A man can attempt to run away from his history, that is to
say, one can usually live out one's existence quite satisfactorily with only
the passing nod to everything he has experienced, until something happens where
he can't do that any longer.
Other people dwell and obsess upon, not only their own
personal history, but every notable event that's
happened in their lives, interjecting themselves into great events by
Most people are a mixture of both personality types,
reminiscing about things when they feel the need but focusing mostly on the
moment, things such as getting the kids to school, that important project at
school or work, etc.
For some reason, history has been sitting on me like the
famous albatross from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," not
something pleasant, no, but something that is to be both respected, feared and,
if possible, avoided, as you would a 25-pound sea bird perched on your
The Thanksgiving holiday reminded me of this over and over, from
my 92-year-old grandmother talking about her travels of long ago, of working
hard for a dollar an hour, of the losses she has known. You don't get to be 92,
let alone half that age, without having a lot of accumulated memories and
tragedies fused in your DNA by happenstance.
The holidays are tough on a lot of people for that reason;
for some folks it's hard to live through the present Christmas season when you
remember all the ones that preceded it, with their associated joys and sorrows
present with you almost as a physical entity.
With my wife away at her parents' home and me stuck in
Indianapolis tending to a terminally ill friend, history seemed to be
everywhere. I couldn't get away from it. It took the form of the '70s TV shows
in perpetual reruns to specials on the JFK assassination and the space shuttle
disaster and much more personal things, such as finding old family photographs
or notes written years ago and newly rediscovered.
It is a fact that most people form their cultural tastes and
habits at a relatively early age. The music you prefer is probably the same
music with which you grew up. If you've always preferred, say, Coca-Cola,
you'll probably be a Coke drinker for life.
So while the future is slowly revealed by the present, in
some ways the past never goes anywhere. It's always beside you, whether you
want it or not. Sometimes a person can get inundated with it to the point where
it overwhelms you, particularly when the memories are of a painful nature, but
sometimes even when they are not.
We see this in the high school football god or head
cheerleader who tries, with ever increasing difficulty, to ride their former
popularity for years, sometimes decades, afterward. History to them is like an
ATM, something that can be relied upon to deliver every time until the
overdraft fees come.
Some scholars of quantum mechanics have postulated that time
is an illusory notion, meaning that concepts we know past and future have
already "happened," in the sense that each occupies a unique
time-space that is perpetually unfolding. This same concept is found in many
religious texts and even in the minds of people, such as when they say that a
departed loved one is "still with us," which sometimes is enough to
bring solace to those in dismay.
So your beloved pet or your deceased parent is gone to us
but is still living in the places of time-space that they inhabited. The past
coexists with the present and future in the giant loaf of bread that is eternity.
So John Kennedy is still cavorting with Marilyn Monroe and enjoying an
automobile drive through Dallas, Martin Luther King Jr. is still talking about
the mountaintop and the promised land he hopes one day
to see and, by definition, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray are still
loading their rifles.
But your first love is still unfolding as are all your other
moments of joy, victory and transcendence. So things may be rough right now
— and for me and most everyone I know, they are — and those things
are permanent and cannot be removed, even though the future by definition makes
no promises of any kind.
One feels compelled to apologize to the readers who've
trudged through this column only to discover I have no astonishing insights or
conclusions about these matters, only the begrudging acknowledgment that they
exist for all of us and there's literally nothing we can do about it.
I'll come up with some boob jokes and sarcastic comments
about politicians next week; as things presently stand, I'm at a desk listening
to the rain hit the roof and the ideas and memories flow through my brain.
Thanks for reading.