S2E11 Volcanoes

Joe tries to remember the eruption of Mount St. Helens but isn’t sure he trusts memory.


Around 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, May 18, 1980, my world changed. There was no way of knowing or suspecting, so soon into the morning, the sky would turn black. Not black like the night. Not black like an eclipse—there were no stars or moon. Black like a closet in a basement. And still. The stillness of attentiveness, the stillness of hiding. Then quiet, like the world after a blizzard. Silent. Silence that is both comforting and eerie. A quiet in which sound is absorbed into the surroundings. Like the world was quilted in black velvet. No echo. No reverb.

Then the snow came. The streetlights kicked on, in the morning, as we were getting ready for church. And—in the radius of the streetlight—snow. But it wasn’t snow. This was mid-May. It couldn’t be snow. But it looked like snow. Dirty snow. Gray. It was the falling pieces of trees and soil and stone, all reduced into flakes and dust and ash, the particles of a mountain 105 miles directly west of Granger, Washington.

Because of how memory works, I don’t have many details of that morning. Only that the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, to me, a nine-year-old, was a welcome apocalypse. I did not want to go to church. Neither did my brother and sisters. Nor, probably, did my Dad. And in a world as small as Granger—with its 1,800 people, uncluttered by stoplights or movie theaters or even a McDonald’s—the eruption of a volcano was entertainment. It was sublime. It was bigger than anything I had seen or known or thought to know—bigger than the hydroplane races at SeaFair, bigger than the Space Needle, perhaps as big as Star Wars.

For me, that is the entirety of the memory: The mountain erupted, it was black on a late-Spring morning, and we didn’t have to go to church. I wish there were more. But memory doesn’t work like that. It is not a home movie—a rediscovered VHS tape in the garage. Based on the way memory seems to work, you can never be sure the details are correct. The memory becomes transformed by narrative—like my memory that we didn’t go to church—such that there may be no actual memory. Only the story that was crafted and called “memory.”

Since 1980, I have gone through similar collective events—the Challenger explosion, the Columbine shooting, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Nisqually earthquake. Each event becomes lodged, internalized, by the “where were you when it happened” context—the place and time and feeling of the experience more than the event.

Ben Lerner, in his novel 10:04, writes of this phenomenon. He describes the Challenger explosion and how all us Gen-Xers remember where we were, how we watched the space shuttle blast off and explode. We were in school, encircled around a TV with our classmates. Only we weren’t. Not most of us. Not those of us in Granger. Lerner points out that only CNN carried the launch and explosion live. We didn’t watch it happen. We watched it as remembered later in story, as news. In 1986, I don’t even know if Granger had cable. Our school, among the poorest in the state, certainly didn’t have TVs in every classroom.

This week, I am trying to remember the explosion of Mount St. Helens forty years ago. I will talk to peers and tell stories. The Portland Art Museum is sharing its volcano exhibit. But, if I’m honest, I don’t know much more than anyone who wasn’t alive then or who isn’t from the Pacific Northwest—only that it happened and was worth remembering. I will, like many people I know, probably say, “I’ll never forget it.” Which, with few exceptions, is not a choice we get to make with memory. Of course I will forget it. Maybe I won’t forget that it happened. Every year since 1980, I associate May 18 with Mt. St. Helens. Just like I associate June 16 with my dad’s birthday. Though there is a substantial difference between remembering that my dad was born and remembering the events of his birth.

I can make a list of “never forgets.” But the list is short. It shifts from public catastrophes to private ones, from the attacks on September 11, 2001, to the death of my friend Nelson Ng on August 15, 2008. Nelson was a police officer. And he’s been gone so long. I’ve almost become used to a world without him. Though, not really. I still feel the cavity. Just as now, every time I drive north on I-5, if the day is clear, I see what remains of Mt. St. Helens. It is something like a tooth after a root canal, hollowed out and sunken. It’s top 1,313 feet are missing. Parts of it mixed in with the dirt and dust in Granger, Washington. I can’t see the summit. I only know that until forty years ago, it had one and that now there’s nothing in the place of where the summit should be.

