Memory, History, Story
Just lately I’ve been spending a lot of time with story. One of the ways I’ve promised to take care of myself (a promise made both to myself and to my therapist!) is to make sure I partake of fiction. There is an awfully lot of reading required to be a Unitarian Universalist Minister! In addition to school work, there is also a substantial reading list that the Ministerial Fellowship Committee expects those interviewing for fellowship to be conversant with. In short, I could easily spend the next…any number of years reading material only for my personal and professional moral, ethical, and intellectual development.
“Promise me,” my therapist said, “that you will consume some fiction.”
“I swear,” I replied.
And for the most part I have remained true to this promise. I have the great good fortune of being a part of a book club that has existed for over eighteen years, and this means I am always reading something that is not for school.
But reading is only one way to consume stories, so I’m also actively working on making sure I do occasionally use that Netflix subscription. And sometimes, I even go to movies in the theater! It’s rare, but it happens.
Last week I was able to see Tolkien, the recent biographical film made about J.R.R. Tolkien. I can hear what you’re saying – a biography isn’t fiction! True enough. However, a story about a master crafter of stories seemed to be both an escape from my own world, an enlightening entertainment, and an engine of empathy creation.
It also connected me deeply to my own past. My father was a fan of Tolkien’s work from nearly the very start. While his first novel, The Hobbit, was published two years before my father’s birth in 1939, his massive fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings was published just before my father went to college. He got the books from the library, fell in love with them, and thus did Tolkien’s grand tale also enter into my family’s story…its history and its memory.
It’s said that while human memory develops rapidly in the first years of life, it is not until the human brain develops an understanding of narrative structure and sequence that we can relate our memories to one another, and build upon them. We write our history by calling upon our memory to provide us with the details of the past – details that are forever encoded in the language of story. We create our lives, our memories, our sense of self by creating stories.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s story isn’t my story, nor is my father’s. But as we build up the house of our own memory, we look for models of what to enshrine there. Tolkien was brought to story by his love of language; he was brought to fantasy by tales told by his mother and by his own horrifying experiences in the First World War. My father crafted the story of his own life in oppositional relation to his own father’s story; this fraught tale made the space inside Tolkien’s fantasy an appealing refuge.
As I sat watching the film, making a beautiful if somewhat chronologically creative portrait of Tolkien’s life, I could not help but think of the mythology in my own family. When I got back to my house, I did a little research. In 1971, my family traveled to England – my mother and father, my older brother, and my mother’s mother. The trip was in June. In March of that year, my father wrote to Professor Tolkien at his publisher’s address in London. He hoped to learn that Tolkien still held office hours at Oxford, or might possibly be accessible in some way. He received a brief airmail response, obviously a form letter, typed, signed by someone who was almost certainly not John Ronald Reuel Tolkien – expressing regret that he would not be available. “Busy at work on a new book,” said the brief note, which is likely true in some form – by all evidence we have, Tolkien worked on his fiction and his fictional world until the day of his death. That tiny scrap of paper has been tucked into my father’s copy of The Fellowship of the Ring since that time, and since my father’s death nearly a decade ago those books have come to me. Inside that volume is also a newspaper clipping from Tolkien’s 80th birthday in 1972, two months before I was born. There is also a Book of the Month Club advertisement for Tolkien’s trilogy – the copies I now own. The careful reader could do some math to find out how very significant my family’s trip to England was to my own personal history…
But outside the dates, there is the memory. And with the memory, we create the story of our history. What shaped us, formed us, even that which was forged in fire and pain. Tolkien might never have written those books were it not for the pain of losing both his parents by the time he was 12, and certainly not without the pain of losing a number of his closest friends in the trenches of France. My father might never have found the refuge of Tolkien’s story – and his desire to share it with me – without the challenges he faced in his own home, with his own father’s battle with addiction. Out of pain, within our memory, we can think of history…can craft a story that can bring joy, uplift, sorrow, sweetness.
There are no perfect stories. Memory is faulty and history incomplete. But there is a beauty and value in living inside the realities created by others. Beloveds, as we enter this season of summer, I’ll ask you to consider just what my therapist asked me – find yourself a fiction. Learn about a world and an experience entirely outside your own. Find authors from different cultures, stories from different wheres (and whens) and explore all we can dream together when we inhabit one another’s stories.
May it ever be.