Wednesday, April 22, 2015

the past

Not as it was to live 
but as it is remembered.
--Heaven, Patrick Phillips

I'm sitting here in this sunlit classroom.
The students are reading.
It's that time of the year when the insides of buildings switch from heat to air conditioning. But the windows are open, to let in the fresh spring air, which warms the hearts of those missing the outdoors and tortures those who suffer from allergies to tree pollen.
It's that time of the year when the students begin to complain about the air conditioning. Turn it ooofff.
Nooooo I want to respond. But, thankfully, usually none of us can figure out how to adjust the air-conditioning units, so my protests are unnecessary. So we get to keep the room just a little bit chilly, and I get to stare out the window at spring overtaking East Harlem.

But, at this time of year, I'm frantically trying to save all my old gchats (yes, I have since learned about Thunderbird, and yeah, I guess I'll do it, it just sounds like a lot of effort right now, because it's late in the afternoon so just give me a second already) from all four years of college.

Yes, my college email is finally disappearing. I suppose this moment of reckoning is long overdue. But I'm glad I had a year (give or take a month or two) to ease my way out of it. I remember my sister sobbing as we left Notre Dame after her graduation. I, a callow sophomore, was sympathetic, but also was pretty eager to get a break from a hectic semester, so I could not truly understand her tears.

I am thankful that I never had a endure a moment of complete severing with the past, but rather experienced a slow, gradual fade-out. Almost before I could realize it, the past had slipped away, and I found myself no longer a college student, but a teacher in a room full of children daring me to lead them.

Since then, time seems to have tumbled over itself, it moves so fast. Each new season this year has arrived at breakneck pace, and even the slushy winter has sudden melted into warm sunshine and sweet breeze. The long clumps of slush lining the sidewalks have been replaced by the elegant, dancing branches of shining cherry blossoms, waving in the wind like sweet-smelling snow clouds caught in the tree limbs.

And so, as I looked over the lines of text from the past: little missives sent in the heat of many different moments, I can examine myself like an insect captured in amber. It is good to remember the past: to remember that once upon a time you were eager and earnest enough to liberally pepper your conversation with smiley faces (before there were emojis), and plenty of exclamation points for all the emphasis each statement needed. It is good to remember who you were before you knew anything about the world, it is good to recall how painfully naive one was. And yet, how much wiser one was then! How much more certain in one's own opinion and perspective.

Perhaps, there is much to be learned from ourselves in the hard and fast relics of the past. Our own memories of the past are not reliable. They grow and shift with us; each new layer of ourselves is spread over our memories. Each time we revisit these stories, we re-interpret them, find new plots points in the story, find new meaning. Our pasts are constantly in the state of re-interpretation.

But these little stories captured in g-chat (a writing medium indelibly marked with nostalgia), I re-remember these moments as they were when they were happening. And, looking back, I can see how my own interpretation of events was perhaps not always the correct one. There were moments I missed, cues I misinterpreted, expressions I misread. I smile as I read old terms of endearment, and remember how important fleeting conversations became. I shudder as I see, with perfect hindsight, warning signals that I had previously ignored.

As I lazily type in the sun-soaked classroom, the past descends like the hazy clouds of dust-specks on the room. Everything breathes slower, and falls into the quiet pace of a lazy stream-of-consciousness. The past is imminent yet intangible. With a start, I realize I am no longer part of it. It is a part of me, but the stories from the past belong there.

I am now a visitor in what was once the present, but is now an ancient, alien land we have outgrown. It is populated by ghosts, and the nymphs of past selves.
It is valuable to visit, but a toxic place to set up camp. How funny to have found that it is no longer home, but now a destination to be returned to on rainy summer Sundays.

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