Christmas and Memory

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“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” ― Julian Barnes

As you decorate for the holidays each year are you putting up all your lights and garland just to have something festive hanging from your windows and branches? Is this annual activity only aimed at putting your home in the festive mood? Maybe this is a traditional chore that just needs to be done? You’ve purchased all that stuff over the years, it would be crime to not drag it out and nail it to the wall, right?

My wife was the decorating dynamo to my grinch every Christmas season. Ask anyone that knows us. She was definitely over the top. As the years passed, our house started to look like a nutcracker flea market. Things are much more low key these days. In fact, I couldn’t find any of our collection of wreaths. Please don’t tell. I must of lost my senses and pitched them all one hot July afternoon. Let’s hope Santa wasn’t watching.

The question I want to ask is, do you think this is really all about just decorating? I think. whether we realize it or not, what we are doing is awakening our memory each holiday season.

“Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.” ― Hamilton Wright Mabie

When we relive our memories that made us happy – it makes it more true.  The memory we have of being with our friends, loved ones, family becomes more firmly planted inside us as we remember, share it, and pass it on in the telling, retelling (and even elaborating). These memories become happiness for us years later, when at the time we never fully realized what they truly were. They were being planted inside us as we grew up and matured and then one day needed them so much.

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.” ― Virginia Woolf

What we do with our memories is so important. They aren’t really something to just save for a rainy day. They become richer and vibrant as we share them with others. They need to be passed on so that they can live and continue to enliven with meaning. When you talk about that ornament on the tree that your grandmother made, you are sharing part of yourself with your granddaughter. She will remember it one day as she hangs it on her tree and will have saved a part of you and a piece of what mattered to you.

“God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.” ― J.M. Barrie

Memory hold us all together. Those rich memories that are being created and shared during this time of year are like chains of gold that hold people together – especially when the going gets rough. Having common memories, even when we don’t all remember the details the same, is an essential form of social cohesion. It’s like super glue that keeps even the most independent free spirit connected to his home base. Somehow.

“There was a long hard time when I kept far from me the remembrance of what I had thrown away when I was quite ignorant of its worth.” ― Charles Dickens

When Christmas arrives each year, what do you remember?

I’m unpacking boxes in the garage and finding memories stashed away, some very carefully, others crammed in with what looked like a mostly hurried life. I honestly thought that maybe last year I had packed away my artificial tree with all the decorations still on it. It is the season of hope, no? Well, I found the box and no such luck.

My childhood Christmas was in the 60’s and 70’s. Very unique decor. I remember two very different kinds of holiday. One at home with a silver and gold tree in the olive green, dark wood living room. The tree had it’s own rotating multicolored spotlight shining on it as it stood proudly in the front window. We thought it was cool, but because it was in the front living room, where no one ever went, except the little dogs to periodically take a dump, it was an experience we didn’t really fully embrace.

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We had another tree in the den, the regular tree. This is the one where we stashed presents, hung lights and our homemade ornaments. It was the children’s tree. We did grow up doing craft projects with the neighbors. I remember making ornaments for the tree and even presents for our family. I don’t remember all the gifts purchased at the store – I do remember those that we made ourselves. Not sure all the recipients did??

“The smells of Christmas are the smells of childhood” ― Richard Paul Evans

As I recall, my grandparents did hang up on the walls of their little house those homemade gifts. That was the other location for my childhood Christmas memories. There was a life-sized Santa and his sleigh with Rudolph, wooden cut-outs in the front yard. We knew Christmas was almost here when they went up each year. The tree was hung with all the familiar decorations, homemade, store bought, it was an archive of memories as we explored the branches every year to look for our favorites.

Those memories are recorded on polaroid photographs. Remember those? Your aunt with that funny hairdo. Those cousins who looked so innocent. Everyone was like a new jacket. Then you realize how many of those faces are gone now. I can’t really remember any of what was wrapped up in those packages, so colorful and carefully arranged. But I do remember those people that I didn’t pay enough attention to, taking it for granted as we all do. Now Christmas is just a few of us instead of a houseful. All that love is still bouncing off the walls but not as many to catch it.

