The Grace of Memory

  Jerome Shea       May 4, 2009      Weekend Wonk

James Loewen wrought more than he knew when he picked up the idea of Sasa and Zamani from John Mbiti’s treatise.* For one thing, it caused a flurry on Google. Yes, there is a helpful Wikipedia entry for it, especially helpful because it directs you to Mbiti’s book, which, lo and behold, was available at the UNM library. Then an old friend emailed me the other morning to steer me to a wonderful recent novel, Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead.

When Brockmeier came upon Loewen’s reference to Sasa and Zamani, he grabbed the metaphor and ran with it. The first chapter in the book is entitled “The City.” I want to say that this is no ordinary city and yet in most ways it is very ordinary and very typical. It could be Chicago or St Louis (somehow I think of it as Midwestern, although it is on no earthly map). There are hardware stores, grocery stores, cafes, apartment houses, parks, libraries—all the urban trappings. But in another way it is uniquely extraordinary.

All its citizens are Sasa.

Here is the opening paragraph:

When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had traveled across a desert of living sand. First he had died, he said, and then—snap!—the desert. He told the story to everyone who would listen, bobbing his head to follow the sound of their footsteps. Showers of red grit fell from his beard. He said that the desert was bare and lonesome and it had hissed at him like a snake. He had walked for days and days, until the dunes broke apart beneath his feet, surging up around him to lash at his face. Then everything went still and began to beat like a heart. The sound was as clear as any he had ever heard. It was only at that moment, he said, with a million arrow points of sand striking his skin, that he truly realized he was dead.

Everyone’s “crossing” story is different, but they all realize that they are dead and they all know intuitively that they still “live” only because there are those still alive who can remember them. They all hear the heartbeat at one time or another and the only thing they know is that it couldn’t be their own hearts that they are hearing. Intuitively they know what it is to be Sasa.

And because they are kept “alive” only by the grace of their survivors, they know that sooner or later every last one of them will become Zamani. (Don’t worry; I’m not going to give away the ending, but I’ll bet you have a guess already.) People are always arriving—often in droves, because the world has gone catastrophic—but at the same time (literally at the same time), some Sasa simply and suddenly disappear. One character describes the city as “a pan with a hole in it: ‘No matter how much water you let in, it keeps pouring right through.’”

This is a story, then, about the power—and the fragility—of memory. All we really have is this great web of memory that we all help to spin. And memory is as much about letting go as about holding on.

I said last week that my father is still Sasa, which is to say that he still lives on in the memories of the living. Not just the memories of my brother and me, but of our many cousins who knew Uncle Laurence, of my childhood friends, and so forth. This is that great web that supports most Sasa. I like to think of it as a metaphor for being loved, for having been loved. Then I realized that my grandfather, John P. Shea, is Sasa, too. He died sometime around 1950 as near as I remember, but the point is that I do remember. I remember waiting outside the hospital in the car—kids were barred from hospitals in those days—and knowing that Grandpa Shea was gravely ill and probably would not get to go home, that I probably would never see him alive again. I remember, in happier times, sitting on his lap in his big chair by the window and listening to his stories. I remember the special built-up shoe that he had to wear. I almost remember his voice.

If I were to go on, I would find myself saying “almost” more and more. And those who vividly remembered John Shea—his contemporaries and his children, for example—are long dead. So Sasa itself is not static but dynamic. In Brockmeier’s vision, the Sasa are as robust as they can be until they just wink out. But my gut tells me that as the strands of the web snap one by one and even, perhaps, as the memories of the living fade, so do the Sasa fade. I think of those Kodachrome snapshots that get more and more bleached out as the years pass, until you are finally not sure if that is your cousin Andy behind the old canoe, or some other cousin, or just a trick of the light. Sasa might be said to be a slow apprenticeship in Zamani. This man whose youngest grandchild is now within hailing distance of seventy is almost Zamani. He is about to move from man’s realm to God’s, into the “graveyard of time.” Rest in peace, Grandpa Shea.

*I have no clue where Loewen got the spelling “Sasha.” Certainly not from Mbiti.

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