To remember is perhaps the simplest of human ways to honor, in the sense of bowing one’s head and heart in love and appreciation. I have spent the first half of my life, bird-like, flitting from moment to moment, giving and receiving the tribute of song and joy in the present; remembering didn’t really interest me much. I styled myself a person who was poor at memorization, an attitude entirely supported by my dominant culture, which sails on the high seas of information overload using the tools of literacy and other methods of recording. Why memorize, when the information can be easily accessed at a moment’s notice, increasingly so?
Recently, my aversion to memorization has flipped, as sometimes providentially happens, into an infatuation. Perhaps it has been brewing for a spell; I’ve been struck many times, as I light my house fire, by wise lines from a prayer to Brigid, Celtic goddess of the hearth, written by Caitlin Matthews.
Keeper of the Hearth, kindle us,
Beneath your mantle, gather us
And restore us to memory.
That last line has haunted me over the years. I sure liked the idea of Brigid’s protective mantle, but my mind could only grasp “restore us to memory” as pertaining to my personal memory, my story of “what happened to me” in the past. Yet my heart had something else to say about this, as it responded with a great ineffable pull towards something bigger than that self-centered narrative. The use of the pronoun “us” helped me peek out of my shell, snuggling in next to others, past and present, known and unmet, beneath this great ethereal mantle of Brigid’s which could expand to include all. It brought up a vision I had during my spiritual emergency summer, when I saw a great linen-clothed giantess on a road I knew was somewhere in Ireland. She sat on a big granite boulder, and her image was slowly disappearing, molecule by molecule, into oblivion.
I asked the woman, whom I understood to be a goddess, why she was there. She said that, for centuries, people had come to the crossroads to converse, to obtain counsel and blessings, to offer to her love in its many forms of milk and honey, stone and cloth, story and song and prayer. As I watched, a few folks passed by, oblivious to her presence. “See? They have no use for me now. They do not remember me, though once all who passed bowed and spoke”, she sadly said, her body streaming off into the ethereal breezes that held her image on the great stone by the road. I felt her loneliness and resignation, and as my tears flowed in grief, I made a vow to the goddess, which, perhaps, now comes to some deeper fruition. I vowed that I would not forget, and that I would strive to bring her memory back once more to the land. As the sun set, I sat in silence, watching her disappear, midwife to a ghostly passing only I could see.
This memory, of itself, points to the sense, not only of the deep, multi-layered eternality that lurks behind the more easily accessed faces of memory, but also to its function in the sense of homage or veneration, a word which comes from the Latin honoring of the goddess of loveliness, Venus. In those hours of sitting with the dissolving goddess, I experienced a deep tie between memory and honoring, between memory and veneration, and that tie was, indeed, woven of love and its feeling aspect.
Having held on to my own shallow relationship with memory for so long, I recently decided to memorize song lyrics, something I had done sporadically and minimally years ago. Determined to resurrect my cracked and aging singing voice, I found myself irritated by depending on my literacy to do so. It felt like a codependent relationship. My eyes unnecessarily drew my energy outward onto the page, when what I wanted, as I sang, was to remember, to honor the depth and beauty that had originally inspired me to choose this song, a thing impossible to render in black scratches on paper. I hesitated to desert my dear friend, the printed word, still identifying with my old self-concept as lacking in memory skills. As so often happens, one of my sons encouraged me; a budding musician with hours of songs at his beck and call, he insisted there was nothing to it but dedication. I quickly surprised myself into confirming his assessment. I soon began challenging myself with longer songs, then songs complicated with verse after verse of dense poetic imagery; no stopping me now!
And I have indeed found a deeper experience in my singing. As the strength in my voice began to return, I heard a new depth to it, something, I mused, perhaps I alone would hear. But if that be so, all was still well; along with my improved ability to voice, I realized that I was, through embodying the songs more fully, becoming a better listener — of the birds, of my loved ones, of my own soul. Is this deeper listening one of memory’s blessings which Caitlin Matthews referred to; is this more of holy Brigid’s blessing?
