I find that my memory functions like a gas lamp. In looking back on the past I can control the flame, its heat and light. As the wick of memory burns away some of what actually happened certain narratives are re-illuminated. Sometimes I remember things as having been really, really bad. More often times of reminiscence leave me suffused with a warm glow that belies long nights of frantic tears, the dull ache of loss, or interminable boredom. All the badness gets glossed over, softened, tinted with an array of nostalgic pastels. My spirit glows like it’s just hopped from the tanning bed. The good old days, man. They were so great!
“Things are always better when we look back on them in the past.” One evening during my sophomore year of high school I heard that conventional wisdom on the phenomenon of rose-colored hindsight thus distilled and ruminated upon by the charismatic and effortlessly cool front man of a band called MXPX. At the time the sentiment evoked in me a wistful pang not unlike what I experience at the sight of a beautiful young woman or the smell of fresh pancakes. The last time the Bremerton punk outfit had rolled through the Bay Area the particular venue they were playing that night had been operating out of a different building. Mike Herrera’s off the cuff remark seemed sage and triumphant at the same time. It also implied something about the present. It’s not always as bad as you’re afraid it might be. And the past? The past wasn’t as good as you think.
In my mind I tend to separate the more distant past from the events of my own life. I think about the distant past as that which predates me; the stuff I can only know about second hand through the story and testimony of people who were there, from books and movies, or maybe from the broad store of cultural knowledge and memory passed from generation to generation via what Jung calls the collective unconscious. When I think about the distant past I tend to feel a sense of safety. I realize that this has to do with thinking about specific people, places, situations or moments in history. I feel safe because I know what is going to happen to particular men, women and children of the past, at least in certain particularities. I know what their futures hold and, crucially, that what they have so often feared is not going to happen. The Cuban Missile Crisis is not going to devolve into world-wide nuclear war. Those children in the newsreel crouching beneath their desks in 1962 are not going to be slammed to the back of the schoolroom by a shockwave seconds before being pulverized along with the rest of suburban Los Angeles. The Russians will pull out of Cuba, the Iron Curtain will fall as will the Berlin Wall, and eternal winter will be staved off until at least 2010.
I’m aware of how selective my thinking is. Why don’t I look at old footage of Jacqueline Kennedy sporting her pillbox hat in late October of 1963 and shudder as the fingers of uncertainty brush the nape of her neck? Shouldn’t the knowledge that this woman is so unsafe, so unaware of what is about to happen to her shake my faith in the ideas of predictability, safety, and security to their termite-riddled cores? Sometimes I do. I think about the pain Joseph P. Kennedy must have experienced upon learning of his son’s assassination and the agony he must have experienced being unable to give voice to his grief after having lost all power of speech following a stroke he’d had several years prior.
The past still seems to have been better to me though. I idealize people who lived in the past as having been less concerned by the questions that torture their over-educated progeny. Farmers in what is now central Mozambique in 1189 AD didn’t ask themselves, “Man, what am I going to do with my life?” They knew. They were going to fucking hoe yams like their fathers and their fathers’ fathers’ fathers. Now, I jest to some degree and I certainly digress. And truly, I don’t believe that there has ever been a time when moral ambiguity, ambivalence, and despair were not issues that human beings had to contend with. I know, I don’t have to deal with child sacrifice. Or polio. Or the Inquisition. But if there’s anything to this sidebar rant it may be that my experience with memory seems to indicate that I truly feel the world is growing darker, becoming more depraved, more dangerous.
Having been raised in the church the cupboard of my memory is well-stocked with Christian imagery, both the ephemerally spiritual and the pop-cultural. There is a special corner of the shelf for the musician Keith Green with his white boy afro, bell-bottoms, and polyester collars big enough to double as airplane wings. I think of Keith raising his hands on a crowded church stage and what comes to my mind is the impact his legacy will have, not the fact that he’ll die young in a fiery plane crash with several of his children. Maybe it’s because I picture him as having escaped a world I experience as fraught with danger and suffering.
Whatever my reasons, when I’m thinking about the inhabitants of the past (in general or as specific individuals with unique stories) I feel a nostalgia and connect to a sense of safety that the people themselves could not have had, at least not the kind that is evoked in me. Because the sense of security I feel has to do with a foreknowledge they could not have possessed.
So what about life in the present? Why do many of us look back on the past with a fondness that belies the suffering we have so often endured? After all, life isn’t one giant downhill slalom of careening misfortune growing worse from birth to the grave. We’ve had good times as well as tough times and for many of us the good times come with the same kind of regularity that the bad do. What gives?
