Finding the Meaning in the Present Moment
Memory is able to bring back a scene full blown with colors and textures and voices. The smallest article from the scene is enough to create the whole again, as if we were watching a movie with special effects where an entire city emerges out of nothingness. The scene is, however, silent in our mind’s eye.
The poet Archibald MacLeish wrote in his book Poetry and Experience, “Poetry is a labor which undertakes to ‘know’ the world not by exegesis or demonstration of proofs but directly, as a man knows apple in his mouth.” This knowledge can unfold in retrospect as well as in the present: the taste of an apple can bring back a whole picture from your memory.
Consider the lowly soup cracker. No, consider a specific soup cracker (all memory is specific and detailed) that is called an OTC, and that stands for “Original Trenton Cracker” from the factory that made them in Trenton New Jersey. They are hard to find in New Mexico but they remain readily available on the East Coast. Every time I’m there I want to buy some bags and bring them back with me.
So what’s up with the OTC? That soup cracker brings back an entire experience. On Friday nights in Fall and Winter my mother would host her bridge club at our house in Philadelphia. My father and I, the only son left at home, would abandon the premises to her group and go to a small restaurant on Rising Sun Avenue that specialized in sea food. I’d get an oyster stew every time, and on the table were bowls of OTCs that you could coat with horseradish and eat before the meal to pique your appetite. The entire scene blossoms in my head as I recall it. I know you have scenes like this in your memory as well.
Often the most important things we have experienced in life are shrouded in memory and it takes but a nudge to make them explode into consciousness once again. More important than just the picture, however, is the feeling that goes with it. Special times with relatives and friends live on in consciousness albeit buried below the surface. When triggered, they pop up again to put a smile on your face and bring a sense of warmth and wholeness to your psyche.
The reason holidays don’t fulfill our expectations, occasionally or often, is because they usually recede behind the idealized memories we make of past times. If you had the best Christmas you can ever remember when you were ten years old it is hard to set the memory aside and revel in the present experience. In fact it only gets bigger and better with age. But here’s the problem.
This is not memory; this is nostalgia, that wistful yearning for a past time that in fact never existed quite as we recall it. The oyster stew could be ruined by arguments my father and I would have about my teenaged behavior, or if we were carrying outside issues we couldn’t let go to be present with each other.
So yes recall the great days of singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” or the year you got that special doll or chemistry set, but remember that the present is ultimately all we have. This moment is real time. The present is our present, our gift. Memory can bring good feelings about what we deem golden times, but we cannot afford to let it rob us of the present moment…because this moment is the one in which we find that Presence which fills life with meaning.