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MEMORY: The Experience of Pioneering in the Baha’i Community

By becoming authors, performers and educators, pioneers continue to revisit, verbalise and teach the importance of their traditional identity in self-created ways. Their work can be an exemplary model for how memory and creativity combine to form the impetus that drives the pioneering tradition forward in addition to traditions in the Baha’i community not necessarily associated with pioneering.  From a distant angle, memory is a deceptively dormant force, often disconnected with the everyday life of the Baha’i community save for bursts of nostalgia from the places and contexts of the present, from the lives of the pioneers themselves.

There are now two journals exclusively dedicated to this topic (History and Memory and Memory Studies), and numerous periodicals have devoted special issues to this theme. H-Memory, an online discussion network launched in 2007, features constant debate on what is now recognized as an interdisciplinary academic field in its own right: "…how humans remember and represent that memory, be it through literature, monuments, historical works, or in their own private lives".  All in all, the literature is extensive. How does one separate the wheat from the chaff? Memory is a slippery term. Despite all that has been written, its meaning is not self-explanatory. Unreflective and uncritical references to memory inevitably induce banal conclusions. "Collective memory", conceptualized by Maurice Halbwachs (1925,1950) in the interwar period, remains, in the words of James Wertsch, a "term in search of a meaning" (2002, 30-66), and contemporary research displays discomfort with the vacuous ways in which it has been applied. With these caveats and complexities in mind, I launch forth to deal with my experience, my memory, of the pioneering life I have had in the last half-century, 1962-2012, after a decade of association with the Baha'i Faith from 1952/3 to 1962 in the town of Burlington Ontario in southern Ontario's Golden Horseshoe.

One of the literary places for the past and its memory which resonates within the culture of the pioneer, that is the person who has moved from the places of his birth and youth where he has been a Baha'i, is that of the carrying stream, or the stream of consciousness in the writing of the pioneer.  Memory is understood as a place in continual motion, a personal and collective archive of occasional knowledge. It is like a vast repertoire that is subject to periods of increased relevance and creativity or irrelevance and inactivity in the context of, and in the relationship to, the life cycle, the pioneer’s life cycle, his lifespan.

In the culture of the pioneer the idea of memory as an ongoing stream of conscience and consciousness can make the content of his experience contemporary, instructive and meaningful to others, at least he hopes that is the case.  Memories transmit not only the events of his past, but also coherent learning processes, the worldviews that provide the foundations for confident creativity, individualism, and various forms of the collectivity that is the Baha’i community. When viewed as creativity, memory becomes an evolving store of knowledge, a source of informed imitation and individualistic originality.

A pioneer like myself who has been on the road, so to speak, for half a century has a whole world at his command and that's where he can find pure creativity.  That's where real story telling and writing about his experience come from.  It's about looking with one’s spiritual eye, with one’s inner eye.  When that eye opens, many of the former barriers disappear. The writer who is the pioneer can go to many places.  Of course, this is not the case all the time for there are always various constraints of time and circumstance.

I see this pioneering venture of mine like a series of films or plays in front of me.  I am the producer, the director, the actors, the narrator.  I’m every character in these films and plays; I write the script of all the participants.  My hope is that others can see me and others in these films and gain something from this visual-cognitive-literary experience.  But I’m the one who’s got to convey the series of events!  If I don’t convey them, they will not come to exist in the collective memory.  I can see the activities on the big screen and then I transcribe them into words on the page.  I see the entire account in the form of a cinemascope Hollywood production. Every colour's there, and everything's there, everything I put there.  And I want folks to see this vision. Writers like to have readers in similar ways that talkers like to have listeners.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of memory to a pioneer like myself, contributing his small part to the great pioneering tradition within a religion which claims to be the latest of the Abrahamic religions, is its role as a potential human treasury of immeasurable wealth. It may be overstating the case to describe my inheritance as a silver chalice to be nurtured and passed on.  I attempt to share my experience, my culture, of a pioneer, in the face of change. This sharing is an act that embodies the belief that nothing is gone unless it is forgotten or, more importantly, unless I don’t write about it.  By choosing to remember my pioneer experience, so often outwardly and apparently insignificant, I have prioritised the communal bonds of my personal and community life.  I have engaged in a human exchange in order to celebrate my part in a pioneering heritage that is a source of pride, ownership and creativity.

