To practice memorization without cultivating a culture of memory is like planting a rosebush in sand. All the water in the world will not bring it to flourishing, for the soil in which it’s planted simply cannot sustain it.
“Memory is the cabinet of imagination, the treasury of reason, the registry of conscience, the counsel-chamber of thought”: these words, quoted at last month’s CiRCE conference, have continued to percolate in my reflections on what I heard there, helping to rehabilitate the very word “memory” from its eroded modern definition—the mere storing of information, accomplished as efficiently by an external hard drive as by a human mind. Running straight through the conference was the insistence that human memory is so much more.
The pictures in my mother’s scrapbook testify that, like most little girls I’ve met, my sisters and I wore dress-up clothes more often than not for our first five or so years of life. The magic of the dress-up box, and of the girlish imaginations that transformed its contents into anything from the richest regal robes to the poorest paupers’ rags, sustained our liveliest play and solemnest pretending for a long season.
Once upon a time, there was a land in of pure and perfect proportion. Unlike our cities, in which highways and buildings and rivers and trees often tumble over one another in unsightly haphazardom, this land boasted hill folding into hill, building rising from building, and streets and rivers flowing in elegant curves, wherever the eye could see. But, strangely, this graceful land lacked any trace of color, sound, or scent; no music, no laughter, no gardens, no paintings, no feasts filled its symmetric architecture. Would such a land be habitable?
A poem by seventeenth-century poet Henry Vaughn begins with the line, “I saw Eternity the other night.” It’s a lovely turn of phrase for the way it marries the enduring, the universal, the ideal—“I saw Eternity”—with the passing, the particular, the earthly: “the other night.” Does this not capture a fleeting experience of epiphany that catches us all, one time or another—a sudden tearing of the curtain to glimpse the glory that was there concealed all along?
On our last day of school, I read the following letter aloud to my class of seniors, for whom it was written.
When Darcy appears, girls swoon; and when Jane Austen speaks, they listen. Countless TV adaptations and spin-offs have helped establish her as an authority on all things love and romance, even (or especially) amongst teenage females—an astonishing feat for an eighteenth-century spinster in the age of Gilmore Girls.
But, while many count Austen an authority on relationships, few view her as an apologist for classical education. Yet this she indeed is—albeit with her quintessential subtlety and wit.
Amidst the whirling weeks of the year, Good Friday dawns and demands attention. Christ’s words—“do this in remembrance of Me”—ring still in our ears from their reading Maundy Thursday, and we feel the struggle of slowing to remember anything when days are packed so full and pass so swiftly; even the long discipline of Lent may not have fully quieted our hearts. We want to remember, we long to grieve so that we may rejoice come Sunday—but how?
Once upon a time, when I was a little girl taking piano lessons, I noticed it was “cool” for the older students, after delivering an impressive performance of a Beethoven sonata or Rachmaninoff concerto, to rise with an air of lazy nonchalance, saunter back to their seats, and casually mutter, “Only got to practice two hours this whole week.”
Growing up, I’ve always lived in new-built homes. First, and foggy in my memory, was a land-hugging white wooden ranch with a red front door, and a swing-set in the backyard whose ominous height prompted its nickname “The Gallows.” Later came another white wood house, this one with two stories, green shutters, and a storybookish stone fireplace warming the center of the home. Most enduring was the Georgian red brick overhung with live oaks and gray moss, whose double doors made a little girl think she was entering church.