We spend most of our time looking forward to tomorrow. We say: “There will always be another day,” or “there is always tomorrow” but really, we live our lives in three dimensions, don’t we? In the present, backwards through the past to our childhoods and forward with an eye toward our futures. Each one has a different meaning for us – in the present we enjoy our friends and gather up experiences. In the future, we live a life full of hope and dreams and potential. But the past is the most difficult, isn’t it? In the mists of the past lie the snow-laden mountains of our memories: precious places that are covered by the passage of time. They are difficult to reconstitute exactly, so we don’t know how to build our pasts – we do it through markers and landmarks, anchor-points, really, and then reconstruct the rest of it by telling our selves stories. Stories of the kindnesses of others, of the little moments when we were happy or even in love with the world. Sometimes those stories are sad or painful, and we find ourselves sitting in our favourite chair or even half-way through the dishes, feeling an upwelling of emotion from our stomach into our heart and mind. We steady ourselves by grasping the solid counter or chair arm and we wait until the moment passes. The defining aspect of these moment, however, is that we face them alone, in moments of quotidian tranquility.
This is all different when we have a visit from an old friend – someone with whom we haven’t conversed in many years and with whom we shared an easy complicity in the past. We may receive an email out of the blue, or perhaps more likely a Facebook message these days, which invites an appointment. We agree and then feel a slight anxiety at what the appointment will be like. We worry that we won’t find any common ground with the person, and feel that such a thing would be a reflection on our choices in the past. How could we have liked that person in the past when we now find them a terrible bore? Were we deluded? Were we someone shallow? So we worry all the way to the restaurant or café where we have elected to meet.
We might get to the appointed spot a little early and order a drink before the person arrives – perhaps a glass of wine to calm the nerves – and we wait for our friend’s arrival. In the meanwhile, we watch the crowd, thinking about who’s there and what they are doing. Are they there on dates? Or just catching up among friends? Then our friend arrives and we start talking. The conversation takes off immediately and it is as though no time all has elapsed between the last time we spoke, years ago and the present moment. Time collapses and the young person we were at the time of our active friendship in the past is joined to the older, wiser person we are now. Our lives feel full, and our trajectory somehow makes more sense when we tell it to an old friend in reconnection. We feel blessed that the person remembers details from our past, and we are in wonderment at the fact that we have existed, had a second life, really, in the mind and memory of another.
That warmth is important – it reminds us that our life-story, our past, is real. That it ties into the present and that the whole of it is coherent. This is a good feeling, and it is difficult to bid our old friend adieu at the end of the evening. But it is a happy and comfortable drive home, our mind warm with the feeling that we have traveled back in time by chatting in the present, and found that past, present and future are all mixed together.