was, much less how to solve it. At some point not too long ago I thought I might learn calculus during my retirement, which would mean, as best I can remember, starting with relearning algebra. It’s a strange idea, still vaguely appealing, but I have completely forgotten why I thought it was actually a good one, or that it was something I might actually carry out. Possibly I came up with it as a way to keep exercising my brain.

Learning Spanish might be a better project. And/or reviving my rusty French. I can tell by watching French detective shows (with English subtitles of course) that my French has not completely retired to the fishing village in the southern hemisphere of my brain. It might be retrievable.

So-called normal memory loss is frustrating - but most of those I know who are experiencing it take it with good humor most of the time. Some of us worry for ourselves about more consequential forgetting as we age. Many of us know or have known people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. some of them very close to us. Some of you knew and were fond of Eric Day, who with his wife Claire was a member of this congregation for several years. Eric died of Alzheimer’s recently. His memorial service is next Saturday at the UU church in Springfield.

Forgetting happens in different ways for different people. The classic picture of Alzheimer’s is of someone who remembers the people and events long past but eventually loses the ability to recognize even those closest to them in the present. My mother was a professor of history - with a speciality in English history. A good one. If one her children happened to, say, hear a pop song called “I’m ‘enery the 8th I am” and to ask casually at the supper table who Henry the 8th was, everyone needed to be buckle down for a long lecture, some of which, as I think about Henry, was actually quite interesting.

My mother lived to be 95. She was always a person who read widely and who kept up with local, national and world affairs. When she was in her early 80s she researched and gave a lecture series on the history of Afghanistan, which was not at all her field, to her local learning in retirement community.

But in her 90s she lost nearly all of what she had known, and along with it her ability to read. Her mind wouldn’t retain the first sentences of a paragraph long enough for her to be able to make sense of the rest of it. I remember the first time I noticed this. She was holding open a New Yorker, and it seemed to me she had spent a lot of time on the first page of whatever article she had turned to. I asked her what the article was about, and she looked at it dubiously. “I don’t know,” she said, “I haven’t really gotten too far yet.”

To the end, though, she recognized and remembered her family, and she remembered and could tell you about her friends, the lifelong ones and the ones my age or younger, many of whom she’d made when she joined our UU church after my grandfather died.

The scientific community has come to understand much more about forgetting in the past decade or so. Understanding that brings glimmers of hope that there may eventually be effective treatments for Alzheimers and other forms of dementia. It turns out that forgetting is not all bad. In 2021, the Columbia neurologist and neuroscientist Scott Small published a book called Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering.

In an interview he explained that, until recently, normal forgetting was seen a passive process that served no useful purpose. Then studies began to coalesce from numerous fields revealing that there are separate molecular ‘nano-machines’ within neurons—one for memory and the other for forgetting. The findings point to an active mechanism within the brain that helps clear out unnecessary pieces of information.

Maintaining everything we experience would interfere with access to new learning or ideas, and would actually overwhelm us. When we sleep our brains sort out which memories to keep and which to purge. Small says that our normal ability to forget helps us prioritize, think better, make decisions, and be more creative, and that this normal forgetting, in balance with memory, gives us the mental flexibility to grasp abstract concepts from a morass of stored information.

He also mentions that post-traumatic syndrome disorder (PTSD) is disease of too much memory, specifically emotional memory. He calls it a “brain on fire” disorder, in which key memory regions get flooded with signals that fire persistently. Conversely, he says “brain on ice” diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, are characterized by disrupted neuronal networks that gradually degrade over time, robbing people of their memories and rendering them numb.

Small suggests ways people can help let go of unhelpful memories that persist. He says, “One of the conclusions I came to is that the best way to deal with not just PTSD but any painful memory from burning too hot is to stay social, seek friendship and love, and engage with life. Social interaction appears to quell the part of the brain that stores too many emotional memories. Social interaction is a way to damp down the fire that can lead to rage, depression, and anxiety. That’s one of the reasons the absence of human contact was such concern during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Along with engaging in life, Small says, another path to helping the brain actively forget is to make a conscious decision to let go of resentments, grudges, and past disappointments. The more we dwell on a hurtful memory or ruminate over the events surrounding the memory, the stronger the neuronal connections around it become.

