Today is 12-12-12, the last in a sequence of triple-number years that began with the fateful 2001, and the likes of which I will not see again in my lifetime. When I think back to 1-1-1, so much has changed, obviously for the world overall, but also in my life.
I was, at that time, a newlywed. I did not own a home. I still had a living grandparent, and was in many ways barely recovered from the death of another. I had yet to turn 30, let alone 40. My stepdaughter was only slightly older than my son is now; my son and niece and friends of many children and relatives had yet to enter the world. I was still close with people whom, through time and circumstance, I have become distant and, in at least one case, sadly estranged. I had yet to meet others who would become pivotal players.
And I was very much me but still becoming me, having yet to experience some of my own best and worst times, all within a little more than a decade.
“Long ago, far away
Life was clear
Close your eyes”
I first heard today’s song in the movie You’ve Got Mail. It plays behind a scene in which the female protagonist, Kathleen (Meg Ryan), is decorating her Christmas tree. Kathleen is just going through the motions, trying to keep up joyful appearances and a festive atmosphere, even though her heart is not in it. Her beloved children’s bookstore, inherited from her deceased mother, is being driven out of business. She’s in an unfulfilling relationship. Kathleen is at one of those points we’ve all experienced, a phase that I myself went through slowly over several years during this 12-year cycle—a time when you know things are changing, that they have to change, and you can do nothing to stop it.
You don’t know if things will improve or get worse. All you can do is understand that they will be different and hope for the best.
At such times, like Kathleen, our default is to look to the past and wish we could just return to easier, more certain circumstances. When people we loved and depended on were still there and available to us. When less was demanded or expected. When we understood our role and place and felt secure and stable.
“Remember is a place from long ago
Remember, filled with everything you know
Remember when you’re sad and feeling down
Even a soul as troubled as the unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge, upon first returning to the past against his will, is initially moved and filled with delight—to see the town of his youth, his old schoolhouse, friends from yesteryear, his own boyhood self. In fact, in the written A Christmas Carol, at least as much of his return to the past is as happy as it is sad–he remembers a joyous incident with his sister and an exceptionally festive time with his former employer and coworkers.
The sadness Scrooge experiences in the novella heavily involves his broken relationship with Belle and a scene that usually is not included in adaptations of the story. In that oft-neglected scene, Belle now has several children and a grown daughter who greatly resembles Belle in her youth. Scrooge watches the family boisterously enjoying one another and celebrating Christmas the same year that he buried Jacob Marley. Belle laughs dismissively when her husband mentions having seen Scrooge earlier that morning, “quite alone in the world.” This is the last vision that the Ghost of Christmas Past shows the distraught Scrooge, emphasizing “These were shadows of the things that have been . . . That they are what they are, do not blame me!”
But Scrooge isn’t simply mourning what has been. Or even what is. What tortures him most is what might have been.
“Remember life is just a memory
Remember, close your eyes and you can see
Remember, think of all that life can be
It’s so tempting to say that if I could go back in time, I would do certain things differently. Over the past several years, after a series of challenging events, I’ve had many moments when I’ve second-guessed decisions, longed for another chance to appreciate friends and loved ones with whom I’ve either lost touch or just don’t spend enough time, and yes, wished for do-overs, to rectify wrongs and, in a few cases, mend fences. But just like how the past I remember is likely illusory, so is the idea that I’d really significantly alter my path. For everything new obtained, something treasured would have to be relinquished. The option to fix one of yesterday’s missteps could actually lead to a less pleasing and suitable life than the one I have now.
This does not mean just blindly swallowing today as it is, confusing acceptance with complacency, and taking no action to remedy or improve things that I can. But to once again combine ideas from two of my most favorite influences (Mr. E.M. Forster and my all-time most beloved television show, LOST), I cannot look at my moments of flashing back to the past, flashing forward to an undesired possible future, or flashing sideways to alternative realities as anything but finding signposts, and not arriving at destinations.
The message I take from Dickens’ story as it evolves, from You’ve Got Mail and the changes that Kathleen experiences to arrive at an ultimately happy place, and of today’s song by Nilsson is this: Use the past as a helpful refuge, but do not let it become an anchor. The past can help us understand how we got to where we are. It can bring us pleasure and happiness and a sense of reassurance when our todays are unsteady and our tomorrows filled with foreboding.
But we cannot become so frozen with anxiety, consumed with regret, or preoccupied with minor or major alterations of our lives in progress that we squander the present and whatever future remains. To do so certainly means being continually haunted. But the specter is simply oneself.
“Dream—love is only a dream
Remember—life is never as it seems”
The last words for today, as for many of these posts, are from that masterful genius who brilliantly portrayed the human condition across all seasons of the year, and especially at Christmas, Mr. Charles Dickens:
“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?” For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.”
The kind hand trembled.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”