I have long been aware of the fact that listening is, archetypally speaking, a feminine sense when compared to the act of seeing, which is more masculine. I read a few good points in support of that theory several days ago, in a book on “voice-hearers”, or folks who entertain auditory hallucinations. Briefly, seeing is separating and outward, with its skill of relaying to us information concerning the world’s endless boundaries and containers, where one thing begins and another ends, and the art of splitting a thing into its constituents. The eyes discern that which is outside of one, and it is easier to control their movement and to close them entirely. On the other hand, sound must actually enter into the body, as male enters female during sexual intercourse. The ear is a receiver; the eye is a projector. It is hard for me to conceive of deep seeing; yet I bet you wouldn’t have trouble understanding that I have developed, over time, the ability to listen to words on increasingly deeper levels. Several skills are involved, but among them is that of absorbing not just the words, but the underlying melody and rythm of deeper emotion and feeling. Perhaps most important, and anathema to my culture’s compulsive busyness, is the necessity for me to honor the sounds with enough time in silence for them to seep into my own memory, my own lived experience, and set down roots, to tessellate and grow.
The word “memory” comes, of course, from the Greek mother of the Muses, the Titan Mnemosyne. Like Brigid, she is the patroness of artists, and particularly poets and writers; she invented word and language. Culture was, of course, once orally transmitted, before printing and literacy were widespread. Poets, musicians, and storytellers all relied on memory, on Mnemosyne. In a broader sense, I think much of my recent embodiment of memory has much to do with my new profession of writer and poet, of storyteller. Memory is the deep well from which my art draws its inspiration; Brigid has blessed many a well.
Caitlin Matthews’ prayer-poem captures the elements of fire and memory together. I have often explored the pairing myself, realizing that staring into a fire opens some inner door to memory, to story and storytelling. What is the connection between these two? In my own experience, fire-gazing echoes deep within my experience as human being, a long memory thread leading to ancestors of primal prehistory. Brigid is goddess of the eternal flame, as was Hestia in the Greek, and Vesta in the Roman pantheon. Guarding and tending the flame with constancy is a commitment, reminiscent of my commitment to the vision-goddess I spoke with. Likewise, the poet who memorizes song and epic commits- to memory, to this wedding of body and emotion, word and spirit, which fire helps me to enter. Gazing at hissing and sparking logs in the fireplace, I’ve often thought, too, of the great arboreal memory-keeper that a tree is, these deep-rooted Titans, oldest growing Being on the planet, concentric heart-rings marking time through the seasons. Does the tree somehow speak its storytelling legacy as earthly memory- keeper into our souls, along with its life-sheltering heat, while we hearth-sitters follow hypnotic bright tongues of flame?
Brigid is also said to be the original mourner, the original keener. This ancient method of embodied grieving, often women’s art, involves storytelling: genealogy, events from the deceased’s life, praise for the deceased. As a communal event, it is an emotional, auditory drama which honors the best in a person’s legacy, acknowledging publicly the importance of that commitment we often take for granted; the living of a life. How much of this keening and storytelling lives on, to be repeated around a winter’s fire, depends on who commits it to memory. Though my culture has lost some of this oral memorializing, the bereaved are even now naturally inclined towards such honoring; folks struggle against memory loss of the face, the voice, the touch, of loved ones passed on. Is it in our natures to spend hearth-close winter nights in conversation with the deep memory of what we loved, as fallen trees chatter before us on the grate?
It seems to me now that I experience nothing outside of memory; could that be one explanation for the encompassing aspect of Brigid’s mantle? Science has found that memory is always a creative act, never static; from some cosmic source, we magically pluck and recombine what we’ve seen, thought, felt, heard, and done, in an evolving creative tapestry, as befits the planet’s meaning-makers. Much of what I write is actually a dredging up; of deeper, embodied experience, of ancient ways of knowing and prayer and being in the world. Those older heart-rings of memory, both personal and collective, I then patch and sew onto the canvas of the written word and computer screens. Beyond conscious re-collection lies yet another remembering, the remembering of who we were before we came to this world. Brigid’s ancient flame in Kildare, banned by churchmen, was relit in 1996; are we perhaps being returned to memory- of the Goddess who asks us to remember Her in the deepest parts of ourselves and of the world, and Her ancient embodied ways of knowing? Brigid’s flame honors our memory of Her, which invites lifelong, bone-deep explorations. Mature, deep memory is in spiraling conversation with increasing strength and honor in our storytelling, as well as in the living of our stories. May many more be called to find adventure and wisdom’s well beneath Her blessed mantle.
[Colleen Szabo returned to school after raising a family in the northern New Mexico hinterlands, ending with a Master’s in Transpersonal Psychology. She is hunkered down by a lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula now, writing essays and poetry, working on a book on spiritual emergency, learning Chinese characters, and loving the Earth. website: colleenszabo.com]
Janet Wagner said:
Beautiful! Lots for me to reflect on here. We are led to believe that “new is better,” and “don’t live in the past.”