One of the most poignant truths I’ve discovered is that certain people, places, objects and events of our lives later take on unexpected significance. Living our lives for the most part with day-to-day myopia and concerned with immediate matters (despite a sincere yet lofty stated desire to do otherwise) our memories and eventually our future perspectives are being cumulatively shaped. That the most compelling idiosyncratic fragments don’t immediately make themselves obvious only adds to their eventual melancholic power in our psyches.
Later, having caught on to this phenomenon, we start to be alert to this, but our view to the full and future implications of the present day, with all its endless elements, is a vantage point necessarily limited.
Indeed, if it weren’t this way, we would be crippled and ineffective in our daily lives. Present Practical Self needs to bag up our unused clothing and give it to Goodwill, pay our bills and make dinner, while Future Philosopher Self, on some winter day, might yearn with unexpected acuteness for the first nylon stockings our mother bought for us one long ago Easter. The person we would later become in the fullness of time might suddenly wonder whatever happened to that quiet fellow who tried to converse with us in Journalism class, whereas at the time, caught up in our own angst and self-consciousness, we scarcely noticed.
And sometimes the most powerful things are inexplicably ordinary and seemingly random: a certain rainy day, looking out a bedroom window past the floral print arm of a chair; a doll table made from a small gift box of green and gold, with a small mirror on top; windmill cookies eaten in the back seat of a car. When did these things happen? Why do they feel significant and carry a charge of emotion? Conversely, we reach for a certain memory and have only vague notions or none: why can’t I remember my very first video job? Why didn’t I stay in touch with my dear friend in sixth grade who moved back to Georgia; what was I thinking?
Even if we try with all our focus and concentration to imagine what will be most meaningful to our future selves, and make present choices accordingly, at best we’ll come up short. Plans notwithstanding, we don’t know who we’re going to be until we’re there. Further complicating this equation, our journey is in many respects one of losses, and sometimes it is primarily the loss itself, the absence of something that eventually creates its significance.
We do our best with photo albums and scrapbooks and journals and diaries, and collecting things to replace those we gave away.
The idea always tugged at me, the whole complex notion of the passage of time and our metamorphosis, moment to moment, from one human being to another slightly different one, over and over again.
It fascinates and pains me to realize that my three year-old self is in many ways just as gone as my Grandparents are. Adding an unnecessary loss to the inevitable one, I wonder now about a gift I received that year from my mother, a bracelet with three charms on it: a cake with three candles, a numeral 3, and a little girl. If only I’d tucked it away someplace special, and kept it safe. If only.
We are helpless knowing that while we can address the future and act on its behalf, where the past is concerned we can only regard it. But because we are sentient, reflective, philosophical, and even sentimental, we can endure the pain of not being able to reach back and touch it.
We view our pasts through glass, fog, paper, tears; then we shape and reshape it in ways we could never have imagined.
And then, better at the whole endeavor but still imperfect in our efforts, we continue forward.
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