Friday, August 26, 2011

Shells and Stars

What's the first thing you remember? I mean, really remember? It's hard to pinpoint, right?

Most early memories are more like photographs of memory. It's something somebody told you once or you may have seen in an old picture that you're sure must have happened, but it's all a bit foggy or dreamlike. I remember riding a miniature train on the top of a skyscraper in Seoul, Korea with my cousin Debbie when I was two, but I don't really. I just remember it because I've heard the story told often enough. I remember how obsessed I was with my Tigger stuffed animal, but again - just hearsay, just something I've picked up from looking at handfuls of photographs with that little plush toy constantly at my side.

What I think of as my "first memory" is different from those. It's different in a way that has me convinced that it is real. Once you hear it, you may choose to believe or disbelieve as you will, but I think this is as close as I will ever get to my first actual memory.

First I will tell you what I don't remember. We were at a shore of some kind, but I don't remember if it was a lake or an ocean. Apparently back then we did visit a cabin by a lake with my Oma. There are pictures of us kids in a boat fishing. It could have been there. But I suspect it might be an ocean, because of something you'll see in a moment. I don't remember who was there, though I'm sure my parents were, and my older brother Zach must have been. I had found a seashell. I think it was a seashell, maybe a pebble. I'm not sure. I wanted to bring it home with me, to keep it. It was beautiful. I remember being in awe of how beautiful it was and wanting to keep it, to have it. One of my parents - again, I don't remember who - told me I had to leave it. I don't remember exact words, but I remember there was the sentiment that I should leave it because it wasn't important, that in a little while I wouldn't even remember it anymore. And it's true. Even now as I write this I have no idea what it looked like. I can't even recall exactly what it was.

This is what I remember: I left the shell, or pebble, or whatever it was, but I said over and over to myself, "I will remember. I will remember it. It is beautiful and wonderful and I want it so much, and so no matter what I will remember it. I will remember it." And decades later that's all that remains: not the memory itself, but the want, the desperate hope to somehow preserve this thing I loved. In trying so hard to remember, I lost it. Like grasping fistfuls of sand, only to have it spill out through the cracks of your fingers.

Is this the human condition? The desperate struggle to remember and be remembered, the idea that we can somehow be preserved, that all the things that were precious to us, the beautiful and important things in this world, will somehow last ? The attempt to make an eternal impact with brief and temporary lives?

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of the death of a girl named Esther Earl. She would have been seventeen had she lived to see today. Those who knew her and many who, like me, only really knew of her, wear wristbands that say "This star won't go out," a phrase based upon her name's meaning, "star." The idea is that as long as we are alive, the memory of her life and all the things that were important to her will live on.

All this talk of stars reminds me of another star. In Tolkien's Return of the King, the final book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, hobbits Sam and Frodo find themselves following the untrustworthy guide Smeagol into the bowels of Mordor, the land of gloom and despair that is home to the only means of possibly saving their entire world. It's constantly dark. They're weary, everything seems hopeless. It's a huge gamble they're taking, and they're almost guaranteed to fail. And if they do, everything and everyone they've ever loved will be lost to this terrible force of darkness, pain and destruction. Frodo has fallen asleep and Smeagol is off somewhere else, leaving Sam as the only one awake to keep watch. The land is full of sly creaking and cracking noises. All is black. Then suddenly - a break in the clouds! And this is where my words won't do... I have to quote for the full effect: "There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach."

I like to think our lives are shells, but that they could be stars. They're these things we grasp at and love so very fiercely and try to wring as much meaning out of as we can, but in the end we have to leave them behind. But if we're lucky, Esther's wristbands aren't a lie. If we're lucky, Sam's star isn't a lie. If we're lucky, the lives we lead mean something, something huge and untouchable, something deep, something eternal. At the very least they're light in the darkness, hope for someone somewhere, a reminder, a comfort. By the time that light reaches someone else, the star it came from may very well be dead - for yes, even stars fade. But what they inspire lives on.

I don't know what I'll remember or how I will be remembered, but I grasp at shells and hope for stars and life flickers in between.

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