Joe Jencks


For Auld Lang Syne

For Auld Lang Syne
Happy New Year!

I have been thinking a great deal about the song and the phrase “Auld Lang Syne.” These are Scottish words written by the poet Robert Burns in 1788 or so. They are words that many of us know. But I think I actually understand them for the first time this year. Literally translated into modern English they mean “old long since.” More poetically however, these words mean “for (the sake of) old times.”

I have several relatives and friends who are dealing with various stages of memory loss. They are loosing their story, and the memory of the ways in which their lives were threads, woven into a greater tapestry of humanity and community. And as I visit with them in person or on the phone, I keep coming back to the song “For Auld Lang Syne.”

What does it mean to loose our story? How do we help friends and family who are dear to us when they begin to forget the foundations of our connection?

For Auld Lang Syne, for old times sake, we hang in there. We show patience and kindness. We remind people that we love them. And we keep reminding them as many times as they need to be reminded.

The mother of a deceased musician I was close to once upon a time, called me the other night. She and I have the same conversation every time she calls. She asks me where I live, and I tell her Evanston, IL. She responds in surprise, and says, “Evanston eh? Well that’s my old stomping grounds. I used to live in Evanston!” And the conversation goes on from there more or less predictably for a few minutes. It is as if we had rehearsed the lines for a play. Each time they are a little different, but each time they are the same.

Anyway, she called me and asked me to pray for her. I asked her what was going on and she said she was scared. When I asked what she was scared of she said, “I’m losing my mind. Wouldn’t you be scared?”
It is unclear to me if she remembers my relationship with her son. Obscured is the source of our connection long ago. But she considers me a friend and someone who is safe. And she asked me to pray for her. So I did. It is unclear to me if she recalls any of the times I have visited her in the last 10 years. Blessedly she has forgotten the most painful aspects of her sons passing, and just remembers that she loved him, and that he is gone. But she has no nieces or nephews. She has no living children. She has no living elders. She is alone in so many ways.

We comfort ourselves with the memories of the places we have been and the things we have seen, the people we have loved and the stories that define our lives. But when the people are gone, and the stories fade, well, then perhaps we sing Auld Lang Syne.

Should old acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot
And days of Auld Lang Syne?

For Auld Lang Syne my dear
For Auld Lang Syne
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet
For days of Auld Lang Syne!

Many of us now face or have faced the loss of parents, the inevitable decline and winding down that will of course be waiting for us all one day. We try to help friends and family through the loss of memory, and the loss of the stories. And for me this year, the song has special significance. As we become the keepers of the stories and the histories, whether family lore or civic events, we have an obligation to tell those stories, write them down, blog, whatever. But whatever happens, we must be the keepers of the stories. Even if we are not songwriters or poets or artists, historians or gifted scholars, we must preserve the stories.

Utah Phillips had a radio show for years called, “The Long Memory.” He was dedicated throughout his life to carrying the stories forward. Making sure the younger generations knew what it was like for folks in the 1800s and 1900s. Utah was dedicated to making sure we remembered collectively the battles fought, the victories, the friendships, and the character of the people who lived. He had a long memory. And I hope to have a long memory myself.

So I invite you to consider taking on a project in 2011? Consider writing down or tape/digital recording the stories of the elders in your life. Consider helping all of us remember the stories that might not have ended up in the newspaper or the history books, but are part of the tapestry into which the threads of our lives are woven. Consider asking people about their life and their memories, and listen attentively. And remember! Why? Because these stories are the flesh and the clothing on the skeleton of history! These stories are the ways in which we bring dimension to our lives. We are none of us linear events. We are all winding paths and detours. And somehow we reach our destination or we don’t. But in the end, our stories are all that remain. And for me, there is no greater service than helping those stories live on, and on, and on.

And so I raise a glass to you! I raise a glass to the ones we remember, and the ones we have forgotten. I raise a glass to the friends and family who were our collective memory for so long, and who now by necessity pass the responsibility on to us. I raise a glass to all the friends at home and on the road! I raise a glass to the ones who touched our hearts so long ago that they have become lore and legend. But we know of them, because someone bothered to remember and pass it on.

Utah said to me once, “Joe, never let the facts interfere with the truth!” By this I think he meant that even if the details are lost to time, if we remember the lessons our ancestors learned, if in story and parable, legend and lore, we remember the morals, ethics, and character of those who lived, they remain an inspiration to us. And those stories become tools of instruction for future generations.

I know I am an idealist. I accepted that a long time ago. But I am also a pragmatist. And the process of preserving our stories, our family’s stories, and our collective experience is both idealistic and pragmatic. And thus remains a central theme in my life, and in the lives of many of my colleagues and friends. It is what we are about. Building the bridge between the future and the past.

Utah wrote a song that I hope to record one day. The chorus says,

Working on a ship that I may never sail on
Ship’s gonna sail, gonna sail some day
Working on a ship that I may never sail on
Gonna build it anyway!

It is my hope, for Auld Lang Syne that we can all help build that ship by remembering those who worked on it before us.

So raise a cup of cheer for those you love. Be merry and joyous and loving, and celebrate with abandon! But raise a cup also for those that time has forgotten, and those that have forgotten time. For one day we too shall be part of the communion of lost stories, in the tabernacle of Auld Lang Syne.

Wishing you the very best in 2011, and sending you my deepest gratitude for your presence in my life, and in the collective community of music, folk, and stories.

Happy New Year!