“My yesterdays walk with me. They keep step, they are gray faces that peer over my shoulder.” ― William Golding

I don’t think it’s a bad thing to grieve a little for people no longer here when you come across a memory. We had a beloved aunt who crafted homemade cards with photos, she wrote on the back of each one, I saved many and run across them now and again. That’s what bittersweet tastes like, I thought, as I put one of her handmade ornaments on my tree last night.

Make it a point this year to take a few moments and remember someone or sometime in your life. Think about what they/it mean to you. As you’re sitting around with others, find something to share – especially with someone of the next generation. Maybe a backstory, a quality, something important that ought to be known. It doesn’t need to be in chapters or make everyone cry. But it will tell a lot about you. If you can be intentional about sharing, you will have helped hold your group together with a few more strands of meaning. And that kind of buried treasure won’t ever run out of batteries.

“You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.” ― Amy Carmichael

 

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What Dreams May Come?

“Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.” ― Henry David Thoreau

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Of course Hamlet was speaking of death in that partial quote of my title there. Here I’m just writing about the everyday dreaming that we do at night (I’m not even going to go into those daydreams that take place while you’re stuck in traffic).

I know how to interpret your dreams if anyone is interested. It’s not an exact science. Dreams happen for three different reasons. (1) Our brain is filing away its memories – this is why people who don’t get enough sleep start to have trouble remembering when they are awake. (2) We dream because we have unresolved conflicts, worries, decisions or problems that are sometimes standing with one foot in our conscious and another in our subconscious. (3) Sometimes God sends messages to us in our dreams – this doesn’t produce confusion but clarity, peace and assurance. Unless you need a swift kick.

Over the past year I have started the practice of intentionally willing myself to dream. It happens to me in the early morning hours. I awake too early and then decide to go back for one more round of R.E.M. sleep. I tell myself that I want a dream and I want to remember it. I think because I am so close to awakening at the start, it’s easier to remember the dream. But it happens more times than it doesn’t. I’d say nine out of ten times.

“People think dreams aren’t real just because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes.” ― Neil Gaiman

It just happened very early this morning. I dreamed that I was having to administer an exam to a class of students. But I also had another class of students next door. As I handed out the tests I discovered I didn’t have enough. I panicked – this is a common fear and one of mine in particular. I always make way too many copies. I left the building to go make more copies – also with the added worry that there was another room full of students waiting for me.

When I got outside there was a car with some people in it waiting to take me to make copies. Matthew McConaughey was driving the car. I had just seen a number of references to him while watching a terrible football game on TV Saturday. Well, he started driving but in the wrong direction. I don’t remember what he was saying, sounded like one of those weird car commercial soliloquys that he has done in the past. All I knew was that we were not going to make copies and that disaster was eminent.

Here is when I awoke.

I’m really behind with deadlines at work. I can’t seem to find my motivation. There’s something else distracting me and taking me in the other direction but I don’t know what it is yet. It’s certainly not Mr. University of Texas reciting lines from his latest Lincoln commercial! (That’s probably just deep seated frustration at someone not being able to pass the football).

“I dream. Sometimes I think that’s the only right thing to do.” ― Haruki Murakami

So here we are swimming in crises after crises. Surely the end will come, it always does. But in the meantime, we can always dream.

Be sure that you’re getting enough sleep – pollsters are telling us that some areas of our mental health are improving during the quarantine because we are sleeping more. This helps people to dream more and to reinforce memory.

Write down dreams that you remember – this can help if there’s something mysterious that needs to be resolved. Talk about your dream over breakfast with your spouse. You concrete-literalists out there, open up your symbolic thinking drawer a little. The more you ponder, the greater the chances you will stumble across some solutions.

