Recently I came away from Nick Hornsby’s latest book, Funny Girl, thinking about how we often dwell in the past. I always said I would never be one of those people who constantly relives a shining moment from their teen years, like Tony’s horse race in the Seven Up series. Or the new bride who tells me her wedding day was the best day of her life: I always think, “I hope not!” I posted once about how some older people believe life is getting worse and their best years are behind them. Will I feel that way someday, too?
Re-thinking it, I can see the reasons for events in the past to spring to mind so quickly.
We have had time to replay the events in our minds, talk about them, write about them, and turn them into stories. Every time we recall an event, we are committing it to memory all over again, and reinforcing it. If it was a shared experience, we can bounce memories off the other person, discover new details, argue over and modify our stories, and bond over them.
First times are powerful. Whether it’s our first kitten or first kiss, they imprint deeply. Even more so in the teen years when we have developed a sense of self apart from our families, we think for ourselves, and we get a taste of independence.
Double that for trauma: a break-up, a car accident, a death in the family. Sometimes the sequence of events is a blur but we don’t forget the way we felt or how it changed us.
When I think of my childhood, I realize my memories are composites: some are actual memories, but they’re combined with family stories, and talking about photos I’ve seen again and again. There were also things we did as a family year after year, such as family reunions or the way we celebrated holidays, that all blend into one.
Of course there are rites of passage, whether formal ones like graduations, or informal ones like driving a car or getting into a bar.
Over the years, we gain new perspectives on things that happened, interpret them different ways, or give them new meanings.
I find it interesting how my views of my own life have changed. When I was in my 20s, I obsessed over how I was raised – what went right and what went wrong in my family of origin. I needed to work out how I’d live my own adult life. What would I keep and what would I toss?
In my 30s that translated into intentional parenting and trying not to unconsciously replicate anything from the past that should have been left there (which was the theme of another book I read recently, Breath Eyes Memory).
In my mid-40s I realized that most of my child and teen experiences were so far in the past that I could never say to my child “When I was your age…” without eye-rolling and complete irrelevance.
It was curiously freeing. It allowed me to live fully in the present and not to continually relive my youth and think about how I could apply my experiences to my child’s experiences. I could do it in my mind, for me. But I couldn’t do it in their mind, for them.
Twenty years from now, I wonder how I’ll remember life in my 50s. Right now it is a strange blend of presence and absence. No kids at home, but trying to translate parenting into loving friendship. Being in the workplace with almost 30 years’ experience. Still being able to spend holidays with my parents. Having all my abilities. Being a newlywed (only 5 years in!)
It will all flow together. I have so many routines – work days and family visits, meals and fitness and reading and concerts. Not so many first times, but not so much trauma, either.
I bet these will look like my glory days someday.
If you are young, you may think this sounds a little sad, and that I don’t have much to look forward to. But among my generation, we smile and wink at each other because most of us like living in this time, living for the day and the week and the year. We don’t want the drama of youth and we know we’re a long away from being frail-elderly. We enjoy the little things and don’t need to be blown away by the latest and greatest all the time (except for our technology – bring it on!)
It is a good place to be.
(Some info about memory storage was adapted from The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin).