The Bad Old Days

December 5th, 2018

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner

I walked along the bike path today after Karin and I had coffee with a friend. The walk home from Panera is about four miles, so I had plenty of time to think. That could be both good and bad. I tend to over-analyze everything. In fact, I am probably doing that now. In any case, I wandered through my memories as I wandered past the bare trees and withered marsh plants that border the edges of the bike path.

Memories are funny things. They don’t necessarily correspond with any kind of objective reality, if there even is any kind of objective reality. Memories tend to highlight only certain aspects of events that happened in the past, and disregard the other parts of those moments in time. My memories seem particularly fuzzy on the details. I do not remember the facts of events as clearly as I remember my feelings when the events occurred. I would be a terrible historian. I often confuse dates and times and all of the minutiae that are a part of my life. But the feelings…those I recall in an intense, visceral, and non-verbal way. The feelings come to me unbidden and overwhelm me.

A Zen friend wrote to me recently concerning my father’s funeral. She wrote:

“As you know, our dead tend to crop up into our present, no matter how far in the past they lived. ‘Past’ is just a human idea, a concept, and we are taught to let go of our conceptual thinking. So, no past. It’s with us now. They are with us now. Like it or not.”

In some ways, my friend agrees with Faulkner. The past is not past, because it is part of the now. Sometimes in Zen, people say glibly that the past no longer exists, so we should not dwell there. We should be totally in the here and now. It is true that yesterday is gone forever, and I can do nothing to change it. However, yesterday still affects today. The events of the past may be gone, but they echo in the present. I can hear and feel the echoes.

Many times, I have spoken with our son, Hans, about his experiences in the latest Iraqi War. He has often made an odd comment about his time there. He has told me that he has always been good with machine guns (and other weapons), and that it is because he is a German. That remark seems bizarre, but then I remember that his maternal grandfather was in the Luftwaffe, and that this man fought in Russia during WWII. Hans harks back to those days, maybe unconsciously. All of that happened decades ago, but it comes roaring into the now. As my friend noted, “Our dead tend to crop up in the present”. They do so in strange ways. Sometimes these intrusions are subtle. Sometimes not.

It is tempting to say things like, “Every day is a new day!”, or “This is the first day of the rest of your life!” The implication is that a person can start afresh, that each day is a clean slate. Not. It is true that I can do things different today than I did yesterday. However, I carry the burden of my history even in a new day. The past comes to me in my memories and in my DNA.

I am part of a continuum. I am just a single note in an endless song. The song is not complete without me, but I am only a tiny part of it.

 

 

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