I remember the combination to a lock—13 right, 27 left, 5 right—that rusted beyond use some years ago. How many years? I don’t remember. But I remember this: it was two locks ago.
I remember the name of the city in which I was born. I remember the name of my elementary school. Turns out that this information is useful beyond merely contributing to my still unfolding (fortunately) personal story. City in which I was born, name of my elementary school: answers to a website’s security questions.
I remember Shabbat dinner at the Jerusalem home of Edna and her husband and their son, who was home for the weekend during his mandatory period of service in the Israeli Defense Forces.
I remember the day when Edna and I, after having not seen each other for decades, met each other again.
About ten years ago, I arrived for my third summer as writer-in-residence at the Brandeis Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, California. That year, I taught only for the second of two four-week sessions in a program in which Jews, ages eighteen to twenty-six, from around the world explored Jewish identity through, in part, the arts. I was joining a visual artist, a dancer, an actor, and a musician who also served as the program’s arts director.
When I arrived at the Institute, a meeting of the arts faculty was already underway. Because of a conflict, the particulars of which I don’t recall, between the dancer and the actor, the room was tense. An abundance of talent, strong personalities, and stubbornness around that table. My arrival gave them an opportunity to pause their argument. Of the four continuing faculty members, there was only one I didn’t know, the visual artist. She told me her name, I told her mine, and the meeting resumed.
After the meeting, the director of the arts program, my dear friend and mentor, approached me with a broad smile.
Do you remember her, the visual artist, he asked?
No, I replied.
You two were lovers in Jerusalem!
I was taken aback. I thought for a moment. Late summer, 1979? There was a woman. She imported colorful T-shirts and sold them around the holy city. The vegetable bin in her refrigerator was stuffed with fresh greens. These details I remembered. But I didn’t remember her face or name.
What sticks, what doesn’t stick?
Judaism (maybe other religions, too) is based on this: we forget. We will forget. Why else the first utterance:
Remember me? I am Y-H-V-H your God. I’m the One who brought you out of Mitzrayim (Egypt), out of the house of bondage.
If you didn’t notice that the first commandment is as much a reminder as it is a declaration, then the fourth commandment is there to state the theme explicitly: Zakhor, remember, it begins.
I’m doing phrase practice this morning. My intention is to direct, rest, and sustain my attention on a phrase: There is nothing but God, eyn od milvado, repeating it internally again and again.
Suddenly, I discover that I’m planning an event, a writers’ festival, I’m thinking about contracts that need to be finalized, funding that still needs to be secured. When I realize that my attention has wandered, I remember my intention. Without memory, I’d remain lost.
Fortunately, I remember and return my attention to the phrase, there is nothing but God. How many times do I repeat this process—focus, drift, remember, return my attention to the object of concentration—over the course of a thirty-minute meditation: three times? Thirty? More?
Some day, I’ll try to count. That would be a good practice.
Forgetting: It’s inevitable. It’s biological. Is it also a betrayal? A falling from the spiritual path?
Remember and return. Remember, return.
My personal dead: Nana Sarah, Nana Jean, Pop Pop, Aunt Cis, Uncle Gene, Uncle Mort, Uncle Al, Cousin Connie. As I say each name now, it burns bright like a candle, a yahrzeit candle.
My cultural dead: Tim Buckley, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Franz Wright.
My public dead: Rev. Clementa Pinckney, senior pastor at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina; David Gilkey, NPR photographer, southern Afghanistan; Edward Sotomayor, Jr., Pulse nightclub, Orlando, Florida. Recalled at this moment, the names burn like candles.
Yahrzeit candle: a memorial candle. We remember to light it on the anniversary of a death. A twenty-four-hour candle, it reminds us, throughout the day, to remember the dead. Does it remember, as it burns, the dead, too? It burns down, it burns out, like, finally, memory itself.
She won’t be forgotten, we say. You won’t be forgotten, we say. I will never forget you, we say sincerely. These promises: they will be broken. We know they will be broken, if not tomorrow then ten years from now, if not ten years from now then a hundred, if not a hundred then a thousand.
If we know they will be broken, why do we make them? Because we’ve lost too much already, and we can’t bear losing any more? Because we are afraid that as we forget, we will be forgotten?
My fingers rest on a keyboard. They remember Qwerty. They type.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Richard Chess
Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.
Image above by Anna Fruen, used under a Creative Commons license.