Listening Back

We cannot live our lives constantly looking back, listening back, lest we be turned to pillars of longing and regret, but to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music.  — Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey

A friend encourages me to write memoir. “But I write fiction,” I tell her; “I don’t write memoir.”

Oh, I’ve written nonfiction pieces for a blog or in the context of exploring memory in relationship to story. Or that’s what I’ve told myself. I have to confess that I find it cleansing to “get them out,” those stories, some of them like a painful tooth; it feels good for them to be dredged up, examined in new light, and then they’re gone. But a memoir? I may have the material, but I don’t have the nerve. It takes courage to remember.

I used to believe I had a near-perfect childhood. I was a doted-on only child, but I was also an overprotected child in a household where the grown-up dynamics were not even close to perfect. I came out of that background idealistic and immature. I married a boy with “promise,” had babies, and lived for a while what I believed would always be the good life.

But life often doesn’t turn out that way, and that’s where remembering gets hard.

winter sunset / g. wilson

I understand Buechner’s “looking back” as a metaphor for examining the past. When we look back, we either boldly face the past head on, or we glance over our shoulders so memory comes at us sideways, a little slant of the truth. Either way, we see visions of how things used to be. Sometimes they’re lovely; sometimes, nightmarish.

Too much dwelling on the past and we risk turning into “pillars of longing and regret,” Buechner says. Soured on life. Stuck. Sad. Lost. But then Buechner makes the turn, important in a poem but also in any good story: “to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music” [emphasis mine]. To shut off remembering is to miss out. Shutting off the past makes us less than what we can be and keeps us from living fully now.

But how do we “listen” back? Maybe Buechner means the way we play old “tapes” in our heads: the reruns, the should-haves, the voices, the patterns of thought that occupy our minds and keep us spinning in one place, unable to move ahead but unable to go back, either, which of course we can’t do: we can never, ever go back to the previous minute or hour or day, not really, except through the filter of memory.

Maybe all our remembered stories, no matter how simple they seem on the surface, deserve to tell their noisy little selves: to shout out, to sing off-key, to be messy and loud, heartbreaking and beautiful at once. Just like our lives.

“Listening Back” appeared on the TellingHerStories blog at Story Circle Network July 26, 2022 and originally appeared here in longer form.

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