but let us suppose one day
that everyone who placed those vacant chairs
on a veranda or a dock sat down in them
if only for the sake of remembering
what it was they thought deserved
to be viewed from two chairs,
side by side with a table in between.
--Billy Collins, The Chairs That No One Sits In
When we dig back into our memories, there are often novel revelations hidden in the familiar stories of our selves. We neuter our memories, colonize them with the flavor of our own identity. The memories we've tamed--the ones we thought we'd known--the memories we've churned into submission, declawed from their stunning factuality and historicity, and assimilated into our own story--the ones we thought we had understood-- often rear under our scrutiny, shock us with their stunning other-ness, and jolt us into the past, back to that particular moment.
A sharp electric pinch stings my heart, as I am suddenly back in a time in which I was not the same person I am now. The person that I am now remembers this past epoch, and sensing the continuity of who I was and who I currently am, proleptically inserts the anachronism of twenty-five year old me into those memories. But when I return to those memories, recorded without commentary or interpretation, simply raw fact, I collide into my past self sharply, like when you round the corner of the subway staircase too quickly and knock into the woman juggling her Gristedes bags.
When I look back on the story--as it was, not just as I have woven it into my memory--I am amazed to find grace pulsing through this old conversation.
In this re-reading, I have discovered that my younger self is, according to my current standards, an irreversible embarrassment. I cringe, as I read old rants full of self-righteous narrow-mindedness, displaying empathy skills that are less than state-of-the-art. The banter is not subtle nor flip, it is mostly earnest and peppered with dramatic, enthusiastic, bombastic ALL-CAPS and exhausting the "shift + 1" keys. She is inelegant, and blissfully ignorant of being so.
I squirm as I re-encounter this old image of myself. This is not who I remember being. Or perhaps I do remember her, now that she is sticking out from my comfortable synthesis of memory like a sore thumb.
But even in the deep embarrassment of the private past, I feel grace tumble off each page of conversation. I see patterns she was missing. I look back at the dynamics of give and take that had her caught in their tidal pull, which she was unaware of. I watch as her naïveté is advantaged, and as her stubbornness rears its head. Then, in one single sentence, she speaks a word of such grace, with a wisdom I can now see, in retrospect, is far beyond what she possessed on her own.
Reading through the story, I feel my heart quicken and my palms begin to sweat as I approach that climax of grace. Will she say the saving words? Will she let this moment on which it seems so much later in the story will hinge, this small but significant watershed, pass by? As I read and re-read, I am surprised, each time, that she speaks up. Each time I re-read the conversation, I watch with dread as it seems that she will say nothing. The moment almost marches without arresting her attention. But then she does. She speaks. I can hardly believe it. Even though I know the story: I lived it, it is a part of me. But I am overwhelmingly surprised and relieved. I feel a shiver of grace run up and down my spine.
Grace is an interruption. Grace says to us: There is another way this story can go. Grace veers us away from the cliff edge we were careening towards. Grace can be a roadblock, a u-turn, a fork in the road, a new path opening up.
To witness grace breaking into our own stories, to re-discover how grace has interrupted, transformed, and molded our own narratives is a great gift. I should not be surprised that grace remains so fresh, so many years later, that its presence shines brightly, despite--or perhaps because of--the years that have passed. But I am surprised. I did not know that grace stamps herself so clearly into our stories.
The more time that has passed, the more clearly grace and sin seem to be revealed. At the time, in the heat of the moment, the wheats and the tares were all tangled together. But now, after several years of denouement, it is suddenly easy to identify the grace amidst all the dross. Because grace is not only in the story, but the force of the story-telling, grace illuminates the narrative, her light opens up, continually, with each new read. Grace shines genuinely through the fog of memory, her veracity indubitable, by virtue of its own unmistakable radiance.