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WRITE TEAM: The human power of memory

In a previous conversation with a couple of friends at the local coffee shop, we began to speak of some of our most treasured childhood memories — the enormous house we shared with friends and family at the end of the block, the father’s embarrassing fondness for breaking into song at family gatherings, the short-lived farmhouse encircled by multitudes of fireflies on hot August nights. Memory. It is, in many ways, what allows our lives to endure. It is part and parcel of what it means to be alive.

In the 1982 movie, “Blade Runner,” enslaved robots are humanized for better control by the implanting of human memory. In the Harry Potter mythology, it is the power of cherished memory that gives protection against dark forces, and guidance through the hills and valleys of one’s life. Memory, in short, is one of the most humanizing forces in our lives. The author Barry Lopez once wrote, “A writer’s responsibility isn’t to be wise. The storyteller’s responsibility is to remember what we are all prone to forget.” Here’s something I hope to always remember. Perhaps you’ll find some part of yourself in it, too.

As a young boy, I often walked to an undeveloped hectare of land that rested comfortably in the midst of our growing suburban town. The kids in the neighborhood called it “the plateau.” Its acres of low, dusty scrub were bordered on the west by the Northern Pacific Railroad and to the south by a deep gully that cradled at its bottom a shallow flow of water known as Stony Creek. We spent long hours walking the abandoned brush, flipping over discarded plywood sheets in search of well-concealed garter snakes. I remember one specific morning, uncovering an entire litter of newly-born field mice squirming blindly in their nest of soft fur and paling straw. It is an image I still carry with me.

We would also travel to “the plateau” in winter, when tracks of the local inhabitants could be easily followed in the freshly fallen snow — the meandering trails of fox and mink, the impaled wingbeats of rising pheasant. One particularly frigid morning, I chose to climb the trunk of a sleepy winter tree to get a higher view of the snowbound landscape. I still remember the sound of the grinding trees as they swayed in the sub-arctic air. For a young boy, I might have been a thousand miles from home.

Sitting quietly in the crook of the tree, I noticed a blur of motion from above and watched as a diving sparrow hawk fell into the swell of a swollen drift of snow. I remember the sound of furious wings, and the wrenching squeal of the hawk as it began to dismember its sagging prey. I watched transfixed by the sight of crimson blood on the ivory-white snow. For a 10-year old boy, it seemed a rare glimpse behind the veil. I suppose it still does. A chance to see, not life’s easy tasks, but the fitful beauty of the struggle. I’ve never seen a sparrow hawk since and not thought of that moment.

The poet T.S. Eliot once wrote, “…the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Memory gives us that. A candle we may light in the darkness. A shadowed curtain we may pull back to reveal where we’ve been, and perhaps, where we may soon be. Enjoy the exploration.

PAUL WHEELER grew up in Oak Lawn and now lives with his wife in the Ottawa area. He is a paraeducator in Ottawa. He can be reached at tsloup@shawmedia.com.

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