I admit, it’s harder to see the chasm left by Nelson. I’ve moved away from Ellensburg, his wife remarried and changed his daughter’s last name to match her new husband’s. Though, earlier this week when the Kittitas County Sherriff’s Office posted pictures of officers who died in the line of duty—beneath the banner at the top of the page that reads, “Never Forgotten”—I noticed the absence of Nelson. These portraits were limited to the never-forgotten of 2019.

By definition, I do not know who or what I’ve forgotten. I’ve certainly forgotten many of the people and events I said I would never forget. Whenever someone says, “I’ll never forget,” it rings like a challenge to the universe. Yes, they will forget. I will forget. We might remember a feeling—or that we felt. We probably will create a story that takes the place of memory. Where we were when the planes hit the second tower, what we were eating when the radio reported the death of President Roosevelt.

I do wonder, when this moment in history ends, what will remain. Probably stories about toilet paper and a cartoonish American president. I will remember not being able to go to church—how the Plague took away Lent, then Easter, then (unless a miracle in the next week) Pentecost. But not much beyond that. Memories are a bit like produce on a counter: the browning of a banana, the softening of an avocado. So, we put new bananas, new avocados on the counter.

I have long envied that device in the Harry Potter books—the Pensieve. About which, Dumbledore says, “I sometimes find… that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.” The Pensieve allows the pure extraction of a memory so that it can be reviewed—by the original witness or by others. Like it was filmed before a live studio audience—a piece of television more than a concoction of facts and perspectives and interpretations. But, of course, this magic does not exist any more than does floo powder or the spells by which Voldemort can come continually come back from the dead. Memories fade into interpretations or absences. Dead people stay dead.

Perhaps I am reading too much theology and history lately. It’s strange the way that history, so often, feels more like discovery than recollection. The way I come across a story and think, “How did I not know that?” Which is another way of saying things were forgotten. I’ve been reading a family history my Aunt wrote. All of it feels like discovery. My family has forgotten—or chose to forget—or maybe I’ve simply forgotten. And the memories exist now only as stories, like a form of alchemy. How trilobites, once fleshy and living, exist now only as stone. How a mountain’s summit is now dispersed across states as part of the topsoil or makes up the silt on the ocean floor.

I don’t know what any of this means, only that I keep hearing about the things people will never forget. I wonder why they believe that. Of course we will forget. We always forget. Maybe memory was never about remembering. Maybe it is only a process by which an experience or person blends into us, that even if we forget all the details, we respond to the next tragedy or pleasure with an instinct or intuition, a sense that we’ve been here before. Or maybe memory is this flicker—this idea that we need to re-discover a thing that is in danger of being lost. And maybe that is why I write—to remember a few things, to try, as much as I can, to re-create the Pensieve. Or simply to store something that will otherwise be as distant to me as childhood and volcanoes and the celebration of staying home from church.

S2E07 Memory

Joe is losing his mind, one memory at a time. Plus, he talks Augustine, Moby Dick, twenty-first birthdays, and Heaven.


For most of the Plague, I’ve been reading St. Augustine’s Confessions. It remains one of the glaring omissions in my study. For the first chapters, it was fascinating. I thought I would blaze through. Expecting a quick finish, I even ordered a few other books, which are now in stacks, waiting their turns. But I’ve been buried, for a month now, in a repetitive and meandering part. It’s the dull and apparently aimless rambling that makes me think of Moby Dick—how it took me years of false starts until finally, in an act of willpower that may have been better applied to training for a marathon, I finished.

My poor wife thinks it’s her obligation to read Melville now. She has my copy on her bedside, bookmarked in the early chapters just as Ishmael, Ahab, Starbuck, and Queequeg leave Nantucket. She’s stranded. Just as I, now past the juicy parts about Augustine’s youth, feel like the Pequod stalled in windless waters.

