As regular readers of this column will know by now, words including their meanings and histories are particularly significant to me. I guess on reflection that there are two main reasons for this: first, I have always loved reading literature, and this causes me to linger over words and phrases as others might ponder sounds, pictures or places; second, as part of life at Mill Grove, listening to what people might mean by what they say is a daily challenge and art. Years of supervision by a consultant psychotherapist have taught me to listen more carefully to the layers of meaning, allusion, projection, cross-referencing in what I am hearing.So you can imagine what a wonderful surprise it was to discover rich new meaning in a word that has been an old friend. To give credit where credit is due, I owe the discovery to the remarkable minister, theologian and writer, Kenneth Leech, who was so committed throughout his life to the poor and vulnerable in his parish, St Botolph’s in the East End of London.
The word, as you can see from the title of this article is ‘remember’. It’s part of the most basic vocabulary of young and old. So what could I possibly have missed? Ken Leech pointed out that the word literally means to ‘re-member’: that is, to put together again. Instantly I saw it, and wondered how I could have overlooked such an obvious meaning so completely. It is as if parts (that is ‘members’) of a body have become separated or detached, and the process of remembering provides a way of putting them back together.
If you knew this already it might be wise at this point to go to another article in the Webmag, but others might like to follow how this insight began to seep into my consciousness and practice. Life-stories are acknowledged as vital in the well-being and development of children who have suffered trauma and separation. The process of recalling episodes, people and events from the past is one by which the pieces can be put together, perhaps in a rudimentary and temporary way, but connected nevertheless.
Rituals whether daily, weekly or yearly (including mealtimes, birthdays, regular visits to places or events, and so on) provide opportunities for remembering the past: indeed, some rituals set out deliberately to recall and celebrate the past. And in this way they can be part of the process of putting pieces together (whether again, or for the very first time). The shaft of light that shone into my world as I realised this helped me to see that the act and process of remembering was not just about the past: nostalgic perhaps, and an escape from the present. It was a way of creating something new in the present, and building, if you like, for the future.
Put another way, without the process of re-membering there can be no healing of past hurts and pain: no forgiveness or reconciliation. Without retreating in a defensive way into the past as a way of evading or escaping the challenges of the present, or the future, re-membering can be a way of preventing the evasion some attempt (albeit unconsciously) by immersing themselves completely in the present. To be trapped completely in a succession of present moments and experiences without pausing to reflect is to be in a sort of substitute womb: safe perhaps, but not a place of discovery and exploration.
What re-membering, at its most healthy, makes possible is creative regression that draws from the past in order to facilitate more constructive engagement with the present. Now, as I listen afresh to what youngsters and older people tell me in the context of my life at Mill Grove, I am more aware of the way in which memories are being re-arranged in order to shape a fresh understanding of identity, relationships, belonging and purpose.
Here is an example of what I mean. Every year we have an event at Mill Grove which has come to be called ‘Our Day’. Lots of those who used to live here during their childhoods return, and there are friends of the family whose links go back through the decades and generations. One who was with us this year was a minister who lived here as a boy during the 1950s. We had invited him to bring us a brief message drawn from the Bible. He did so, and for many of us, this message will live long in our memories.
After the event he wrote to me in this way:
“It is an experience unlike any other in life for me to return to Mill Grove. So many childhood memories come flooding back and the on-going process of evaluating the significance of those years in my life and the consequences for my family is brought into sharp focus again. As the years go by I appreciate more and more the gift that God gave to me through the loving care, the faithful teaching and the example of your family and the staff. I will be ever grateful for that.
“I have to confess that those far off days were confusing and disorienting for me as child and in the past I have been as much aware of the losses as of the gains of being removed from what was left of my family and friends at the age of ten. However, the passage of time has given me the opportunity to savour…what [has been] a life-giving, life-shaping gift…”
This reflection does not need interpretation from me: he had come back to the place in which he lived as a boy (where we were contemporaries) and in this place he met with others who had lived here with him. The event and the conversations unlocked memories. As a result, the person he now is, and how he understands himself in the light of the past, is being recreated, re-membered.
How often and how creatively do we make space for such re-membering in contemporary society, I wonder? And how do we do it for those who have suffered separation and loss? No doubt it can be done to some extent online, but my hunch is that it requires place, space and face-to-face conversation with significant others.
As it happens we were celebrating the 111th year of Mill Grove, in the same place as it began: this means that the walls, furniture and furnishings, as well as the trees, continue to provide spurs to personal and corporate re-membering. Not, you understand, to escape the present, but to provide a context and setting where a process of healing, insight, and even putting-together can take place. While we are alive the story continues, and so does the potential for putting things together with more insight, wisdom and care.