An elderly priest with a weak memory once confided that his strategy for keeping track of students at the seminary was to nickname them by physical characteristics. He told me a few of the nicknames, and I must admit that while I also have a terrible time remembering common names, it was easy as pie to remember “Itchy” or “Skyscraper” or “Fatty”. It reminded me of the way fragments of visual memory linger for decades: the astonishing width of the librarian’s hips; the startling height of a man in the supermarket; the strange blond afro of a pale boy in band; the bold dragging gait of a tiny girl with deformed legs.
Such details constantly draw my eye even now. Why the fascination? Is it because there is something out of the ordinary there? A body moving out of rhythm with the jouncing crowd? Probably in part, as the same attention grabs everyone when someone on the crowded street suddenly leaps or runs or falls. Perhaps, too, because the bent bodies, limping gaits, and twisted feet remind me of my own fragility. As when a twinge in the back spirals into thoughts of arthritis and osteoporosis, or even (in anxious times) strange fatal diseases or the tortures afflicted on prisoners.
Unusual things become points of memory, too. Like the large oak where we stop to rest in a forest of slender maples. There’s a relief in the familiarity of seeing the same people in the same place every day. The world seems to be carrying on peacefully when the landmarks are there. Even a stranger, notable only for his twisted legs or sideways gait, is missed when he vanishes for a few weeks.
It makes more interesting the odd suffering of the invisible: those who seem all alike. At a new job the easily remembered quirky folks are a relief, and the panic comes from the myriad secretaries and managers with matching heights, weights, hair cuts, and fashion choices.
Or, in another context, there is deliberate sameness. I recall a story about a monk who never learned the names or faces of his brothers, as he took to heart the introspective discipline of keeping his eyes on the floor. It points to a different priority: that of treating each equally like Christ.