I Am From New York
Turning Memories into Poems
Reflections on Memory and Metaphor, Poetry and Storytelling,
with help from Anne Aronson's Where I'm From
by Jay McDaniel
Turning Memories into Poems
The life of faith is not one in which everything happens for the best. It doesn't. The life of faith is one of making poems and stories, metaphors and meaning, out of whatever happens. If we let the word poetry be a metaphor for new and hopeful possibilities, then faith is trusting in the possibility of poetry.
We turn memories into poems by gathering them into tragedies, comedies, tragi-comedies, melodramas, or farces. Whatever the genre, they have meaning for us. We laugh, we cry, we struggle, we hope, we move on.
As our memories become poems, we discover within them possibilities for the future. They become metaphors. We remember evenings alone and dinners alone. We speak of our lives as a stories-in-the-making. We remember, we learn from mistakes, we step forward in confidence that something new is possible. With help from metaphors the past becomes future.
In process theology the turning of memories into stories and poems and metaphors is called creative transformation. Creative transformation is the very means by which God is present in the world. Monica Coleman calls it making a way out of no way. Patricia Adams Farmer calls it metaphor-making. She says that even God is a metaphor-maker, making stories and poems from our lives, with a tender care that nothing be lost.
It is with help from metaphors that she places her trust in God, and with help from God that she places her trust in metaphors. Which comes first: God or Metaphor? It's hard to say.
In Whitehead's philosophy most past events shape our lives subconsciously rather than consciously. In this respect Whitehead agrees with Freud and much contemporary neuroscience, which says that most of our experience is non-conscious.
He also agrees with Jung and the idea that we carry within our hearts and minds memories, not only of our own personal experience, but also memories of experiences that have happened to other people, including people who lived before us, and memories of the more distant evolutionary past. Our memories include a personal unconscious and a collective unconscious, the latter of which may well contain energies and intelligences which become archetypes in our imaginations.
When we dream, for example, or when we engage in active imagination, some of these memories may surface. It makes sense to think that part of our vocation in life is to establish a dialogue between the conscious and unconscious dimensions of our lives. It is somewhat like saying a cork must establish a dialogue with the ocean upon which it floats. Consciousness is the cork; the unconscious is the ocean.
Metaphors are means by which the unconscious parts of our lives become conscious. At a a conscious level, we do not simply make the metaphors that mean something to us. They make us, too. They rise up from a deep place and speak to us. They are poems.
The Myth of Single Origins
When asked where we are from, we are likely to identify a region of the world: a city, a country, a nation. But this myth gets in the way of an important recognition: namely that, at any given moment of our lives, we are from many places, some geographical, some social, and some psychological, Always we are from many places. Always we are trying to turn our memories into poems.
Multimedia Storytelling as Prayer
Digital stories are multimedia stories created by people like Ann Aronson. They are short and poignant, communicating with image and sound, words and movement. She taught herself to make them, and you can, too. You can learn about them from the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, California.
If you are influenced by process theology, you can understand them as a spiritual activity in their own right. They emerge out of a divine call to make stories of our lives; they provide a context for sharing with others and helping build community; and, equally important, the stories of others provide a context for us to break out of our shells of presumption and self-preoccupation, because we get to know the experiences of others. They can be an important point of community-building.
From a process perspective, all of this is spiritual. Spirituality is not thinking about God all the time; it is paying attention to life in a reverential way, allowing oneself to be creatively transformed by the voices and lives of other people. When we hear the stories of others, we are hearing their own prayer to be heard, to be taken seriously. And when we respond with sensitivity and appreciation, saying "yes" to their lives, we are saying "yes" to something deep and wide, tender and beautiful. Their yes and our yes is a kind of prayer.
* Thanks to Anne Aronson for the language and the video. And thanks to George Ella Lyon, and her poem "Where I'm From," for inspiring Anne Aronson.
