My mother takes a thousand photos, many of them unremarkable as art. But art is not, I am pretty sure, why she does it. She does it because she is attempting to hold a memory, to make a moment stay longer than it otherwise would. This I fully understand. And how I have longed to hold so many moments.
We are now back in Jamaica after our time in Australia for Christmas. I hadn’t been back to Australia for five years and every day while we were there I found myself longing to breathe extra hours into every day, longing to hold each moment and hoard each minute in my grasp. I wanted so much to make it all stay, never to end.
I look at my daughter who is now just ten. So quickly the years between her birth and this tenth birthday washed away. She, like her grandmother also tries to hold her moments and hoard her memories. She never wants to throw away her old clothes and she keeps mementos of moments in a ‘treasure box’ under her bed.
Perhaps this is because she comes from a long line of memory hoarders and moment holders. It did not skip a generation between my mother and my daughter. My box is not under my bed but in my mind. I grasp and grab grappling to make the moments stay, pinning them to my memory, hoping the thumb tacks will forever hold.
But we all have the same problem we memory hoarders and moment holders; river water can’t be held. It flows on through our fingers beyond our grasp. Time rolls on, life rolls onwards out to the sea and where we have tried to hold we find ourselves left with empty handed longing.
As I look at life I see one long rushing river. Things that I thought would last forever have washed away on the white water foam, and other things, more unexpected, stay, caught on a rock or held in a reedy river bank, changing the shape and course of the river itself. These are memories or truths that enfold and form us, truths that we have learned along the way. Truths that then become foundations for all our other white water days.
And there is one truth which of late has helped me make sense of all my moments. One truth in two parts, learned in a conversation with two writers; an ancient poet and a prisoner of war.
Early in our time in Australia I stumbled into the wisdom of Moses in the psalms (yes, I was surprised to find him there too!) and found him teaching me how to see. How to be here and now and not miss a moment.
‘Teach us to number our days aright’ he said ‘that we might gain a heart of Wisdom’ (Psalm 90:12)
To number our days is to count each moment, not let one go missing. We humans don’t get to hold the moments, the best we can do is be present within them. And that is not a habit or assumption in my life, for there are many moments I have missed and many days I have little memory of, days that washed passed my eye balls when I was somewhere else, somewhere being busy, driven and distracted.
Moments are a gift, but a gift must be received in presence; Presence of mind, heart and pushing back all else that would distract. We receive the gift of this moment when we are present within it.
Grasping has two meanings, grasping in the sense of holding or clinging, and grasping in the sense of seeing and understanding; Holding in the heart and mind. I cannot hold the moment by clinging and grabbing, but I can hold it through seeing it and understanding it’s value, holding it not in my hands but in my heart. Without the choice to hold, see and value each moment in the heart it is so easy to get dragged along in the driven drowning current of life, so busy treading water that we cannot see, cannot hear, cannot feel the moment all around us. Seeing anything at all begins with choosing how to see. Drivenness and rush only ever blur and blot. I have my share of blurry, blotchy moments I confess. But they are hard to remember.
But there is a second whispering truth wound up in all this learning how to see.
A prisoner in a Nazi Concentration camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer named this secret years ago when he wrote, ’Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy’.
Remarkable words to be spoken from a prisoner of war camp, stunning words from a man who would be executed under Nazi Germany. How is gratitude possible when suffering surrounds? Not all moments are moments we want to remember. And yet it seems, thankfulness is somehow part of the road back to resilience, gratitude somehow connected with healing. Healing from the pain of past hurt, and healing for the loss of what was.
Good moments passing can bring sadness if all that is felt is the loss of the moment passing, the river water unstopped, un-held, un-contained by my grasping fingers. But Gratitude does something in a moment and to a memory. Thankfulness frames a moment in gold and magnifies its beauty. Nathaniel Willis recognised this too when when he said ‘Gratitude is not only the memory but the homage of the heart rendered to God for his goodness’.
Thankfulness holds a moment like nothing else can. It names the moment worthy of joy and appreciation, focusing it in our mind as something to celebrate. I am thankful for all the memory-forming- moments that have become part of who I am.
I remember my daughters first cries, her first wobbly steps, the last time she used her bottle, the first time she rode her bike… all the firsts and the lasts of a young life. I remember just last year her cooking by herself for the first time…her thin little fingers holding the knife nervously, awkwardly, her muscles tightening with every chop. I was disciplining myself to hold back, to let her try, adding pointers from a distance without swooping in to save (much harder than it looks). I remember she called in thrilled voice over her shoulder to David, my husband “daddy look, I’m cooking!”.
I remember my sons small feet when he was first born, I remember the look in his eyes when he is pleased with his drawings. I remember him full of earnest energy waving his sparkler at Christmas time. So full of life.
And now, half a world away I miss my family in Australia, but I know I did not miss the moments with them. They are woven into the river bed of who I am with thankfulness. Framed in gold.
So I remember, the sound of Lilly giggling, dancing with Zoe and Olly, I remember the sight of Poppy, Izzy and Aunty Jill waving from the Chalet steps, I remember the slow cups of tea with my mum and the sun setting slow over the river and Mount Direction. I remember the taste of Mema’s relish and the fruit cake and coffee chats with Aunty Anne, I remember my parents walking arm in arm from the beach. I remember my children’s glee at meeting wallabies and kangaroos for the first time, I remember my brothers silly jokes, and my husband David reading Lord of the Rings with all the voices in the evenings .
All these memories and so many more, not framed in sadness for the passing, but in the gold of gratitude for the gift of what they were.
My mother takes a thousand photos and every precious memory we hold is worth I think, a frame of gold.