It could be a long shadow, your image in the mirror, a perfect snowfall, an early morning stroll down deserted streets, traffic signals blinking their colour code to you and ghosts of travellers past. And in those seconds, your past drifts in like a slow tide -- sometimes in documentary form, too real for comfort; sometimes a chill rain of guilt, a big moon of happiness and passion, a breaking wave the brings back a similar scene from a far-away place from a time long ago.
It's not always welcome, it’s not always intrusive. But it has its moments. And with it, the realization that, with luck, life is anything but short.
There are many lives in a life -- thick chapters of jobs and love affairs, homes and cities, illness and obsessions, games and championships won and lost, heroics and heroic failures. But the flashes of today bring the feature films of yesterday.
Sometimes, reality is debateable. Did I really do or see that or did I just want to do it or see it? Was it that bad? That great? Maybe the memories become distorted through the prism of what we want to see in ourselves, the justification we need to stare at the fire or the falling snow in peace.
Maybe I over-reacted? Maybe I should’ve escaped earlier? Maybe there’s no maybe about it. Years pass, wisdom’s gained. Sometimes.
This is the past no one sees. Only you know the truth of it and only you know what’s a mirage. Only you know if your version of the past is worth retelling or if it needs embellishment. Or lapses of memory, contrived or age-diminished.
Ebullient or tawdry, victorious or impoverished, you can take stock of yourself with any metric you choose. Your past is a blockbuster novel, an Academy-Award nominee. If you’re lucky, a fair share of comedy to leaven the inevitable tragedy; you’ve savoured real cheddar rather than Kraft slices, coffee that’s coffee, maple syrup from maple trees, not corn syrup in masquerade.
At a certain age, you can write your autobiography, be who you wanted to be, tell the stories that even you aren’t sure happened quite that way. And, who’ll care? If it makes you happy, if the memories are manufactured or real, if they’re real to you, good enough.
Staring at the stars, the plume of smoke from a chimney, the flames in the fireplace, you can bake the past from a batter whisked with a bit of what happened and a bit of what you wish had happened. In realization, there’s redemption, there’s comfort. Maybe I was an asshole. Maybe I could’ve done it better. Maybe I can turn the page. Maybe I can say or write, “I’m sorry.”
With a certain age comes the signal to stop being hard on yourself. Cherry-pick the successes, tighten the blinkers on rejection and failures, remember the life-affirming passion of long, sweaty nights and mangled linen.
Maybe I did sacrifice a bit of myself, turned the other cheek, forgave and forgot, donated what I could.
Favoured memories, real or contrived, are framed and lit in the gallery of our lives that lives in our mind, accessible without membership fees, lit as we’d like. The past is almost as hard to recall as the future defies prediction. The years are your friend, they put a soft gel over our past. We can colour the gel over the internal Kleigs: the first love, the first great job, a conversation till dawn, the majesty of those talking electric guitars, the time you walked a high wire.
The height of that wire might lengthen with time. But, the truth of days gone by is for us to decipher. For us mortals, it’s whatever makes our existence worthwhile, the why and how we spent the novel that is our lifetime.
In these most personal of dog-eared books that never see a shelf, the ending is forgone but it’s as happy as your imagination allows. You are the author. You are the protagonist.
The world is the antagonist. The love that evaporated like boiling water. The love you wanted but couldn’t hold onto. The fantasy that was only fantasy. The jobs that thrilled, the jobs that disappointed, wore you down, frustrations you wore, successes you exalted in. Life’s a Halloween basket of sweet and sour, a dose of rot and smiles and and, maybe, an occasional razor blade hidden in Eve’s sweet apple.
The mistakes that hurt others become just a symbol of your humanity. We all screw up. The pain delivered by another can be forgiven or forgotten or be a lesson learned. Or the whole episode locked in a box and thrown in the recycling bin to be dumped in landfill in the Third World.
Like the names and dates of lives lived engraved on monuments, time does its magic and erodes the past. But, while we are still 98.6, what we choose to engrave on the part of the brain that holds our victories and transgressions is ours to decide, a private commodity to bring comfort when the body is weary, the bones ache, the clock ticks and the flames in the fireplace are as beautiful a vision as the painless beauty of youth. The most important person to forgive is yourself.