There is something, he says, “to the old saying ‘that we need to forget to forgive.’ Most marital strife comes from the inability to forget. A couples therapist he knew said, somewhat facetiously, that if someone could manufacture a drug that could hasten forgetting of slights and insults, they’d make a fortune!

I can’t help but speculate on the analogies between how the brain sorts experiences and the upsurge of book bans and attacks on any teaching that addressed the actual history of slavery and or systemic and institutional oppression based on race. I suspect that most of us here learned almost nothing about that history, or at best a sanitized version of it, as we went through school. The whole culture we grew up in, the mythology we imbibed, acted as a “nano-machine” to clear out those memories. And now there are powerful money-backed forces that want to restore that erasure function where, in their view, it has broken down.

If we forget, they reason, we maintain the status quo. And there is certainly no need for apology or forgiveness, or for making amends.

Forgiveness, a Bold Choice for a Peaceful Heart, was written by Robin Casarjain and published in 1992, well before any of this new information about forgetting was known.

Casarjian has taught that forgiving another person whose wrongs we have not forgotten is a decision to see beyond the limits of that individual’s personality. It is the decision to see beyond their idiosyncrasies and mistakes and to see a pure essence that has limitless potential and is always worthy of respect and love.

The author is not, as a far as I know, a Unitarian Universalist, but that sounds very much like our first principle to me: Decide to see the other, the one who has harmed you, as a pure essence that has limitless potential and is always worthy of respect and love.

She goes on:

“Forgiveness is an attitude that implies you are willing to accept responsibility for your perceptions, realizing that your perceptions are a choice and not an objective fact.”

This seems very close to what Scott Small also suggests: that one way to help the brain actively forget is to make a conscious decision to let go of resentments, grudges, and past disappointments.

Casarjian has devoted her career to teaching people how to put that conscious decision into practice, through meditation, visualization, telling someone else the story, and other techniques. For some, prayer can help. A spiritual director once taught me this prayer, one that’s actually useful in many situations: To pray, “God - or Gaia, Great Spirit, Spirit of Life, Source of All, Ashera - how do you feel about how I am feeling?” And then to sit in silence - and see what may emerge.

It is functional and healthy and possibly life-giving to be able to forget slights and insults, wherever we experience them. It is life-giving to work through some of the larger ones, with the help of a counselor or therapist, or on our own. It is possible to learn how to set aside some of the hurts we can’t forget and to dim down the reactivity in our own brains when a memory of how we have been hurt is triggered. And it is good to name all that forgiveness.

“Forgiveness,” Casarjian writes, “is a way of life that gradually transforms us from being … victims of our circumstances to being powerful and loving co-creators of our reality.”

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

Ask me what mistakes I have made and whether what I have done is my life.

Self-forgiveness might be our greatest challenge. Can you forgive your worst mistakes? The ones you can’t and won’t forget? The ones that have hurt or disappointed others, especially the people you love best? Maybe they stay in our minds because there is something left for us to do about them. Or maybe we are just being too hard on ourselves.

Rabbi Ruttenberg, in the book Repentance and Repair that many of you read this winter, suggests that forgiveness comes after thorough acknowledgment of the wrong done, after apology, and, where possible, after some kind of effort at repair. Self-forgiveness is also easier if we have taken those steps.

But there are times when apology isn’t possible, as when the person we feel we have harmed has died. Can we forgive ourselves? Some religious traditions have rituals - like the powerful ones observed during the Jewish New Year - that are helpful. Most of us have people who companion us in life and who can bear witness if we allow them to. We also have communities, like this one, of people who hold in common the faith that every person has worth and dignity, and that everyone is loved.

In the words of Gretchen Haley:
There is a quiet courage
in the choice to be present in this new day
to live for this hour, this moment
and to believe in its possibility -
to release the regrets,
to accept this gift
to believe that we are worthy still of happiness
of ease, of delight, of hope
and of abiding love