Originally published in the March 1978 issue of Senior Edition newspaper
The recent and swift change of season from hot summer days to this damp, cold Sunday afternoon – as I sit, legs outstretched and bare-toed before the first crackling fire of autumn – enlivens my senses. The change of season reminds me that everything and everyone is changing. Time slithers through grasping fingers like grains of sand. We try to remember the world as it was only because we cannot bear to let it go. Our world is wishful thinking. “Remember the good old days?” We wear spectacles from the past. Memory sustains us. “Life was better then. Simpler too. People trusted one another. Automobiles were made to last then. Why I remember my first Model T ….”
I am not a psychologist (nor do I aspire to be one) but it occurs to me that much of the unhappiness of our lives emanates from our unwillingness to either let go of the past or, alternatively, from our inability to recreate the present in an old, familiar context. Most of us take an in-between stance. We sit around and mope that things just ain’t the way they used to be, and complain bitterly that we don’t much like them the way they are. The past beguiles us. We are seduced by our memories. When the present refuses to succumb to our intentions, we find refuge in inundated glory.
I recall a phone conversation two or three years ago. The woman (whom I did not know) calling me talked me back into the year 1917: she was at the railroad station saying goodbye to her lover, a soldier. She told me her story for forty-five minutes. I listened in total silence. Finally, I hung up. Another time a woman called me in regard to a news article I had written about a man who, she said, loved her but refused to leave his wife and feared for his position in the Church hierarchy. Her only friend, it seemed, was a bottle of Golden Cream Sherry, which came highly recommended.
I recall a scene from my youth. I am nine years old. I am on an island in a lake, sitting at the top of a very small tree, wind blowing through my hair, sun beating on my brow, the world beating in my heart. I remember the thought that crystallized that moment forever in my time: “Isn’t it wonderful, “ I (without thinking) thought, “to be nine years old.” Then (thinking), the afterthought: “If only I could be nine forever.”
Memory is an afterthought – a melancholic longing for days gone by. The world as wishful thinking. Trying to replace what is with what was. Doleful counterpoint to this gray old age.
If we are a culture that worships youth, it is not because of the unfettered joys of that vaunted age, but rather because, somewhere along the way, most of us become stuck in time. Those of us adjudged qualified to inhabit institutions for the insane are stuck in one time – too afraid, or too perversely satisfied, to emerge from the self-spun web of time’s chronic cocoon. Most of the rest of us, adjudged normal by community standards, become progressively stuck in time, moving forward in seemingly purposive leaps from one moment of extinguished glory to the next, never quite catching up to the present except in those undiluted moments of ecstasis which become the stepping stones to our past.
“If only I could be nine forever.” Oh, for the good old days. Our melancholic longing for the past belies its presence. We feel seduced, abandoned, and betrayed – sucked into a whirling vortex down memory’s drain.
Being stuck in the past (culturally expressed by the worship of youth) is no more, and no less, than the fear of death looking over its shoulder. Living in the present moves us forward in our own very personal, irreversible time. It brings us face to face with our own physical mortality. By denying Death, we remain immune to its gift. The gift of Death is this: that Life is precious. We are to live it today – to savor its beauty, to ponder its mystery, and to enlarge its possibilities.
While memory provides us with the means to escape to our past, it also provides us with the key to unlock our present moment. We recall the circumstances of the past, but rarely their context. We are seduced by the illusion that if we could re-create the circumstances of our past we would thereby regain our paradise lost. (Fool’s gold at the end of memory’s rainbow.
To unlock the present moment, we must look to the origin of memory, not its content. Recall your fondest memory: Hold this present moment in the same context that crystallized that memory in your mind. Holding this present moment in the context you have re-created, encounter Death. And its gift. If you do this, you will experience the first faint stirrings of immortality.
“I am nine years old. I am on an island in a lake, sitting at the top of a very small tree, wind blowing through my hair, sun beating on my brow, the world beating in my heart. I remember the thought that crystallized that moment forever in my time: ‘Isn’t it wonderful,’ I (without thinking) thought, ‘to be nine years old.’”
May you be forever young.