Thursday, October 29, 2009

What do we do about the past?

My title comes from an old post by A White Bear, which resonated with me at the time and which has remained with me. I don't know what to do about the past. And I'm obsessed by my own insufficiency in the face of it.

Mind you, I don't consider myself a person who lives in the past; I rarely waste time regretting past actions (sometimes things need to be atoned for, but that's about moving forward rather than getting bogged down in what can't be changed), and I'm not prone to depression. I'm future-directed and tend to have faith that things will eventually, inevitably, get better: my life is Whig history in action!

But although my personal narrative is generally one of progress and improvement, I've never been able to dismiss earlier stages and selves as merely shadowy types prefiguring a glorious and eventual Truth. Neither am I able to shrug and say, "that was then, this is now." I'm baffled--totally baffled--by the fact that one reality ended, and things changed. How can I not be the person that I was then? Or if I am that person, why isn't the present the same as the past?

Much of my writing on this blog has been an attempt to assimilate my experience of graduate school: to make sense of how I got to where I am now, and what role that uniquely horrible period of my life played in getting me here. I feel totally unlike the person I was then, but I was that person, for years and years. Yes, I can talk glibly about lessons learned and how I'm so much better for all of it, but even though I believe that narrative, the lived experience was something more than its role in that story.

I'm equally unable to make sense of my past romantic relationships. I don't understand how it's possible to go from having someone as a central feature of your world to someone who is at best peripheral to it. Again, this isn't about wanting to return to those relationships, or even about nostalgia, exactly; I feel this about my "bad" boyfriends as well as my "good" ones, and about relationships that I ended as well as those that were ended against my wishes. There was this thing, made up of two people. The two people still exist, but the thing does not.

The past has its own weather. And just as when we live in one climate it's hard to remember the feeling of living in another, so it's hard to capture, in the present, what it was to live in the past. We can describe it endlessly, and even accurately, but we can't quite conjure it up. I know how intensely I used to love certain books or movies or songs, and I get a nostalgic thrill when I reencounter them, but I can't feel that original feeling.

I need my past. I'm terrified of losing it. But I can't gain any purchase on it.


moria said...

I love this. Grad school is so ultra-weird because it's so transitional - every day I feel like Alice taking crazy growth pills - and this problem of selves is something I find myself confronting almost constantly.

I am also, for the first time, experiencing what it means to have adult selves that are in the past. College; my first long-term relationship; whoever I became for the nine months I lived in France.

New friendships make this so clear: for the first time, too, I am friends with people my own age whose past selves also I must consider and get to know. All my previous friendships were forged in the liminal space of college where everyone was so constantly in flux that it seemed none of us had pasts - or futures, for that matter.

The future selves are unmanageable and intrusive, too.

I resist writing too much about this - my blog is too much a self-fest as it is - but it's so much of what I think about, so much of what I do. So thanks for this post.

Renaissance Girl said...

Lovely post. I am very bad at letting go of my past, for better or for worse. I have a hard time letting people leave my life, in part because I don't want to lose the person I was when they were more truly a part of my life.

Have you ever read Joan Didion's short essay "On Keeping a Notebook"? It's a surprisingly moving take on the way we balance need and scorn for past selves.

Flavia said...

RG: I, too, have a hard time letting people leave my life, for exactly that reason. There are people I'm not even sure I like with whom I'm still in occasional touch, because they meant quite a lot to me once.

It had been years since I read that Didion essay, so I pulled it out again this afternoon. You're so right. The part that best captures what I feel:

"It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one's self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night, and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat. . . . The other one, a twenty-three year-old, bothers me more. She was always a good deal of trouble, and I suspect she will reappear when I least want to see her, skirts too long, shy to the point of aggravation, always the injured party, full of recriminations and little hurts and stories I do not want to hear again, at once saddening me and angering me with her vulnerability and ignorance, an apparition all the more insistent for being so long banished" (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 139-40).