Putting The Past In Its Place
Has my past really passed? (Has yours?)
How do I relate to it? Where does it really belong?
All my life I’ve wrestled with these questions.
I recall how as a young boy of five or six I didn’t want to grow up and face the future, or even grow at all. I kept measuring myself by seeing if I could still crawl into the bottom shelf of my little bookcase, and I became increasingly saddened as time went on and I could no longer fit into it. Six years old and I was already nostalgic.
And today, the older I become, the more I find myself communing with my past more regularly. It seamlessly integrates itself into my present day. Like when I daydream, for instance, I’m often hanging out in different parts of my Great Neck boyhood. On Essex Road by the Big Tree (which my brother informs me is no longer there); sitting alone at the creek; sliding down the banister on the stairs at Baker Hill School, or outside on its playground, the highest point on Long Island. Or pitching against the wall in my backyard. But I realized, speaking with Shelley about it last night, that rarely do I daydream about being in my house, where I was stultifyingly protected and restrained, and wherein my mother eventually wilted away to nothing.
And there I go: getting melodramatic. It’s tempting when dealing with my past: if it’s not dramatic, what meaning does it hold? And if my past has little meaning, then, it would seem, so do I.
I’ve always loved that tagline to the ad for that film about a middle class WASP family, “Ordinary People”:
“Everything was in its place. Except the past.”
But where to put it all? My father would sometimes turn away from old photos. “That’s all in the past”, he’d say dismissing them all with a wave of his hand. And he’d say it not without some disdain, as if the past were a lover who’d betrayed him, or was simply yesterday’s newspaper, good for nothing the next morning. I envy but also reject his ways. There’s such a distracting, heart-wrenching wealth of memory there to be mined, and grappled or danced with. And I (who’ve never so much as discarded a photograph in my life) have always needed to know where to put it all, as if it begs or demands attention and sorting out. (Sometimes I feel haunted, as if there’s something there that wants me to tell their story. Or my whole family’s story. Or my generation’s.)
But the problem is it then it sucks me under. Because I’ve always been so susceptible to nostalgia or sentimentality, which can invalidate the present, or worse, make me betray it, as it whisks me away from it. Memory is to be revered, but nostalgia is really the Golden Calf of memory. It’s a trickster spirit that can tempt you into a futile longing. And I’ve had such a rich life, and one so full of worthy memories, I can fall into that trap, viewing the past through rose-colored eyelids. So I still wrestle with where to put all this stuff.
The problem is how to extract value from the past without it constantly haunting and hobbling me, without getting sucked into its dark seductions. For I know what it feels like to not so much have had a rich past, as to be had by it.
Besides, with so much more sand having fallen to the bottom half of the glass than remains at the top, it’s easy, if you’re anywhere up there in years, to have your mind’s eyes diverted downwards. That’s when coming to peace with your past means coming to a reckoning with what’s been lost.
And what’s been lost, of course, is your youth; opportunities; perhaps friendships that have faded, or lives that have ended. Not to mention, if you’re over 50, the bulk of your life.
So here’s one place I really get ensnarled – or entranced: Having personal, compelling memories triggered by scenes depicted in print or on a screen about the 1960’s. (To be clear, my own definition of the 60’s is that period of American history which began November 22, 1963 in Dallas, and ended May 4, 1970 in Kent, Ohio). It’s one thing that so much of who we are now as a people was spawned from what transpired then. That so much happened in those few short years that we’re still busy sorting it all out half a century later. But consider this: the “glory days” from age 17 to 22 are often ones best, and are certainly ones most hormonally exuberant. So imagine not only coming of age during the late sixties – and blossoming while the world was erupting – but of actually having that world erupt around you largely because of how you were blossoming! To have been essential to such a historical moment is a kind of heady experience that you wouldn’t soon forget.
So yeah I can get lost back there.
Moreover, those who know me well know what a pack rat I am and have always been. With our recent move, I’ve had the opportunity to sort through every object in my possession, and throwing much away. But I’m glad I kept all those notebooks reaching back 35 years. And my entire CD collection (I hear The Traveling Wilburys are worth a pretty penny). And all my record albums (Velvet Underground! T Rex! Firesign Theatre! Pet Sounds! After the Goldrush! Tea For the Tillerman! Brothers and Sisters! Sam and Dave! ….somebody, stop me!) .
BTW, did you catch Jagger the other night on SNL? The man’s still got it!
And yes, all my 45s as well. (Washington Square; Don’t Worry, Baby; Mecca! Blue Velvet! You wanted me to throw this stuff out?!)
And all the books that have guided and defined me (Another Roadside Attraction; Gestalt Therapy Verbatim; Lenny Bruce; Ram Dass; Revolution For The Hell of It; Iron John; The Road Less Traveled).
And there’s much that still awaits for me to extract meaning, or just pure pleasure from. Not only the music and books and movies I loved (it’s really a different book or film when you read or watch it 40 years later), but also all those I missed! All that great classic American culture from the 50’s and 40’s and 30’s I was deaf and blind to when I was growing up, or had defined myself against. So I’ve been playing catch up with Astair and Kelly and Edward Everett Horton and Monroe…not to mention Benny and Caesar…or Louis Jordan, Cole Porter, Glenn Miller. Why I could spend the rest of my life luxuriating in our cultural cornucopia!
So while I may envy my father for his way of simplifying his life by rejecting the past, it’s not my way.
But how to make good use of the past without it owning me? Let me get back to you on that one…in about twenty years from now — when I’ll be nostalgic not about the sixties, but about being back in my sixties.