Things look different from different viewpoints, as we all discovered a few decades ago seeing our planet for the first time from space. A similar phenomenon arises in how we view the journey of our own lives. In the beginning life seems inconceivably long, like the trajectory of an arrow loosed into the night sky. Closer to life’s end, our days may feel more like waves lapping across a sandbar at high tide. Cycles can be seen as cycles once we have experienced them before. Endings don’t seem so final when we know that something new will arise in their place. And relationships become more understandable when we know them from both sides.
Last week I went for an annual eye exam, after which I ordered replacement lenses for my ten-year old computer glasses. In previous years I have sprung for new bifocals, whether I needed them or not, because our vision insurance pays for new $500 glasses–with UV protection, anti-glare, anti-scratch, to mention a few features. This year I departed from that tradition. I ordered inexpensive replacement lenses for an old pair of computer glasses, because their focal resolution has migrated out from an intended 3-4 feet so much that I have accidentally driven with them.
This loosening of old inertias feels like down shifting on a mountain road, and to actually buy what you can use feels like finding a lost key.
Isn’t it strange how we can spend so many years being guided by the expectations of others, including the voices that we’ve internalized?
But perhaps I am not giving my younger selves enough credit. In my 20’s, living in Montreal, I never developed any career. My first job, after graduating in Economics and Math, was a rare plum in terms of its prospects for advancement, but after a few months, a friend suggested we drive to South America and a month later we were running out of money in New Orleans, belatedly realizing that we couldn’t work legally in the U.S. [However we did work for a few weeks as busboys in Mobile, Alabama, and I still remember being taken by two other busboys to an all-black bar where several bands were playing in a sprawling warren of dark rooms. And I can also still feel the hostile looks our presence occasioned until our hosts would explain, “They’re from Canada.”]
Driving several thousand miles diagonally across the continent–not stopping or eating so that we could devote our last $50 to buying gas (we paid $0.18/gal in Texas)–we arrived in Vancouver and immediately found work in a downtown car wash. [I guess we weren’t the only people running on empty, because they paid anyone who needed it at lunch time for their morning hours).
My Montreal friend and I then went different ways. I worked on a supply boat out of Vancouver that made weekly trips northwards into the inlets that wind among the Rocky Mountain foothills, bringing staples to logging camps and other small communities. I still get a thrill reliving how it felt clinging to the gunnel at the bow of our 60 foot boat as it plunged down the face of 30 foot waves—that suddenly caught us the moment we sailed into the open Pacific from behind Vancouver Island. And I still feel the deep, mysterious silence of sitting by myself in the wheelhouse late at night, floating in a gigantic bowl of surrounding mountains; only able to discern the channel by watching a picture being drawn and redrawn on the face of the radar screen.
Writing this, I realize why I enjoyed writing my memoir (“The Flying Caterpillar”) a few years ago. I’m even wondering if I could write another one. Surely it’s not strictly required that I have to die and live again in order to write another autobiography. Couldn’t I just pursue a different narrative arc and, like the pinging radar screen in that wheelhouse some fifty years ago, explore the changing terrain of this present journey?
For instance, I still don’t fully understand that sense of restlessness which shadowed me for so many years. Who was that person? Why did he give up his first job and the career path it offered? [And later that year, I was devastated when my college girlfriend–who apparently didn’t appreciate being stuck in time while I explored a wider world–moved to France and married a man whom I heard looked remarkably like me.]
The way we view the decisions and omissions of our earlier years shifts from life cycle to life cycle. In recent times, I am inclined to feel that whatever happened back then provided a timely prelude to what followed. Even when regret and remorse threaten to disturb my peace of mind, if I look back honestly, I can see a person who was doing the best he knew how. And whatever resolutions to early troubles eventually arose, I doubt that they could have come to be if those earlier versions of myself had not kept walking in the rains of time.
I had coffee with an old workmate last week and she observed that she thinks people are basically good. We were talking about how fiction can reach people by telling an engaging human story in which unpleasant truths can arise naturally. This perspective is inviting me to reconsider what a character-based novel about the dangers of GMO’s might look like.
Meanwhile, I’m hoping that the drift of my own life story can turn a few more pages in my journal, like the unwritten manuscript of leaves that is patiently waiting to fly upon the winds of another autumn.