Tuesday, July 6, 2021

The Weight of Memory

Shawn Smucker

The last eighteen months has brought all of us many unexpected things: both tragedy and gifts. One of our pandemic gifts has been moving from our row home on James Street, a home we loved and lived in for seven years, to a little cottage at the back of a small development, a property with a border that runs along the woods, and if you walk deep enough into the woods, the Conestoga River waits.

After so much time in the house together, me and my wife and our six children, we needed some space to breathe, to get out of each other’s hair, to stretch out and exhale.

Yesterday I looked through the window and one of the little neighbor girls was climbing the tree in our front yard with our two youngest kids. They were encouraging each other.

“Go ahead, climb up, you can do it.”

“Put your foot here.”

“I’ll give you a boost.”

This seems to be the best example of how we should all be living at the tail-end of a pandemic: full of encouragement, helping where we can, and exuding belief in one another.

* * * * *

During one of our last nights in the old house, a thunderstorm rocked the city. Lightning darted toward the ground, followed by rolling rumbles of thunder. During the flashes of light I could see the small-town minor league ballpark in the distance, the one where games had not been held for a year. The wind whipped the 100-year-old sycamore’s branches in front of our house, lashing the spring leaves.

I sat beside the bed of our youngest child, and when a loud echo of thunder sounded, I’d look up and give her a reassuring glance.

“It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”

And so hope has survived even the hardest of years, the hope that it is going to be okay.

Even though hope has survived in one form or another, something fundamental has changed in me. But how could something, many things, not have changed after the year we’ve all lived through?

I can feel it in my writing life, which has taken on both a sense of increased importance and a greater sense of helplessness. Surely these stories are more important than they have ever been. Surely I am less capable to tell them as they need to be told.

This is the back-and-forth I feel in my mind after living through 2020 and the first half of 2021.

What real world problems could this writing ever solve?

* * * * *

It all reminds me of something Anne Lamott writes at the end of her wonderful book about writing, Bird by Bird, when her writing students ask her why their writing matters.

“Because of the spirit, I say. Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul…We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

This is why I keep writing, why I wrote The Weight of Memory: we are traveling rough seas, but through books and writing and art we can travel these seas together. And we can keep singing while the storm rages around us.

Shawn Smucker is the award-winning author of Light from Distant Stars and These Nameless Things, the young adult novels The Day the Angels
Fell and The Edge of Over There, and the memoir Once We Were Strangers. 

He lives with his wife and six children in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You can find him online at