“W hat was I going to do here?” I’ve just entered a room in the home where I’ve lived for years. I’m idling in front of a closet or perhaps a drawer or cupboard that I myself have filled with clothes, letters, books, mail, dishware, medicine, knickknacks, or whatever collection of things it holds. My mind is in Park, engine racing as I tap my foot impatiently, but gears definitely not engaged. Sometimes I change gears and circle back, trying to outwit myself. Perhaps that mental roadblock will be cleared away by next Thursday! Familiar? You’d think this common experience would be insignificant enough to be forgettable itself and that’s true, except for my vague concern that it might signal a more life-changing problem. I worry about permanent memory loss. Where is this coming from?
Researchers have named this kind of forgetfulness the “Doorway Effect.” Studies have shown that physically moving through a doorway into different surroundings presents so many new possibilities that we easily leave behind the original reason we went there. Evidently, memories are not as abstract as they might seem, but rather are associated with particular environments or experiences. I imagine that’s why going home after a long absence can hit you like a flash flood. And it explains a lot about Christmas.
Honestly, making beautiful Christmas memories takes a lot of preparation and remembering details. I get out decorations, address cards, check gift lists, wrap and mail packages while singing along to Christmas songs on the radio. On the desk calendar (not the one with the little doors), I’ll make notes about volunteering, caroling, working at the church bazaar, attending concerts, and practicing for the children’s program. I’ll waver over decisions about what food to bring and what to wear to the next get-together or who to invite over. I’m pretty sure the whole kitchen will feel like 350°F before I’m finished baking batch after batch of my mother-in-law’s famous sugar cookies. I’ll puzzle over ways to display flat photocards of everyone’s smiling children and grands. (Tucked in a little sleigh or decorated box? Clipped on a shabby-chic wire coil?) Soon I’ll be in the loop of conference calls with family members who are simultaneously making plans with yet more extended family members before I’m confident enough to make plane reservations that cannot be canceled. So many details to remember and deal with.
All the while, days have been gradually shortening. At the close of many of these ever-darkening days, I stretch out on the couch and reflect in the quiet glow of tree lights, like I have in years past. Nearby, in the shadow of candles, the nativity shepherds and kings face each other like bookends. Mary and Joseph and the babe-lying-in-a-manger are in the center.
That last sentence even sounds ironic to me as I re-read it.
I imagine the original Old-Inn stable was a minimal place that wouldn’t show well on an online realty site. Did it offer much shelter? Or was it open to the elements and whoever might come by in the darkness? Or in the future?
Turns out that The Doorway Effect on memory loss occurs only when we move between distinctly separate spaces. Additional tests found that open concept rooms or wide-open spaces didn’t limit recall like doorways did.
Which makes me wonder if we should give some thought to how we come and go through the church doors. Maybe instead of closing our Christmas Eve services with a solemn carol and blowing out our candles, we ought to noisily throw open those doors. Prop them wide open. Let the cold rush in and the warmth flow out. So we don’t forget what we came for. So we don’t forget what Jesus came for.
Shirley Heeg is a woman of faith who has served as a minister to United Church of Christ and Reformed Church in America congregations in both Michigan and Minnesota. Retired, she and her husband, John, live mid-knuckle on Michigan’s pinky finger, in the same woodland home where they once raised their four children and where they welcome them back with their families as often as possible. These days she is a guest preacher and writer, and hopes to be a good friend.