Backward, Forward, Upward, Inward

These are the directions of memory that I’ve been thinking about in the last few weeks, the work of remembering, looking back and forward, being a very ‘January’ activity.

Janus-faced wood sculpture. Details below (1).

Remembering backward is reflexive: putting threads together and making stories builds the earth; it bolsters the self and secures, for a time, our roles and boundaries in the worlds we inhabit. Remembering well, curiously perhaps, depends on making in many forms. On an abstract level, it concerns the care-taking of textured mind-spaces that hold the threads-sometimes spun and woven, sometimes still raw-of our stories. Otherwise, practically, it is about making sense, making art, even, sometimes, making confession.

Remembering backward can be an uneasy past-time for the exile, the mis-, or dis- placed person, though; traps abound. The selective memories that comprise nostalgia are particular temptations. Too, they are particular forms of forgetting. Nostalgia is a bit like drinking alone while sad. I mean, there are dangers to recalling alone. It exacerbates loneliness and increases the distance between being at home with the various parts of the self that make up the I. To be known, to have someone remember you, who you have been, how you have arrived, and (importantly) how you have changed, helps you figure out where you’re at and maybe, too, where you’re going.

If the Queen in Alice’s Adventures is to be believed when she remarks: ‘It’s a poor sort of memory that works only backwards,’ this means we ought also to practice remembering forward.  Remembering forward is a concept I’m new to, as such, and I am not finding it easy. What is remembering forward? Simply: hope. This article tells us the biblical command to remember is written in the future tense. We are to look forward to a ‘time to come’. We are to bring the past as the good, the bad and the ugly into the present and allow ourselves to see how these constellations inform and shape who we are, how memory affects our living here and now, and where we can go from here. Remembering forward asks: What kinds of remembrances enliven our present and give us hope for the future? The question is best answered, I intuit, with a sense of community, connectivity or communion. Remembering well requires a kind of rootedness.

I do not find the world a hopeful place at present. I take seriously the injunction to ‘look forward’ but my lenses are anxiety-fogged. My sense of ‘disjointment’ feels pronounced. [Often not so much the ‘where was I?’ of the absent-minded, as the ‘where am I?’ of the lost.]

Unable to articulate a satisfactory set of responses to the question articulated above (see, enlivenment and hope) I found inspiration rather in this fabulous article by Gene Tracy, Sky Readers [highly recommended!], which reminded me of the intuitions that initiated this blog. The most important of these is that ‘knowing where you are in the world is fundamental to knowing who you are.‘ The stars, like stories, provide a GPS for our lives so that looking up (or bringing oneself into the presence of one’s internal lights) is a way of connecting one’s outer and inner lights to ensure that you don’t lose your way when generated light goes out. It is knowing, at many levels, where you stand. And, making stuff, like blog posts, like 

stories, poems, songs, music [or] visual art makes this knowledge more real to us, charged with emotive power, which aids in the forming of memories. It helps us to come to know things, and to know their place, by knowing ourselves more deeply as well.

You can remember backward or forward Janus teaches, but older, more experienced cultures than the Graeco-Roman teach us that looking up and in, and making something of that, is also a fine option, tried and true, for orienting. Modern cosmology might have arrived at the insight that we are at no special place in the Universe; that, rather, ‘we are wanderers among the stars, through a space with no centre’, but weaving stories and making and re-making memories helps us, as the Kalahari teach, ‘not to fade off into the nothing or the nowhere.


Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ 


Image Sourcery:

  1. Headdress (Nkuambok), Janus-Faced Wood-Sculpture, 19-20th century, Nigeria. Source: the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  2. Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ lives at MoMA.


Further Reading:

+ James K.A. Smith’s editorial Memory Forgetting and Hope is well worth a read. I particularly liked the apprenticeship angle (to cooking). Several students have been reflecting on their shaky links to the past in being unable to prepare any/many of the Japanese traditional myriad New Year dishes.

+ Gene Tracy’s Sky Readers is wonderful!


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