“That used to be the post office” I informed him, and told him about the time my younger sister got bit by a dog while exiting the building; the owner assured my mother it would be fine, as the pet “bites my grandson all the time”. I drove around my old middle school parking lot, reminiscing that the only 3 point basket I ever made was in that gym and how Mom drove off after a game without my sister, leaving her no resort but to chase the car yelling. I explained how we used to get dropped off at the Town Hall for one dollar movies on the weekends, and the shame I felt at 14 when my Dad flagged me down in front of a gaggle of my peers while wearing light blue shorts, black socks and sandals.Oh, and also he was calling for me using an embarrassing family nickname. Good times!
We ended up back at our old house; I showed him where I waited for the bus and told him about the crazy neighbors who fed about 100 stray cats out of their garage. I confessed how we used to sneak onto the grounds of the country club at the end of the street to sled and cross country ski in the winter. I pointed out the former homes of the people we still know, some of whom he has met.I showed him the house of one of the boys who used to wait with me at the bus stop, the brother of my sister’s best friend. I told him how this man, my age exactly, somehow inexplicably and suddenly passed away just before Christmas. I admitted to him that when you are an adult, time seems to warp speed by, as if your very existence has become a science fiction movie.
There is nothing like the untimely death of a peer to cause a sobering reflection on how little time each of us is given in this life, even the longest lived among us. How when we are young, like my son, we take our days for granted and assume everything will go on relatively as is ad infinitum. Middle age, where I quite squarely sit now, is when we notice the first signs of aging, the rapid diminishment of our seeming invincibility.The subject of time keeps rearing its ugly head in my life recently, and no matter how much I would like to bury my head in the sand, the sand always ends up being of the “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives” sort. For example, I am reading a book, long neglected in the Everest sized pile at my bedside, called “The Age of Miracles” which is about the potential consequences of a fictional slowing of the earth’s rotation. The story tragically posits that this deviation from the norm and uncertainty would cause friction, discord and the potential for drawing battle lines rather than drawing humanity closer. Unfortunately this rings truer than ever in the era we are living in.
We, as a species, are very invested in the concept of “the sure thing”. We have set up structures and institutions that reinforce our (blatantly false) idea that we can somehow control outcomes and live life to the fullest while making safe bets. In spite of all the progress that has been made in my lifetime, we are still culturally hung up on the heteronormative ideals, including the white picket fence and 2.3 children; meanwhile, the “guarantees” that the generations before us had like traditional pension plans, employer provided health care and well- funded social safety nets are all but a thing of the past.Most of us are living by the skin of our teeth anymore, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. The razor’s edge is no longer a place where only thrill seekers dwell; it is a fact of life for the 8 in 10 American workers who now live paycheck to paycheck. Even if it is a “wonderful life”, it appears that we are currently living in Pottersville instead of Bedford Falls.
The desire to “turn back time” (or at least slow it down) is a natural and reasonable one. When we lose someone we love, when we are confronted with undesirable change, when we stand face to face with the reality that things didn’t exactly work out as planned. The irony of course being that loss, change and unpredictability are in fact our only “sure things”—if only we could commoditize them (oh, wait. Big insurance already did that).As we stand together and face this New Year we have no choice but to go forward; or as Winston Churchill supposedly but unverifiably said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.” This is solid advice. As the Butterfly Effect (and It’s a Wonderful Life) serve to remind us, even one change to the past could have such far reaching and potentially catastrophic consequences, it is best to drop our woulda-coulda-shoulda trajectories and focus on what is.
When my son and I were driving home after our tour, he asked me if I thought one day he would drive his own children back to our current neighborhood and tell them stories about his growing up years, as I had just done with him. He seemed skeptical about the possibility, but I assured him that he likely would. Often times the lessons and even the beauty of our lives are best recognized in hindsight; this is part of why we long for “the good old days”. But what better way to apply our belief in the “greatness” of our past than to use it to help us recognize the “greatness” of our present.Back in 1938 W. Somerset Maugham wrote “We live in uncertain times and our all may yet be taken from us.” That is all day, every day and never has been different and never will change. That is, as my beloved and sorely missed father would have said, “the good news and the bad news”.
No, we cannot turn back time. Nor should we turn our backs on each other, no matter how rough the going is right now. The life cycle, like the seasons, is not a “one and done”—it is eternal; so is our capacity for rebirth after loss and change.There is a reason the past resonates with us so deeply—it is the journey we took to get where we are standing today. And whether you like where you specifically or we as a nation are right now or not, it is critical to understand that we all got here together. Remove the influence of even one of us, and you have altered the course of history forever, as George Bailey so poignantly learned.
No we cannot turn back time but we can remember, especially as we enter a New Year, that every single thing we do matters on a level we will never fully comprehend. So let’s treat each other and ourselves with all the respect due to the power we each have. As even the smallest stone will cause a ripple many times its size, let us wield our influence wisely.