In Greek mythology there was a goddess. Actually, there were quite a few of them, but this one rose into my mind just yesterday from the lines of a book. Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Daughter of Uranus (heaven) and Gaia (earth) and mother herself of the nine muses thanks to Zeus. Quite a goddess. She is the one, I am guessing, that you prayed to when you had lost something. Your kingdom for instance, or a battle, or your marbles.
On another shore of the heavenly endless spaces a very different goddess was breathing first life. Lethe, the goddess of forgetting, of oblivion. She, according to mythology was the daughter of Eris, meaning Strife and was named for one of the five underworld rivers in Hades. Anyone who drank from the waters of Lethe forgot everything – their whole life just gone, both the good and the bad.
There is a theory that these two were actually twins. Two fathers, one mother they grew facing each other in the womb. Obviously, Mnemosyne was born first. It would be hard to forget everything without a memory being there in the first place, after all.
This idea thinks me. I know that in a tough life, or in a life where terrible awful things have happened, it is natural to want to forget the terrible awful, to let it float away on the waters of Lethe, for ever gone from memory. But, as is always the case in this life, things are not that simple. In order to forget the terrible awful I must forget all of the rest, all those joyous memories, the history, the experience, the sharing of a metaphorical sandwich on the trudge road.
Well, I don’t want to do that. Just imagine beginning all over again with not a footprint recognised as I look back, not even my own. No thanks. So, how do I, or does anyone, manage the rough with the smooth, make it one shape, a shape that works for me, that takes me forward in joy and hope and not in dread?
I think it is a mistake to seek oblivion, despite wishing, often, it was not. If I consign the terrible awful (and mine is nothing compared to so many terrible awfuls) to oblivion, what has it taught me? Nothing, it would seem. But in denying the existence of it, I achieve but a short term lift. In a hunt for memories without the awfuls getting in the way, I paint an untruth. This happy memory is just a cupcake, a cameo. It doesn’t feel real and that’s because it isn’t real. Real is both joy and awful and within any given scenario, we must have both or we just don’t believe it. It becomes a child’s fairytale, one in which everything is quite marvellous and leaves us with furred teeth from too much sugar. However much we might want that sugar, it will never be enough. The awfuls must be interlaced through the whole picture or we simply tire of the story long before it ends.
But how do I manage to conjoin these two as I look back down the track of my life, of my tears, fears, denials, joys and delights? The way I have learned to embrace such a big challenge is this – when an memorical awful shoots into my mind like a missile, I catch it. Stay right there, I tell it, for I am in charge here, not you, not this time. It came to me via a trigger, something said or done that shot me backwards into the awful, and because I had arrived in person, I brought breath into the lungs of it. Like doing CPR on a memory. I go into a quiet place with the awful and sit with it. I tell it that it has overly inflated itself over the decades and I am not impressed with all those feathers and bling and that fat belly. It tells me, with an impressive amount of well-flourished detail, the whole story. I, of course, play the victim. But, wait. I wasn’t a victim, oh no. I was an integral part of this awful happening, or, at the very least, of allowing it to happen by not taking action at the time. I consider this. I know that taking action at the time would have been dangerous and not just for me. I also know that I was worn down, fooled, oppressed and controlled. That all sounds very dramatic for the teensy awfuls of my own life, but not so for some who really had no power at all at the time.
However, it is not back then we are talking about here, but the right here and now. How to manage this memory. How to allow it space to be there at all. I sit some more with the awful and, as I watch it, replay whatever amount of scene I can truly remember. Soon, I feel the soft and reassuring hands of Mnemosyne on my shoulders, light as sunrise on a summer’s morning. The fat belly begins to deflate and I really want to laugh. The surprise on the face of the awful is a picture. The bling dulls and dissolves, the feathers flop until before me sits a very small awful indeed. It looks like it’s been through a 60 wash and a long fast spin.
I go back into my life. I don’t forget the awful but I no longer need to give it CPR. It has a place in my journey and it always will, but what I have learned from it, and all the others, is priceless. They made me strong and colourful, defiant and loving. They made me complete.
And the truth is that, without these awfuls, there would be no story to tell.