Memories of unconscious joy

It would be a kind of hell to select one memory only from the entirety of your life, to carry with you into eternity.

…which memory would YOU pick?

This seems the ultimate question in Hirozaku K0reeda’s 1998 film After Life. In the imagination of the movie, following death, people head to a kind of purgatory in which each person has three days to select one memory from life to carry with them into the after life. A pilot selects the image of puffy, two-tiered clouds suspended in sky as he glides past. A young girls picks a moment with her head in her mother’s lap, smelling of fresh laundry in the sunshine. An old man wants to remember an ordinary conversation with his wife on an ordinary day in the park.

Called “After Life” in the most pragmatic of ways, the title seems more like a contradiction in terms than a helpful tool in understanding the film. The purpose of the movie, it seems to me, is not to help the viewer think about his or her death (or afterlife), but rather how best to live one’s life. Accompanying me last night throughout watching the entire movie was the question: which memory would I choose? Would I select a hot summer day at my parent’s cabin, filled with childhood, bratwursts, algae-green water, sunbursts, grass-stains? What about the quiet evening walks that characterized my time living in Ecuador, a volcano leaning over my shoulder, and silver-lined clouds passing me by? Perhaps I might choose a moment of joyful, electric discovery in seminary, writing something ferociously in the quad in New York City?

And then: what do these memories say about us? Comprised together, who do they say that we are, what do they say about our lives, and what do they say about what (and whom) we value and care about the most?

So long as the movie is focused on memories, it is not making commentary on death. It’s purpose is to incite us to reflect upon life.

This weekend, I suppose, must have been intended to drive me to reflect on living life. I arrived to church this morning–late, as usual–just in time to listen to my pastor’s sermon, the centerpiece of which was a poem called A Blessing, by James Wright. Similar to many of the characters’ choices of memories in After Life, the poem creates meaning around that which is often experienced and interpreted as ordinary: dusk; a pair of ponies on the prairie; highway in Minnesota. This simple experience brings the narrator an undeterred joy: “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.”

What if this is what it means to live life well? I find it hard not to collapse into the well-worn rhapsodies of live life to the fullest and carpe diem and other stuff of legendary proportions. But if we are to believe Hirozaku Koreeda and James Wright, isn’t that a little beside the point?

I think each of them would say, in their own way, that if we spent every day living life to the absolute fullest, we would actually lose our worn, everyday beauties. These are not moments to be seized upon–they would be gone the moment they became intentional. The pieces of life that linger precious to us are those that are unconscious in their contentment; simple by way of nonchalance.

S0. When all is said and done, what moments will you hold most dear?

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