The season of remembrance: the power of story.

Remembering is in the air. Today marks the end of the ‘To Absent Friends Week ‘ which is an astonishingly creative and vibrant festival. The festival is based on the premise that people who have died remain a part of our lives – their stories are our stories, yet many Scottish traditions relating to the expression of loss and remembrance have faded over time.  To Absent Friends gives people across Scotland an excuse to remember, to tell stories, to celebrate and to reminisce about people we love who have died. To Absent Friends, a People’s Festival of Storytelling and Remembrance is an opportunity to revive lost traditions and create new ones.

But today is also a day which falls in the midst of Remembrance Week as we approach the  11th November when at 11 am we engage in a very long tradition of acts of national remembrance for all those who have lost their lives in war. Even that process though will be very different this year with many public acts now not taking place because of Coronavirus.

Remembrance Day will provide many with the opportunity across the world to stop and in silence think of all who have died or been scarred by humanity’s inhumanity. It is a time for recollection and story, albeit that those with first-hand experience of the wars of the 20th century are becoming fewer in number by the year.

For me Remembrance Day is indeed a day of story and recollection. A day when I especially remember my own grandfather who left his Skye village as a boy at the start of the First World War and returned years later a man.  But although he returned with a box of medals for his bravery, he also brought back the scars of encounters and experiences that would fragment his living and mark his heart until he died. I was young when he died, but I always felt an air of distant melancholy surrounded him, a sense of absence for those gone from his life.

Remembrance is many things to many people. It is both an act of literally ‘re-membering’, of putting back together the stories of a broken past but it is also about a resolve and a conviction that the lessons of that painful past need to be so real and so vital that the journey into darkness can never be repeated.

Many years ago, in Orkney I spent an afternoon on the week before Remembrance Day in the company of two men who had just recently got to know one another. They were unlikely friends but one thing, their experience of war and their desire not to talk about it, joined them into a life-long friendship. One was in his sixties and bore the literal scars of years of brutality and torture as a Japanese Prisoner of War. Every movement jarred his present with the pain of those days. But he was a man of astonishing positivity and optimism. He never talked about the war or his experiences. The other man was much younger, a soldier during the Falklands War when he would have been really young. He too had been forever changed by his days of battle. His scars were inside him. He spoke about never being able to have a night’s sleep without the sounds of crying and fear waking him into a sweat. Anxious and manic in movement and gesture he was continually agitated. But he too was silent about his suffering. For both men Remembrance Day was something they simply could not thole – they wanted not to remember but to forget.

But that afternoon and well into the evening something happened. I don’t know what it was. Maybe the sense of calm, or the warmth of the place, or the drinks that were shared. But they started to talk. At first slowly and with hesitation and reluctance but then freely and openly, almost with a need to expel the memories from inside, a catharsis of inner pain. They spoke and told their story and what I saw in the telling was a healing of wounds, a discovery of togetherness and the creating of a bond that would never break. They spoke that day but that was it; emptied of memory they never spoke about their experiences again, but they were changed, one with the other, a connection which brought a peace only they could understand.

Finding another to tell our story to, to be authentic, open and honest, to be who we really are without mask and pretence, is perhaps something we are all searching for. Those two men found each other that day and by the power that comes from togetherness, they upheld one another in the days and nights to come until one of them died. The story healed … it bound them … and once told it was enough.

Story has a real almost primordial power within it. It is not simply in the act of re-telling or re-membering our story that we are changed but in the way in which story enables us to be honest and real, raw and truthful. In the next few days it might be harder for many to find a face to face encounter, it might be hard to find the normal routes to tell our story and find connection, but there are so many ways to re-member and tell and talk. For it has never been more important to find space and place to tell our story even if it is to ourselves for the first time, even if it is into the silence of the day or the emptiness of the night. For in the telling there is healing.

This last year has brought so much pain and hurt for too many; lives lost to Covid19 before they had left their mark or finished their tale; hardness and heartache of those left behind, those who have spent themselves in care and giving; those anxious and worried, detached and separated. We need not just to remember but to use the energy of memory to create purpose to change, to do different and be better. That is what remembrance is for me – not an act of precision and poise, of stiffness and formality, but a movement of memory and re-making.

So as I go for a walk on Remembrance Day I will sit and ponder, reflect and remember, and I will allow my story to be told inside my heart, and like my two Orcadian friends I will seek to memorialise those who I have lost not in words but in action, in a commitment to be and to do better.

The bench

I look out at the sea

crying in the dark tonight,

shedding its tears on the shore;

washing down the face of the land,

hiding in the shadows,

yet never silent,

always roaming around

desperate for welcome and warmth.

 

and I close my eyes and think

who are you nameless one on whose seat

strangers come and settle in loving embrace;

your future folded forever

in slatted curves of wooden shape

overlooking the encroaching tide?

 

for here you rest in silence,

28 years old the plaque proclaims

but yet hushes the laughter,

tears and story of your days;

as your name nakedly

witnesses untold tales,

as gossip and truth mingle here.

 

how many of your lovers have forgotten

your touch and smell?

how many now strain to the memory of your

voice welcoming response?

how many come and sit

and weep at your going too soon?

 

I do not know

and can only close my eyes and imagine

 

for like the sea you are here

in season and out

taking tears and turning them tender

accepting brokenness and moulding forgiveness

sharing joy and directing hope

recognising fear and caressing sadness.

 

and like the sea you smuggle

love into my imagination,

washing away my anger

showing me that in death you rest in my living

and become my future.

 

Donald Macaskill