My stepdaughter turns 21 in three weeks. She’s not excited about it. My wife and I talked with her about twenty-first birthdays. This, for some reason, is an American right of passage. And my stepdaughter is, rightly, saddened that she will miss out on hers. She will mark the day with her mom, her sister, and her mother’s new-ish husband. In our house. No friends, no bouncers, no illicit regrets. Perhaps she will, by nature of the disappointment, remember the birthday. Twenty years from now, she will talk about the quarantine birthday. It will be memorable for its context, even if its actual events are forgettable. Though, perhaps, she won’t really remember it. Because that Monday night will seem so much like the Sunday before it or the Wednesday after it—the same texture, the same Netflix browsing, the same furniture. She will—as is the nature of adult birthdays—not even be excused from her online classes.

My dad never had a twentieth birthday, though it’s the only of his birthdays he’s ever talked about. He boarded a plane for Vietnam on June 15 and arrived in Thailand on the 17th.

I am thinking these days about memory. Since January, I’ve risen early most days and scribbled into notebooks, attempting to form something of a theological memoir. I know I have no chance, without exhaustive research, of building a typical autobiography. I can’t get facts straight. I have few direct quotes. But by attaching my recollection to developments in my religious life, I seem to find some narrative—how I got here—how I drifted from a Catholic through Evangelicalism through other stops until my current homelessness—a Lutheran in most doctrine, but not quite sure what to do with that. This attempt to remember—to create a memoir—was why I finally got around to reading Augustine’s memoir.

The hard part of trying to remember a life is that most of life in unmemorable. Most of it blends into other parts. People enter out of order. I mix up where I lived, when I lived there, and who my friends were. I can’t seem to pinpoint the moment when my family stopped being Catholic and switched to baptist, or why I went along with it. My best resources are corroding memories of conversations with my mom. My grandparents are gone. My aunts and uncles are dwindling or distant. So, I write what I can recall. But the memoir that emerges plays loosely with its historical framework, like how Moby Dick blurs Melville’s time as a sailor with the historical case of the Essex, a ship attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820. Or like movies based on historical events—how I watched the 2003 Luther movie with my wife and had to keep pausing to say, “Well, actually.”

I have no hope of being truly historical because memory is a terrible tool for recording history. When my daughter, now 19, was a child, I deferred my memory to hers. If she said, “No, dad. Grandma wore a pink dress,” then whatever memory I had that her grandma had not been there, let alone never wore pink dresses, would adjust to her account. My daughter was my pure camera. She recorded events without processing them. Though, around her twelfth birthday, this changed. Her memories, like mine, became interpretations. She had a harder time accessing an objective raw feed and tended to recall events based on how they affected her.

This brings me back to something I’ve been plodding through with Augustine. He’s been concerned, for the last week or so, with the nature of time, the essence of God’s relationship to time in contrast to how all of creation experiences—exists in—time. For me, I’m usually bored with theologies that focus too much on God’s perfections—how he is perfectly perfect in his perfectness: eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, unchanging. This theology, as orthodox as it may be, makes God abstract, a philosophical ideal. And it tends to contrast with the God who barters with Abraham, wrestles with Jacob, and rages at Moses.

Augustine, in explaining God’s eternalness, points out why, as an aspect of this, God must be unchanging. He writes, “[God] doesn’t will different things at different times, but instead wills everything that he does will only once, but at the same time and for all time—not over and over, and not differently now and then.” For Augustine, change is an element of time. Only created things—people, pencils, trees, universes—change because they are bound to time. He writes, “periods of time can be perceived and counted off, because periods of time arise from changes in things, given that their types… diverge and diversify.” To Augustine, time is that principle by which we detect and measure change. Change is imperfection. Perfection is unchanging. Perfection is beyond time.

