November 1st would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday.
100 years. A century. It’s unfathomable that some people actually live a whole century, which sounds to me not like a lifespan but more like a term to describe an entire period of human history.
100 years. Or 84, the number my grandmother actually lived before falling asleep one evening in her comfortable bed, a novel turned face-down beside her. Was it a good life? I think she would say it was. I know there were hard times, but there was great love, and that is what she would have emphasized, I believe. That’s the part of the story she would recall. At least, it’s the part she would have shared.
At 55, I try to connect to the feeling of time passing in my own life, but instead of decades or years or months, I can remember only images and feelings. These memories compress and expand from the heart and the mind, occasionally from the soul, but with no attachment to the clock or calendar. Why is it that the moment of a first kiss or a much-needed hug or the disbelief of a loss or the pounding of shame or the cry of terror or the surge of love takes over our minds and our bodies but cannot be quantified or measured according to time or space? Our lives unfurl in a linear fashion, but our stories are recorded and return to us in no particular order, sometimes upon reflection but often without any notice at all. Sometimes our memories are welcome, as with my own recollection of my loving grandma and her unconditional love and palpable adoration of me. Sometimes our memories come unbidden and unwanted — tied to feelings we might prefer to ignore, even when we know they are what make us human.
Science supports the significance of sensory memory, especially olfactory memory, which explains why we can conjure up childhood delights of pies or briskets or pastas brimming with red sauce. We can smell the crisp autumn air and hear the crunch of leaves beneath our shoes and feel the increasing bite of wind against our faces as the seasons grow colder. But we cannot hold on to the passage of time — only the feelings. A recollection of a season does not feel like the checking off of days, weeks and months. The years we spent toiling behind a desk at a job we may or may not have enjoyed are not recalled through a logging of hours or the concrete presentation of a paycheck. Rather, we feel a cloudy sense of the weighty burden of work, or the satisfaction of productive accomplishment, or the joy of creativity, depending upon our unique experience. In all likelihood, the time that passed feels like a blur, or worse, a gap in which we recall nothing at all. The lucky few may feel uplifted, but many may instead feel regret, a fear of time not well used. As I age, I notice a soft, uneasy regret is exacerbated, sharpened by the present need to act now, to make my mark.
It may be natural to force a recollection of our own history through the structure of external, objective events. This is when I was born, and that was when we moved to the house in which I grew up. Here, I spent summers, or there I learned to drive a car. I graduated from high school, or college, or I moved away from home and got a job. We may remember that this is the decade in which we got married, or divorced, or lost a true love. We had babies in one decade or another, and then we marked our time in theirs — first days of school, elementary school concerts and parades. Illnesses, recoveries, friendships, disappointments. Dances, homecomings, proms. They grow up, they move out, and our measure of time returns to ourselves.
But these memories are blurry. They resemble a patchwork quilt far more than the timelines depicted on the pages of history books that marked the events that those of us born in the 20th century were forced to memorize. The line of time passing, it seems, was just a construct. It was a visual depiction to aid what was called “learning,” but it failed to capture the meaning of events, the impact on a life or many lives, the effect of these events on a period of human history, or even — can we reach this far? — the role those events played on the future of humanity.
Thinking of memories as a quilt is still imperfect, as it conjures another construct, that of space, but at least it lends itself to greater metaphor. Some squares are larger or more colorful or depict an image that evokes more feeling. A simple heart or the outline of a childhood home may take up far more space, symbolically, than a square that is jam packed with details, words and figures. The beauty of the quilt is enriched when colors blend and stitches soften. But the memory of a grandparent’s devotion still cannot be captured, not by a point on a timeline, not even by the warmth of the quilt. Only the actual feelings that are evoked by the mystery of memory can make us feel that devotion once again, so that we can pay it forward, because love breeds more love and one kindness expands into the next.
We have to be willing participants, though. When our history of emotions rises up, we must be willing to access these feelings and embrace them in all their nuance and complexity. We must let them be our teachers and guides, informing our actions on this day and in this hour. Not just the love and kindness, but also the sadness and fear and loneliness that interweave throughout the timelines of our lives. How can they help us now?
I can think of no better way to combat the restlessness of regret than to gather our own emotional history and use it to inform our actions today. We have experienced injustice and disappointment in our lives; therefore, we are equipped to recognize when others are treated unfairly. We have been misunderstood, so we know what it’s like to feel we are not known for who we really are. We have felt kindness, so we know how it lifts us up to be treated with care and respect. We can move forward in our lives offering friendship, camaraderie and love, so that everyone we meet from today forward knows they are not alone.
When we emerge from the swirl of images and feelings that comprise our own emotional pasts, we can intentionally create our present. We have only this moment in which to act, and then, poof! It is gone. We have another, and then another, and then gone, gone, as though lived only in a dream. The harder we try to hold onto the past, the more quickly it dissipates, leaving only the images and feelings to empower us. In every moment, we have a new chance to learn from our own stories and choose our actions wisely. Whether our days add up to 50 years, or 84, or 100, we can strive to achieve what we would call a good life, to manifest the future that reflects our best learning and positively impacts our children, our grandchildren and — do we dare to hope? — our period in human history.