Maybe we want to minimize our suffering. We assume ruminating on past sorrow does no good, that it only stains our teeth to chew the cud of the past. There’s an unconscious desire to spare ourselves the grief of rehashing our failures and broken hearts, our ill-advised love affairs, our foolish business ventures. And then there’s all those damned words that we can’t take back.
This makes sense to me. Yet in the very same breath that I talk about rose-colored glasses I have to acknowledge the fact that there have been great losses in my life that I have been categorically unable to let go of. My mind has dwelt on raw memories like a tongue working a sore tooth. I cling to my wounds. They are mine. They serve as ammunition, fodder, license, trophy scars. I look back on some things as being far worse than they ever were.
The aspect of my skewed vision of the past that’s most notable may not be the goodness with which I’ve invested former ambivalence or the darkness I’ve allowed to settle over things that don’t have to be causing me pain anymore except for my fixation on them. No, the strangest thing about my relationship with the past may be the veiled presence, somewhere out there, of all those sentences, moments, places and people that I simply don’t remember at all. Have a few conversations with anybody about multiple events that you’ve both experienced together and you’ll quickly realize that there are a few details that have either slipped your mind or never made an impression in the first place.
In part because of that reality I’ve started to believe that the past is at least to some degree a construction. Whenever we tell a story in the present we’re writing a fiction, as one of one of my graduate professors said. Furthermore, the past, good or bad, painful or pleasurable, holy or profane, may be the only thing we can change. We have only limited control over the present and we can’t know the future, but we can walk back up the stream of our past and rearrange the stones in the riverbed so that the water flows down into the pool of our present life at a different angle. It’s another theory proposed to me by one of my graduate school professors and I’m not sure how much credence I give it. There’s something in it that fires the engine of my hope though. I want to believe that the wounds of yesterday don’t have the right to be the slum lords of my present existence; that they can come so far and only further. There’s also something about the shoebox of memories that I take down from the closet shelf of my soul that contains a deep pleasure for me. That’s something that I don’t want to change, just indulge.
When I was a kid I used to hate coming in from play. Mom would call and I would slink back to the house to eat my dinner or take my bath or make my bed. While she pulled my pajama top over my head or spooned up my spaghetti-o’s I would vent my eight-year-old existential despair.
“Now play time is over. I can’t play anymore,” I would groan. Mom would often respond with something like, “Well you had a great time. You enjoyed yourself. Now it’s time for bed, but you’ve got those memories.”
The emphasis on my having enjoyed myself never helped. Come on, I thought. Give me a break, memories aren’t like the real thing. My enjoyment ended as soon as my physical pleasure and freedom did. To my wonder and delight I’ve experienced a remarkable shift with age. I find I can now take pleasure in something as ephemeral as memory. I can wrap myself in the echo of an afternoon spent at my hometown beach as if it were a warm blanket. I find myself luxuriating for long spells inside the cool cave of memories from my childhood in the Great Lakes states. Specific recollections serve as sources of hope, or perhaps pictures of the world to come. Like the morning I awoke in Dot and Carl Meyer’s farm house at age six with the Pennsylvania breeze making the bed sheets dance above my freckled legs.
My locker also contains more general memories that cover entire periods of my life which also serve as a healing balm, like my first summer working in the dappled redwood forest of Camp Hammer in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s specific images though which seem to have the most concentrated power for evoking joy, adventure, love, hope, passion and inspiration. Standing on Mott Avenue at three o’clock in the morning drinking in the eerie silence and the ozone smell of wet asphalt. Watching the crowns of eucalyptus trees dance along the ridge at the edge of DeLaveaga Golf Course. A college friend crying into the neck of my shirt when we said our last goodbyes.
Memory is a remarkably malleable thing. I recently started a book about the quest to solve one of the most famous math problems of the 20th century, the Poincaré Conjecture. The problem seeks to understand the shape of the universe, described in the book as obeying the same properties that hot liquid does when flowing downhill. Like those that jurisdict lava, I don’t pretend to understand the laws that govern memory. I know what heat feels like though. What it is to be seared and burned, and to behold a thing of beauty and power with a sense of awe that can be neither contained nor captured in words. A moment is here and then it is gone. A man lives his life in an endless string of fleeting moments, destined to live but once and then die. Yet he lives on though he dies, vigorous in the memory of those he knew, and he holds his life before him while he yet lives, like a string of Christmas lights trailing behind him, twinkling in the darkness.