A Distant Memory of Westminster Abbey

westminster abbey london

When I walked into Westminster Abbey a couple weeks ago, I expected to have very distinct memories.

The backstory: I was 15 years old then, gripping my French horn inside the famous cathedral. When I think back to the December day I played in a high school brass choir in the Abbey, the memory has a gold-plated interior. We were a small group – perhaps 12 students – sitting on a slightly risen platform performance area.

I don’t know what we wore. I don’t remember other visitors walking throughout the cathedral. And I don’t remember what songs we played, but I remember the sound reverberating. We blew through our brass instruments, and the sound went on and on, bouncing off the walls. We couldn’t have anticipated this when practicing.

I remember our director tearing up.

The memory is fragmented – tiny slivers of time. The color. That first sound. My director’s eyes when she looked at us.

But during our visit to Westminster Abbey over our February holiday, I realized it was a famous London cathedral I thought I remembered.

When I stood in the cathedral, I thought I would remember where we sat to play, but the building was foreign to me.

Did we sit there? Or there? Maybe here?

From nowhere that I stood in the cathedral could I see the image I retained in my memory.

I walked around. I looked up and down. I stood still. I observed, then closed my eyes and tried to transport myself back more than 20 years.

And then, I gave up.

I finally had to ask someone working at Westminster where performance groups would play. He pointed out a couple options – an area near the front of the cathedral where short sermons are given throughout the day and side alcove close to Poets’ Corner.

(As a side note, he mentioned the Abbey archives likely has a recording of the performance – something I should look into on a future visit.)

Memory is a funny thing.

Truthfully, I have a horrendous memory. On more than one occasion, I’ve mentioned to Cory we should watch a particular movie that looks interesting, and he’ll have to remind me that we already did.

But there’s something about traveling and memory that play so strangely together.

A single delicious meal. One bad customer service encounter. A bout of particularly pleasant weather on that one particularly important day. That one terrible tour guide.

It’s these things that seem to stand out about a certain destination or specific trip, often coloring the entire experience with either rose-colored glasses or a gray cloud-fringed filter. 

And then there are those things somewhere in the middle, or somehow overshadowed by other more significant moments at the time. My memory, at least, lets these moments run together and wash away.

On that trip to London – my first overseas trip – I was traveling with a hormone-induced, sleep-deprived high school band that was being shuffled from one scheduled event to another.

I realize now how significant it was that I played in a brass choir in Westminster Abbey, but I’m not sure I realized the gravity of the situation when I was in the moment. At the time, it was just one more thing I had to do.

As I age – and come to understand the boundaries of my pitiful memory – I’ve tried to take more time to do fewer things. To be present in more moments (because, let’s face it, you can’t really be present in them all). Look around. Listen.

I know I’m never going to recall even a fraction of the potentially significant moments of my lifetime. But, by being more attuned in general, hopefully I’ll be more likely to recall something like blowing through my school-rented French horn on a cold December day in London’s Westminster Abbey.

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