Details

Why do odd details remain in memory? I remember fragments of dreams and moments from childhood, some with greater clarity than more recent memories. Why are they kept so vividly? I have deep sensory memories of the spindles of a dining room chair, the glitter of a formica counter, the warmth of sunlight on a wooden floor.

Or the smell of gym mats, the alternating enthusiasm and confusion felt during a children’s martial arts class, the green color that grape jelly makes when put on your scrambled eggs.

What about the spiral metal of a screen door (through which small children view the world like cloistered nuns)? The surprise of white filling in an orange popsicle. The double popsicles, always neatly broken in two to share. The glittery tassels on girlfriends’ bicycles. The rattling soda straws on younger brothers’ tricycles.

A dream in which I walked along the top of a low wall, following my mother to the store, only to look up and see that she was now far, far ahead, out of range of my voice.

The sound of typewriters in an office below our apartment; the circling splashes of light on the walls as cars passed by outside; a swan in a pond at the park.

These moments of strangeness or anxiety seem most common in times of new experiences, especially in early childhood when simple things like a visit to the neighbors or a trip to the store were full of novelty.

Just today I saw a quote from St. Augustine about the profundity and expanse of memory that struck me. I can’t find it again now, though, so it will have to remain half-remembered for the time being.

The more intense memories now seem to be those of God. I marvel sometimes to see little children who have a life of prayer. I didn’t, though I can see in hindsight a constant clumsy seeking, and the constant intercession of Our Lady and my Guardian Angel, unrecognized at the time. But these more recent memories of God’s mystery and love and intimacy are more vivid now than the faded strangenesses of long ago. Sometimes it seems even the long-ago memories are colored by that new wonder and tenderness, as if my whole life has been infused with His mercy.

I don’t remember where this picture is from. Probably wikimedia commons, source of most of my pictures.

The warriors and the gecko

Since the quarantine I’d begun exercising outdoors, in a shared space around the apartment building. It hosts a steady stream of adults exercising, but at tide-like intervals all the young children stream out of the apartments to play together. In particular there is a herd of five boys, the oldest on a bicycle, the next three on scooters, and the youngest running along on foot. Several carry plastic swords. The runner carries some sort of elaborate space weapon that is nearly as tall as he is. Their game is unclear, but involves running back and forth the full length of the space (a good 100 meters end to end, I’d think). They pause at each end, sometimes dropping their scooters and bike and plunking down cross-legged on the pavement to discuss some Very Important Subject. Most delightful are their encounters with wildlife.

One day the oldest came running up to me with his hands cupped. “Do you want a gecko?” he asked. I didn’t understand, but enthusiastically asked to see what he had. He opened his hands to reveal a very tiny and unmoving gecko, minus half of its tail. “Is it still alive?” I asked. “Well, yes, but it’s rather suffering,” he replied with a certain delicacy. “You see, we tried to pick it up by the tail, but it broke off. And then we picked it up regular-like, but I think it’s afraid and tired.” “It probably would like to rest in the woods,” I suggested. “Just let me show my mom, then you can put him in the woods,” he agreed. He dashed off, followed by the rest of the herd, shouting for his mother.

After a bit he and his friends came stampeding back and graciously handed over the traumatized gecko. I was about to set him on top of the wall along the woods, but the boy suggested that in the woods a snake might eat him. I agreed this was possible, and instead laid the creature under some branches in a large flower box where he would be shaded from the sun and out of sight of birds.

There is a certain awe these boys hold for the natural world that cuts through their shouting battles and sword-waving charges. In an instant they stop and stand fascinated, watching a lizard, a monkey, or a caterpillar.

That fascination and engagement reminded me of the wondrous quality my childhood play spaces had when I was that age. An overgrown lot at the end of a suburban street seemed as vast and engaging as a wild prairie. A small mound of dirt, abandoned after some unfinished construction project, offered a challenging ascent and high view. The branches regularly trimmed from the neighbor’s very tall hedge made a cozy lean-to that lasted until the next lawn-mowing day.

The memories of these places are vivid still, more than 45 years later, more so than many other memories. It’s a delight to watch these kids experiencing something similar.