Please enjoy George Ella Lyon's poem below and turn to her webpage for further inspiration and information about her work. If you'd like to see another multimedia story by Anne Aronson, go to an article on this website called Cats as Spiritual Teachers. She has two and we hope there are more to come.
You will also like The Metaphor Maker
by Patricia Adams Farmer
Where are You From?
"I am from glass and steel, brick and concrete. I am from shopping days with the girls, wool coats and the promise of patent leather shoes. I am from skates on the streets and swings on the roof. I am from every word and note of Guys and Dolls. I am Gershwin in Sinatra and cha-cha-cha. I am from silence around the war, the mysteries of the South Pacific. I am from evening cocktails, dinners alone, and eleven pm, waiting for a key to unsnap the first lock and then the second. I am from people who draw and people who heal. I am from one hundred houseplants and one hundred friends: Bee and Hilda, Sylvia and Estelle. I'm from sidewalks, not highways. I'm from the Mets, not the Yanks. I'm from the MET, not the Midway. I'm from the blackouts of 1965 and 1977, the city stripped of neon and comfort. I'm from people who walk the city streets, umbrellas billowing in the November rain, wary of the next corner. I am from soot and sirens. I am from the sun peaking through fingers in the sky."*
What is a Metaphor?
There are many definitions of metaphor. Many people say that it is a figure of speech in which an implicit comparison is made between two things that may or may not have something in common. For example, Shakespeare's "all the world's a stage" is said to be a metaphor. We process theologians think of metaphors a bit more dynamically,in terms of how they function in the imagination as lures for feeling and invitation for action. They are what Whitehead calls propositions made of contrasts. In Whitehead a proposition is a proposal or an idea which may or may not be articulated in verbal form. It can be a figure of speech but also a figure of dance or figure of music. Still it is always working with a contrast. Perhaps the yin-yang diagram can illustrate the point.
The Historicity of God
Yes, God has a past, too. God is historical. In Being and Time Heidegger has a footnote in which he suggests that there may be, even in God, a kind of divine temporality. Whitehead agrees. Here's how one of the most astute philosophical theologians of the 20th century, Schubert Ogden, puts it in an article called "The Historicity of God."
"Contemporary theology has had its attention taken by a footnote in Martin Heidegger's Sein und Zeit suggesting that God's being might be more richly construed in categories of primal temporality (ursprüngliche Zeitlichheit) which is infinite, rather than in those of a spurious eternity Among the reasons for this is the influence of Hegel on Heidegger, for whom eternity, like being, was an empty notion devoid of all determination until through the mediation of time it was sublimated into a pure becoming transcendent to both eternity and derived time. Operative too is, seemingly, the biblical view of a God of historical revelation in dialogue with humankind. (The Historicity of God)."
Whitehead says that each moment of our lives, and each moment of God's life, is an act of remembering -- of being formed by - everything that has happened in the past. When we remember things in a conscious and sensitive way, understanding the good that is been done and also the harms that have been suffered, we are sharing in the Deep Remembering.
The Deep Remembering -- Whitehead calls it the consequent nature of God -- always includes more than we can ever remember. We forget our loved ones quickly; the memory dies within generations even if we remember. God remembers everlastingly, as if it were yesterday. God takes what is offered by the past and transforms it into metaphors for the future. We discover these metaphors and try to live from them. Metaphors like "love" and "wisdom" and "courage" and "hope." We don't just think about them; we feel them.
In feeling them we are feeling God's feelings, too. It is another form of prayer. Not prayer as addressing God, but rather prayer as listening. Listening for the metaphors that help us make sense of our lives and love others. Sometimes it is very hard to find the metaphors. It involves much struggle. The struggle is prayer, too. Faith is trust in the possibility of metaphor.
If you liked this article you might also like:
Replanting Yourself in Beauty by Patricia Adams Farmer
Spacious, Gracious Simplicity by Patricia Adams Farmer
The Art of Savoring by Patricia Adams Farmer
Process and Poetry: Muriel Rukeyser by Jay McDaniel
Multiplicities and Contrasts by Jay McDaniel