Does the vividness of memory ever surprise you? It does me.
I remember a day as a student when I joined some classmates in waving scarves of every color as we danced barefoot down the grey, marble-floored hallways of our seminary. A drummer walked with us, and a group of people followed.
I think it was a holiday. I think we led people to a special service. I don’t remember those details exactly, but I do remember the joy: on dancers’ faces as we turned and leapt, in the drum beat and clapping hands, in my own body as I danced in public for the first time. I found myself with others in the middle of something larger than any one of us, something whose gladness went deep.
So much time has passed since then. Even if it hadn’t, the pandemic would stand as a sharp dividing line between now and what came before. At the seminary—the same seminary, where I now serve on staff—we began working remotely just before our city’s lockdown. Hallways emptied. Classes went online. So much changed.
I knew that I got to keep what many others did not: work, income, food, and healthcare. Still, it felt like daily bread taken away to lose the physical presence of so many people and places I’d built my days around. I had a hard time shaking the lethargy of that early pandemic time, missing the nourishment of physical presence. When I’d swing by the seminary building, as I sometimes still needed to do, I’d go quickly in and out. Some of that speed had to do with an eerily empty building, not wanting to spend too much time thinking about the people missing from those hallways.
One misty afternoon, though, I paused. Just inside the building, floor-to-ceiling windows showed me the chapel across the courtyard. The emptiness prompted recollection. I imagined lights turned on inside, making its windows glow with warmth. I’d often seen them do that on misty days. The place felt dense with memory. I don’t know how else to say it. I glanced across the courtyard, through windows in the opposite wing, and that was when I saw them: the dancers. Colorful scarves, young women in leotards leading a drummer and a crowd, mouths smiling and hands clapping—I saw us dancing as we danced years ago, our joy in one another and in what we were doing still vivid, still clear as day.
Tears filled my eyes. I missed those friends and professors. I missed so many people I’d come to know in those hallways over the years. A sense of loss welled up inside me. I missed my father, too, who died right before the pandemic began. He’d come to campus not long after that dancing day for my graduation. Though he had trouble walking by then, he and my mother persevered, and I remember how they stood beaming as we met by the auditorium for commencement.
Memories can return with such inexplicable power and presence. I’ve started letting myself welcome them a little bit more lately. Far from adding to my sense of lethargy or loss, as I’d expected, I’ve actually found the memories waking me up and making me smile. I thought at first that they helped me look away from a difficult present. While that’s true, I’ve also started to notice memories doing so much more than that.
Walking the empty halls, I’ll hear a mentor’s voice echoing back to me from over the years, and I feel as comforted as when she first spoke her encouraging words. I’ll see a colleague’s playful grin as we prepare a practical joke on our supervisor, and I laugh. I’ll feel the glow from my father’s expression on that graduation day as he told me he was proud of me, and it lingers like an undiminished blessing, still. Honestly, some days it really does seem as if the dancers still dance down the marble-floored halls, and my father still smiles for me, and what I grieve isn’t really gone.
Beneath the loss, if we dwell with it and look at it long enough, I think we can often see that love remains. “Love never ends,” writes Paul. “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8a & 13:13 NRSV). Love given and received, love holding us together, love shaping who we are and showing us how we want to live – by the grace of God, remains. Dancers still dance their colorful dances through the hallways of our lives, loved ones still smile for us from beyond the grave, and what we grieve we find is never really gone.