I have two responses to Augustine. The first is more of a question: I can say that God, as I’ve gotten older, appears to have changed. So, how can I be certain that I am changing but God isn’t? My children change, my wife changes, people in relationships change. How do I know that God isn’t changed by entering time and experiencing it with me? Of course, Augustine and St. Thomas and the good Reformed thinkers have answers for that, so I won’t press the point. I try to choose my heresies wisely.

The second is about this present moment and how utterly forgettable it is. This, I think, is one of the illusions of the Lenten-Plague and one of the reasons I keep writing about it. I don’t want to write about this. I want to write about movies, love, cats, and the city. But I’m trapped here. I’m stuck. Or maybe I know that just as I’ve already forgotten what I ate two days ago, I will forget the individual days of this period unless I chronicle them. The further this presses on, the more I’ll mash all its parts into one, just as I blend second through fifth grade into something called “childhood.” We all think we’ll never forget something this big, something this historic. But the featureless and uneventful present moment feels like living the process of forgetting.

I remember parts of my twenty-first birthday. I remember it because it was my twenty-first and that’s something you’re supposed to take note of. So I have a spot for it. My wife’s daughter will likely remember hers because there’s a spot for it—like a picture frame waiting for its photo. And because, over time, she will rehearse and replay her memory—“My twenty-first was the worst because….” She will tell that story until the story replaces a memory, the interpretation replaces the raw footage. For the record, I’m starting to wonder if Naser Al-Hajeri really gave me a Pearl Jam CD on my twenty-first birthday. Maybe that was a different day.

This, perhaps, is what I am understanding about the Plague. I will remember the Plague itself, but not the days within it. The longer it extends, the more inseparable the days are. Had all of this run its course by Easter, then, probably, I could think of the parts. But this is not ending soon, and the gap between memorable moments is increasing. This is the dull and slow part of Moby Dick, the meandering pages of The Confessions. I understand, of course, that not everyone is having the same experience—healthcare workers and essential personnel are going through intense hours. But even this intensity is, in itself, a way of confusing memory. It is a type of hypnosis. It’s like this morning, as I tried, again, to find something in a newsfeed that didn’t ultimately come back to the Plague. But all of it does. The blurring of time, the repetitiveness of story, the meandering uncertainty, the loss of calendar and interaction. It makes us as drowsy as a husband and a wife, on separate sides of the bed at 11:00, attempting to read Augustine and Melville.

Which leaves me with another question about God and eternity: a slow horror that emerges when people mention Heaven—another orthodox idea that I admit leaves me cold. Heaven, in my mind, no matter how much pastors smile when they say it, no matter how much I’m told to imagine it as better than anything I can imagine, is Narnia’s always-winter-and-never-Christmas, or this year’s always-Lent-and-never-Easter. The best description of Heaven I know is not in Augustine, though it seems to have come from reading Augustine. It is, instead, David Byrne, in lyrics from the band, Talking Heads:

“When this kiss is over
It will start again
It will not be any different
It will be exactly the same
It’s hard to imagine
That nothing at all
Could be so exciting
Could be this much fun
Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens.”

I don’t know if there’s something on the other side of Heaven. Honestly, I hope there is. But I still believe something waits on the other side of the Plague. And when that other side comes, perhaps we will long for this, the season without seasons, the days without days. Because, often, the things we remember most are the things we wish we could forget. Maybe that’s what Heaven is: the process of forgetting.

In the meantime, I will finish Augustine. Maybe I will miss it when it’s done, just as, at some level, I felt more sadness than triumph when closing Moby Dick. A few days ago, my wife said she might miss the Plague when it’s over. Yesterday, she changed her mind. She wants it gone. Her daughter won’t miss it. It’s taken a day that was supposed to be memorable. Though, if it’s anything like most twenty-first birthdays, it would have been disappointing anyway. So rarely do our expectations match reality. And so few things are really remembered.