Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Updated: Thursday, March 14, 2013 00:03
As the weather begins to warm on and off a bit (by which I mean the temperature rises to about 45 degrees and the sun is actually visible), I am quickly taken back to my summer journeys. I recounted one of them in a column back in September (highlighting my blundering misadventures to and from Ashkelon, Israel). The others were my family trip to Maine and my joining the Giving to Ghana Foundation on their annual trip to Sunyani, Ghana.
When the soft rays of the late winter sun warm my cheeks, I am brought back to Israel, where the intense Middle Eastern sun couldn’t keep from burning my face. The crisp wind of a particularly warm and rainy day reminds me of the thick and humid, but not-too-hot air of Ghana. These quickly and spontaneously spur other memories—fast and furious cab rides careening down from the highlands, where Jerusalem lies, to the Mediterranean seashore, where Tel Aviv and Ashkelon are situated; fighting with a market vendor who wanted an outrageous price for a reproduction oil lamp in Acco, Israel; dodging piles of rubble on the sparsely paved roads of rural Ghana; spending an eight hour lay-over in Amsterdam and accidentally, but fortunately, stealing a ride on their metro system from the airport. (It’s more complicated than you think—and it is not made any easier without knowledge of Dutch.)
The flood of memories I have from this past summer offers me a wealth of stories to share with friends, family, and strangers, as well as new and different perspectives on varied things (I will not, for example, complain—as much—about summers in New York after Israel). I cannot number how many times I am transported back to Grid 47 in Ashkelon, moving dirt for eight hours every day, and only finding more of a monumental Roman wall (which, yes, is very cool, but is made substantially less cool when day after day your only find is more of the same wall—white plaster can only be so exciting). I am also readily brought back to Ghana—the beautiful, verdant landscape, the gracious, ebullient hospitality of everyone I met, and of course the horrible, yet developing system of roads outside the major cities. Each memory is a snippet, a photograph in my mind—the waterfalls at En Gedi and Kintampo, a plate of St. Peter’s fish in Tiberas, a hearty meal of chicken and Jollof rice in Techimen—and each rushes back to me in an instant.
Memories form a web in our human experience. We associate different experiences with one another based on similarities in the external circumstances or our internal dispositions. I cannot unlink the waterfalls at En Gedi, Kintampo, Niagara, and the little swimming hole where my family and I used to go in summers long past, just as I lump together the horribly awkward experience of flying next to an overly-affectionate Norwegian couple and my one uncomfortable foray into seeing a punk rock concert. Our experiences shape who we are, what we do, how we react to things, and where we go. Why we are who we are is in a large part answered by what our experiences have been—from growing up with our parents, to first setting out alone, to raising our own families.
These memories and experiences are constantly bouncing off one another, shedding light on the past and lighting a candle for the future. Our psyche is amazingly intricate—just think about the classic scene where a shrink with a curly mustache and a pipe induces lost and hidden memories out of his desperate patient (there’s got to be some truth to that, right?). We are inextricably bound by what we have undergone, what we have suffered, what we have experienced. Even our English word “passion,” as in “you have passion for …” or “you are passionate about …” is based on the Latin word passio, meaning “suffer or endure”—a favorite word to describe what we love most is born of a word meaning suffering, enduring and experiencing. Yes, we are inextricably bound.
I cannot say if other creatures are subject to (or liberated by?) the same phenomenon. But I count it as a blessing, a gift on our human part. Our ability to associate memories, connect experiences, synthesize reflections, link ideas, and knit a quilt of different patches of lives or mould a statue of different clays of people—all of this allows us to empathize, to share our universal humanity with one another. It makes the concept of solidarity possible. It makes social and political justice across country and continent possible. It makes cultural immersion and cultural appreciation possible.
Because we all share the spark of humanity, we can all share each other’s memories, each other’s stories. Joseph Campbell far more elaborately described what I am only hinting at in his book, A Hero with a Thousand Faces. What he calls the “Monomyth” or the “Monomythic Cycle of the Hero” undergirds the human experience. Day in and day out we are bombarded with tales and adventures—whether in the plays of Shakespeare we read in our English seminars, the Iliad of Homer we translate for Greek class, the junk novels we are afraid to tell anyone we are reading, or the anecdotes we share among friends on the Comm. Ave. bus. These excite us, scare us, make us laugh, make us cry—pick your cliche. But the point is they connect us. We are inherently social beings, so if you’re chatting with an old friend, or the guy at the bus stop, or the attractive young lady for whom you just held the door, you’re sharing in this thing we call being human, and all of your life, your memories, experiences, fears, and desires come to bear on each second in each of these moments.
You cannot escape being you. So embrace it. Remember, and try to remember well, and reflect, and experience anew. Never hesitate to live and don’t apologize for living fully. Don’t take this as a warrant for epicureanism or hedonism, but realize your humanity and share it with your fellow man.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.