Without my active belief in the continuing vitality of my pioneer experience, it would be nothing more than a dirt track.  Combining memory, tradition, and creativity, I have recreated its understated landscape as a living and monumental archive, an archive that is my pioneering life.  Unless I write about my experience it is carefully buried in what you might call a midden. A midden is  a place where one disposes of rubbish or where one buries things for posterity.  Concealed in layers, the midden is capable of divulging artefacts which relay a history of human dwelling.  From the fragmented and unknown to the objects of living memory, the pieces of broken china, horse brasses and tackle, or cracked pots, cups and basins confirm the ancestral and emanate belonging.  Nearer the surface objects become more complete in their direct relationship to remembered people.  This midden will never be unearthed if I do not write about my experience.  It will remain concealed.  My relationship to remembered people will never find a public face.

The material in this midden becomes a conduit for new narratives that use a sense of the past to objectify the present. Within pioneer culture the pervasive themes of cyclical renewal, or life as a journey, reflect a worldview instilled by the practical, descriptive, and symbolic richness of pioneering as a form of education in which the guidance of family and community, tradition and nature is always accessible when sought.

My life as a pioneer and my memories of the journey have taught me to cultivate the spirit of discernment and the ability to read my environment from the inside. Tradition, the tradition of pioneering in the Baha’i community, manifests itself in the connections of knowledge drawn between the visible and the unseen.  My belief as a pioneer in both the material aspects of my life and the traditions of my religion carry energetic properties, tangible shadows of the lives and experiences they connote.  Handed down in my writing is a belief that "the eyes are the mirror of the soul.”  Looking in, so to speak, on the landscape that is my environment has become a type of teacher, a type of reflection of the human situations in which I have been involved.

My work today honours the memory of those pioneers who came over, perhaps, the last two centuries.  I carry their knowledge forward in a unique and individual way.  By passing on the mantle of tradition with an informed knowledge of its symbolic importance and an awareness of my sources I, in turn, become a teacher and ensure, in the process, the continuity of that tradition.  Memory, experienced through tradition, provides what you might call an ancestrally sanctioned route for the development of solutions to current challenges.

Catching a glimpse of this journey, mine and others, can give visitors and readers a sort of return to a tradition that is richer in knowledge and transformed by the experience of a world perceived anew, perceived anew by this pioneer.  In the dedicated work of sharing the experience within my pioneering culture, performers like myself communicate a worldview that can cross the boundaries of outside memory, using tradition as a force to instigate positive changes in popular belief.

Moving past the "tip of the iceberg", between the study of community and the experiential language of tradition, terms such as "multi-dimensionality" can suggest ways of looking anew at the complicated dynamics of memory in traditional contexts. "Looking in" on the sensory dimensions of the experience of tradition elucidates how places exist in memory. It suggests that these places of memory serve as a motivational and creative force in tradition because of their human connections.

The pioneer journey is a landscape humanised by tradition. Its land is rich with the ancestral memory of learned knowledge and narrated in the distilled essence of experiences represented by a host of archetypal figures. Just below the surface, from the stories told of people that lived once, to the intensely individualised associations of living memory, the vertical meets the horizontal, the continual and immediate. Going through the eye of the writer creates a place; it is the land where stories grow, where levels of knowledge and immediacy converge, resulting in moments of epiphany or timelessness, in the realm of experience. Journeying through tradition in the landscape, the evolving present meets with the vertical strata of commonly held, cross-generational truths, converging with layers of sensory experience in the here and now. In its spirit of renewal, the past and the present exist in unison because each feature of its landscape contains multiple layers of association, the many levels of experience between the exoteric and esoteric which inhabit the memories of every human being.

The transition from the experiential to the written is made possible by journeys of the mind through what you might call the eye of the writer. Travelling through the eye of this writer, or breathing in my chosen surroundings, I understand that people and places are an ever-present part of myself and may be revisited by the mind and through the intensity of memory from any physical location. Memory fuelled by tradition is a place in the mind; it comes from the past yet lives in the moment of recollection. Everyone continually relives and recreates from their past.  It is the attentiveness of the going within that brings the creative spark of the pioneer to the moment and ensures the vitality of tradition. To look at memory as a multi-layered process of tradition, dwelling and humanisation is ultimately to ask "Where does memory live?"  In the pioneer tradition of the immense Baha’i diaspora of the last dozen or so decades, this is not entirely in the past, but in the consciousness of its eternal presence.

-Ron Price with thanks to Sara Reith, “Through the "Eye of the Skull": Memory and Tradition in a Travelling Landscape,” The University of Aberdeen, Scotland, Cultural Analysis, Volume 7, 2008.

PS For more on my story of pioneering go to my website at: http://www.ronpriceepoch.com/   For an extended discussion of the concept of memory, and the evolution of the way it has been studied in recent decades, go to this link: http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~caforum/volume7/vol7_discuss1.html

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