Monday, March 14, 2005

Life is happening at this very moment. Right. Now.

With the purchase of my ticket back home and preparations underway for my upcoming summer in Russia, I've been thinking a lot about home. I wouldn't call it homesickness necessarily, because I think the definition of homesickness includes sadness associated with nostalgia. I don't feel sad; I just have random memories that keep popping up in my daily life. Sometimes I relive those memories as if they only just happened, and then it feels weird to come back out of it to my current life, which is so disconnected from that. It makes me think a lot about what it will be like to come back. Will my life now disappear like smoke, when I come back and everything around me is so familiar? All this around me and all these memories — so disconnected, will they seem only like the half-lived experiences from a dream?

Time is funny that way. Well, maybe not time, but memory. The big people always told me that my age "seems just like yesterday," or that they couldn't believe "how big you've gotten." In an effort to avoid this common pitfall with the only children I really know, my cousins, I think of them every once in a while as the 9- and 11-year-olds they will soon be, probably by the next time I see them, instead of the 8- and 10-year-old people as they are imprinted on my memory. But I can see that as I get older, as life gets more complicated and as the people I know become more numerous, some will slip through the cracks of my mind and suddenly I'll be faced with a person whose mental image I totally forgot to age.

My grandmother just turned 93. I was with her in Montana for her 90th birthday and I thought a lot about time then. I was so young (and still am in many ways) that the idea of being that old ranged from unfathomable to frankly amusing. Think about it. Imagine being 70. You have lived through most everything that anyone expects to experience in life. School, jobs, weddings, children, friends, houses, cars, political events, grandchildren. You have lived through thousands and thousands of days and seen many things. You are very old.

Now imagine you live another 20 years.

At that point in my life I hadn't yet attained 20 years and this concept blew my mind. What on earth would it be like to live that damn much? You would have to just spend all your days sitting around not believing how old you are. I'm still only just 21 and I can't imagine living through the totality of my life's experiences another three and a half times. But that's what my grandmother's done. And if I have any luck, maybe I will too.

But maybe it becomes easier. As the big people say, life seems to go by faster and faster the older you become. Of course, as brain surgeons would say, this is because memory has no inherent time meter on it. There's no reason certain chemicals which mark memory would feel "older" or "younger" than certain other chemicals. What really counts is the paths your brain makes to get to the memory. If it takes a path past marker-memories, concurrent events that could have only happened during a certain time period, that's how your brain figures out how old the memory is. Otherwise, the memory could have happened two hours ago or it could have happened thirty years ago, or hell, it could have been a dream. It's hard to know.

Taking into account how relative time is, one night three years ago in my aunt's Montana ranch house I decided to try an experiment. I made a distinct memory of me sitting in my bedroom there and referred back to it periodically to see how long ago it seemed. The next day, when I thought about every second which had passed already between now-me and then-me, it already seemed like a lot of time had passed. When I think now about how much has happened in the time span between now-me and then-me, it seems like a ridiculously long time ago. Or does it? I can still remember the feeling of the quilt top on the bed in that bedroom in my aunt's house. And yes, many things have happened to me since then, but do I feel like a different person? I'm still here, contemplating time and memory. Was that really so long ago?

My mom has a good expression that I find useful when I start to feel time slipping away from me. "Life is just made up of days." It's true, too. Every day, you wake up and that's life. The French have an expression: metro-boulot-dodo. It rhymes and means "subway-work-sleep." That's it, folks. Sure, it's punctuated by vacations and certain unforgettable experiences, but most people (myself included) wait for life to happen and forget that it's happening at this very moment, at this very second. Right. Now.

And why do people forget this basic truth? Simply because its too much to handle. If life is really so immediate, then that means this very instant is consequential, and oh my God, what am I doing with it? So we forget. Forget that time is passing by so that the things we enjoy, which, incidentally, make time go by so much faster, come sooner. Then suddenly we see a marker, like a grown child or a changed landscape, and we realized how much time has passed while we were ignoring it. We are shocked by this and, depending one's temperament, we either forget again or go into a mid-life crisis, trying desperately to hold on to old memories. 

It's sad letting go of the past. That's certain. But I try, as advises Desiderata, to "take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth." I force my nostalgia to be content with good memories and noteworthy accomplishments. I hope that will be good enough all the way until I'm 93.

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