It’s possible that one day, God may want to say something to you. It’s not beyond the realm of impossibility that he would use a dream. Don’t worry about it. He won’t contradict what he’s already said. He won’t try and confuse you. It will usually be a treasured experience. That is, unless you’re wandering off in left field and need a strong hand to bring you back home.

“I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul.” ― Charles Dickens

Hold Fast to Dreams

“Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone.” ― Anthony Burgess

I’ve been doing research on sleep over the past few years. Very interesting! From a great book by Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep:

  • Whether you’re a night owl or morning person is genetically determined. Around 30% of the population are considered morning types, 30% are evening types and the rest of us sit in the middle or are a combination of the two.
  • You can’t catch up on missed sleep. Getting a few extra hours at the weekend only goes a little way to reversing chronic sleep debt. To re-pay your sleep debt completely, try to reintroduce a steady sleep routine and follow it for at least two weeks.
  • Dreaming is a kind of emotional first aid for the brain; it’s during dreaming that we provide ourselves a form of overnight therapy to deal with traumatic experiences. However it’s a myth that if you forget your dreams, you’ve had a bad night’s sleep. While we know that dream sleep (or Rapid Eye Movement [REM] sleep) is essential for life – studies have shown rats deprived of REM sleep can die almost as quickly as being deprived of food – being unable to remember your dreams upon waking doesn’t mean you haven’t dreamt, it just means when you wake up, your brain isn’t able to access this dream memory.
  • Matthew Walker’s advice for everyone – and an iron rule of his own life – is to aim for eight or nine hours of sleep every night. Routinely getting less than seven hours will undermine health, harm the brain, demolish the immune system, disrupts the body’s blood sugar balance and damage coronary arteries.

“Even a soul submerged in sleep is hard at work and helps make something of the world.” ― Heraclitus

According to researchers from the University of Basel, consumers are sleeping more since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the majority of that sleep hasn’t been restful.

“The improved individual sleep-wake timing can presumably be attributed to an increased flexibility of social schedules, for instance due to more work being accomplished from home,” the researchers wrote. “However, this unprecedented situation also led to a significant increase in self-perceived burden, which was attendant to the decrease in sleep quality. These adverse effects may be alleviated by exposure to natural daylight as well as physical exercising.” 

During quarantine people are sleeping more hours, because they are stuck at home, but the quality of their sleep is diminished because of worries. Solution: get outside and exercise more (shut off the stupid screens!)

“Man is a genius when he is dreaming.” ― Akira Kurosawa

I try to convince my college students of the value of sleep, how it’s the easiest way to improve their learning and retention. I’m not sure how successful I’ve been.

  • Each night of the week that college students have sleep problems was associated with a 0.02-point drop in their cumulative grade point average (GPA) and 10 percent higher odds that they would drop a course.
  • For first year students, the impact of each additional day per week with sleep problems (less than 8 hours) had the same impact on GPA as binge drinking and drug use.
  • Only learning disabilities and diagnosed depression or anxiety appeared to have a larger impact on academic success than lack of sleep.
Monica E. Hartmann and J. Roxanne Prichard. Sleep Health, Journal of the National Sleep Foundation. October 2018, Volume 4, Issue 5, Pages 463–471

What can you do to improve your sleep and thereby your overall health?

Russell Foster, Why Do We Sleep?

