What Survives?

Mindfulness must be a wonderful quality to be able to call upon at will. In my experience, it seems that being aware of my thoughts and emotions is the exception. Or at least, something I only notice after they have moved onto the viewing stand of the recent past.

Recently, I’ve been noticing that images from years ago show up every morning, like dogs at the sound of the can opener, while I am wiping the stove top and using it to store dishes I have just cleaned from the day before. But I can’t go much further than noticing that there is some kind of connection between particular memories and this regular early morning activity.

Perhaps it’s just that this is a time when my body is engaged in a series of activities so entrenched that my mind—not needed in anything but the most superficial way to carry them out—is free to roam. But why then do these memories include thoughts about a marriage that ended thirty years ago, since which time there has not been any contact between us?

Pondering this phenomenon, I sense that fragments from the past float around in my mind, even when there is no present context in which they can settle. They’re like leaves floating to the sea, but somehow the next day there they are again passing by on a river that never ceases flowing.

These morning memories feel like homeless wanderers which have no tasks to perform and no community to give them purpose. Seeing them in action helps me notice other vestiges from the past, some of which are more related to my present.

For instance, after 20 years during which the activities of “Friends in Time” gave me a focus and a sense of being connected to a larger community than my own cycling emotions and thoughts, it was a loss for both me and others when our organization abruptly disappeared. However, unlike when my earlier marriage went belly up, there remain a few meaningful ways in which skills, connections and interests that developed with “Friends in Time” continue to play a role in my life.

One of the living qualities that made the name “Friends in Time” well deserved was the matches that were formed between clients (with MS and ALS) and volunteers. Years later, “Friends in Time” continues with something of a half-life, in that several of these “matches” have survived the dissolution of the organizational structure within which they originally formed. I find this a heartening quality for our present world, where it seems that so much of the mutual human concern needed for society to survive, is dissolving before our eyes. I was especially struck recently when a “Friends in Time” volunteer asked me to help him get in touch with a lady to whom he had delivered a Christmas basket years before. And now a new “match” is thriving, like a phoenix risen from the ashes.

If there is a moral here, perhaps it’s that a good way to enjoy meaningful continuity in our lives—so that the past can provide roots for a deepening present and thereby allow new growth to reach toward the future—is to act as if there is harmony beneath all the chaos rushing past us. If we act as if nothing has really ended, we may find that what we most value is waiting patiently for us to sally forth, like Don Quixote, with a watering can and a basket to gather the fresh apples dangling from the branches of our lives.

4 comments to “What Survives?”
  1. Beautiful, thought provoking post Michael. Mindfulness is a wonderful state of being. I find it easiest to achieve during my yoga practice, but oh so difficult during the craziness of every day life. I keep trying though!

  2. Thanks, Loretta. It seems ironic that noticing the random–hardly mindful–passing of certain thoughts can help expose the conditioned nature of thinking itself. It feels similar to how noticing that leaves turn color in the autumn helps remind us that trees are living and changing throughout the year.

    Isn’t it interesting how just being alive gives us all these chances to fathom the why and how of it all?

  3. What is it about the capricious firing of nonlinear memory that offers continuity? “Here”, then “there”, non-sequential “before and after”. There does not appear to be a unifying, organizing tendency about memory that connects or stabilizes this moment to any previous moment.
    There is a story that tells that the chaotic snap shots of memory are being had by a continuous self. It is this belief in a continuous self that gives the memory stream its anchoring.
    Hayward Fox

  4. Could it be that belief in “harmony beneath all the chaos” is not the same as belief in a “continuous self”? The latter will always be self-protective: grasping after security and avoiding anything that seems to threaten our existence. But the former offers a way to relate to a generative power larger than the individual.

    As for memory snap shots, what I found noteworthy about the recurrent memory fragments I mentioned was that they seem unrelated to my current self. Your observation that it’s “this belief in a continuous self that gives the memory stream its anchoring” feels relevant and helpful. . . . Since those memory fragments seem to be disconnected from my sense of being a continuous self, they have no way to be anchored in the memory stream, and therefore, like ice cubes tossed into a warm current, they inevitably dissolve until the next time the recurring mental association tosses them in again . . .

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