  1. Stop using all technology 30 min before bed- no cell phone- no laptop- no tablet. The light blocks melatonin which can help you fall asleep. A 30 min wind down with relaxation and reading (a paper book) can make it easier to fall asleep. Apps to reduce blue light on your devices are helpful when you need to work late, but still harmful if you’re trying to sleep.No caffeine after 3 PM. If you are up late studying or just need a little more energy, try a small energy-boosting snack instead of a caffeinated beverage. If you feel that you have to have caffeinated coffee when you are up late studying, try to limit the amount.
  2. Incorporate a small amount of time each day to be outside in daylight. Time spent outside during the day helps to preserve your body’s sleep and wake cycles.
  3. Be physically active most days. Exercise can promote more regular sleep and wake patterns as well as reduce stress. Avoid exercise and other vigorous activities three-to-four hours before going to bed to avoid awakening the body even more.
  4. Use the bed only for sleeping. Avoid doing other activities such as studying or watching TV. This ensures that your body will not associate the bed with these activating tasks, which can make it harder to fall asleep. If there are few options other than your bed for these activities, reduce the level of intensity of the reading material or TV programs you select.
  5. Go to bed only when you are sleepy. If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do a relaxing activity somewhere else until you feel sleepy again. Try deep breathing or relaxation techniques if you’re having trouble falling asleep due to stress or anxiety.

What I’ve learned lately is that sleep is a big deal. When I dream I am storing away memories. As I age, memory becomes a problem. Dreaming helps me to keep my memory sharper. Sleeping, exercise, sunlight – sounds like simple things I can do when the world seems like it’s become so unpredictable.

 

“I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul.” ― Charles Dickens

 

The Ghosts of Christmas

“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”  ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

We live out each day surrounded by memories and in so many ways these mark out the pathway toward each one of our tomorrows.

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.” ― Virginia Woolf

I’ve been in my house alone for four months. The TV going just so there’s background sounds on while I’m doing my chores. But there are other sounds in the house that seem to be haunting my days and nights. Some I can explain, others…

  1. I’ve written before about my haunted refrigerator that moans and groans. It causes my grandson to stop and look around when we are here together. He wonders who else is hiding in the house. It’s just our marked down appliance painfully making ice all day and night.
  2. Early this fall the derelict hot water heater in the attic had a spigot dripping. It could only be heard late at night by the rare overnight visitor in the guest bedroom underneath. It’s very old and I’m certain it’s going to go any minute. I’m just glad it’s not over my bed!
  3. There’s been a history of varmints in my attic. They are back for winter. This year the squirrels (above my bedroom) go in and out each morning and the opossum makes his exit at night. Lots of traffic to try and corral. They get noisy at times, late at night especially.

As Christmas decorations have gone up there are other haunting spirits that speak, sometimes softly and at other times very loud. My house is now even more bathed in memory. Christmas was my wife’s favorite time of year. It’s a season filled with treasures of memory to take me with joy into days, weeks and months ahead.

This time of year can bog any of us down with urgent tasks that must get done. There are events, festivities and family gatherings crowding the calendar. Extra meals, gifts and decorations must all be purchased and prepared. Despite online, curbside and next day, our days remain fraught with increased activity. Year after year, nothing seems to change.

This year, stop and sit down for a few minutes each day and collect your memories. Write something down in a journal. Make a list in your phone. Like treasures, arrange them in your heart so that you don’t miss any part of this holiday and new year. Don’t let your busyness steal away those moments so important to remember.

Researchers have long known that (1) your current mood influences what you file away about your experiences into your memory. If you are in a perpetual bad mood, you will tend to only remember your negative experiences.  And (2) your current mood tends to determine what kinds of memories you retrieve. If you’re in a general good mood, you will tend to pull up only positive memories from the past.

This means our memory making and retrieving are influenced by our emotional feelings and attitudes. 

“He was consious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares, long, long, forgotten.” ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

What is it that’s always floating in the air about you? What treasured memories are worth holding onto? That bad mood is going to poison not just today but your future as well.

“Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.” ― Guy de Maupassant

You will of course create new memories this holiday. I am only urging you to stop with those you love and be more intentional about remembering bits and pieces of your past. Share a laugh, get the details right, and cry a little. Use these to hang on to all that really matters from days gone by. This will keep you in a happy mood, and it will lock away the good stuff for a rich future (for you and everyone else).

“I will live in the past, the present, and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me.” ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol