Monday, April 10, 2017

Past Lives (#nostalgia #youth #NewEngland)

By Lisabet Sarai

Anyone who follows the Grip knows that I've lived in Southeast Asia for more than a decade. Throughout the previous two decades, however, my DH and I resided in a rural town in western Massachusetts, in a fabulous, idiosyncratic eighteenth century building on the banks of a small river. Rock-strewn, hilly and heavily forested, our town sheltered sixth-generation farmers whose names showed up in its Colonial-era graveyards as well as professors from the surrounding universities. We had no commercial establishments aside from the food co-op two miles down the road; every weekend I'd drive half an hour into Amherst to stock up on groceries for the week. We could not have lived there without a four-wheel drive vehicle, since our steep, tree-shaded driveway turned into a sloping sheet of ice too slippery to walk on for much of the winter. Indeed, we had to have two cars, because we'd be totally isolated if our sole vehicle broke down.

New England has a harsh beauty, which I truly appreciated when I lived there. Those decades were happy, or so I thought. My DH and I worked on the house, building decks, renovating bathrooms, installing a new well pump. We cut down trees and planted herb gardens. We hosted visitors from more civilized locales and threw legendary parties. We had dear friends. We had adventures, including those of a sexual sort, exploring swinging and polyamory. We were young, in love, full of energy.

These days, we get back to the U.S. every year or two, for business and to see family and friends, usually in April which is brutally hot in our adopted country. In fact, I am in the U.S. as I write this. We almost always schedule one night in our old area, to see our accountant and our mail forwarding people. This year, though, we spent several days in our old haunts.

We saw a film at a 1920's cinema we used to frequent, one of those grand establishments that seated nearly two thousand people before it was carved up into an eight screen “multiplex” in the seventies so that it could survive. We ate at restaurants that used to be our favorites. We drove the winding roads that once were so familiar we could almost traverse them in our sleep —or at least in the sleet or snow.

Not much in the region has changed. I discovered, though, that I have. Instead of feeling the warmth of nostalgia, I experienced a weird sense of disconnection. I could remember the woman I'd been back then, but I couldn't really identify with her. She might as well have been a character in a novel.

How could I have spent so much time driving everywhere? Especially in what was often such dreadful weather! Certainly, the woods still held a stark grace, even without a shred of green, but everything seemed so remote from everything else! Now I walk five minutes to a twenty-four-hour supermarket, ten minutes to the post office. The dry cleaner is literally just outside the door of my apartment building. I hop on the subway and in a quarter of an hour I'm at a shopping center or a movie theater or a museum or a historical site.

No snow tires. No auto insurance. No need to be concerned about how to get home after having a glass of wine with dinner.

I get tired thinking about how difficult life was back then.

Then I feel embarrassed. Guess I've gotten soft and lazy. I used to be tough New England stock, but now I'm a tropical wimp. Still, I can't imagine moving back.

In some ways, I've become a ghost, just a shadow of the vibrant, passionate, self-reliant rural woman I was in those days. Yet I think I'm more at peace, less torn by worry and insecurity, than she was. Prowling those old locations, I had a sense of loss, but no desire to go back. I suppose that's a good thing, since that woman is truly gone. Longing for the past can eat you up inside. I'm ready to let the ghosts rest.
 

14 comments:

  1. Beautifully written. And a happy thought. Too often our culture teaches us to think of youth with a sense of loss only. I suspect just as with relationships, jobs and homes, each part of life was both good and bad and not deserving of ceaseless mourning when it's over.

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    1. Hello, Rhode,

      Thanks for your comments and compliment. I agree completely. I've had an amazing life, with many changes. I cherish all the stages, but I wouldn't want to go back.

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  2. During our twenties Momma and I also lived as pioneers in 70's Mendocino county without electricity, nine miles from the nearest pay phone. Yeah, it was a pain in the ass to get anything accomplished, but energy wasn't the commodity it is now, so it was a terrific experience.

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    1. We were hardly pioneers. Though I do have chilly memories of several January nights when our furnace broke down (it always chose the coldest nights of the year!)

      It's scary how dependent we've gotten on being connected. I remember when DH and I used to travel for weeks at a time, with no contact whatsoever with remote friends or family. Didn't bother us at all.

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  3. "I had a sense of loss, but no desire to go back."

    As Rhode says, the piece is beautifully written, and I'm moved to read it. I am also impressed by what I quoted above. I wish I felt that way more often, but I'm usually attempted by a desire to go back. I think it speaks to a strong sense of self-possession and identity to feel secure in the way things are now and who you are now.

    Also, no need for machismo. All the driving and such is hard, and exhausting, and worrying. It makes sense to me to feel relieved that you don't have to do it anymore!

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    1. Thanks, Annabeth. I find a good deal of comfort in the Buddhist idea that attachment causes suffering. Clinging to the past prevents us from moving forward.

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  4. I'm firmly rooted in almost the same area as you were, as you know, Lisabet, but closer to Amherst (5 to 10 minutes) and with miles of woods behind me, first Amherst watershed land, and then Quabbin Reservoir. But for all that this is my home, my dreams are much more likely to take place in the home I grew up in many miles away. (Often with my mother still alive, and my dog, and, oddly, the stress of getting to the school bus on time.)

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    1. Ah, Quabbin. Actually if anyone wants a taste of my nostalgia for the area, they should read my paranormal novel NECESSARY MADNESS. Big chunks are set in Petersham, right on the shores of the reservoir.

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  5. Everything in life seems so transitory at our age in a way it never can when we're young. Everything seemed so important then. I've always thought this was the best evidence of reincarnation, just the fact that we've already been so many different people even in just this one life.

    Garce

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    1. That's an interesting notion, Garce. There's some continuity, but I do feel like a different person than the woman I was even fifteen years ago.

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    2. I have told my own kids, and those I sub/tutor, that every age I've ever been still lives inside of me. I can "revert" and "be" that person again, if I want to. But usually I'm content to be the person I am now.

      When my kids were much younger, they really liked "10-year-old Fiona" to come out to play with them at the park. Then I'd make a big show of looking at my watch and saying in dismay, "Oh no! Time for dinner soon. Mom has to come back." They'd all chorus that they didn't want Mom back yet, but wanted to keep playing with young Fiona. I'd point out that unless Mom came back, we'd none of us get any dinner. Then they'd sigh and agree that food is a good thing.

      So you were revisiting the person you were at that age, but it's not who you are now. I don't think you need to judge yourself as "soft and lazy," or a "wimp." Instead you should smile with nostalgia at the younger woman you used to be, and be glad you can still access who she was. The pain of dementia is that it robs you of those previous selves. I saw that first-hand with my mom.

      There is a Doctor Who episode, "The 5 Doctors," in which the big bad guy of the episode is stealing all of the previous incarnations of the Doctor, and using them to play a forbidden game. With the loss of each one, the Doctor gets weaker. He says, "We are all the sum of the people we have been. I'm being diminished."

      So rejoice in your connection to your previous selves, without recrimination or guilt. And rejoice in who you have become. I didn't know you then, but I know you now. And I think you're pretty cool.

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    3. What a great comment, Fiona! I clearly remember myself at ten. But I'm not sure I could "become" that person again, even temporarily.

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  6. Well said, Fiona. Lisabet, it's interesting that your life in an Asian country seems so much more convenient and high-tech than your previous life in the U.S.A. I remember a time when American (and Canadian, to a lesser extent) kids wanted to join the Peace Corps to see the world beyond the industrialized West. (Here in Sask, we have modern transportation & well-insulated houses in towns, but there is still enough raw wilderness fairly nearby to satisfy anyone who wants to visit.) Your feeling about the past, & your past self, seems sensible. IMO, youth is rarely a happy time.

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    1. It's really a question of urban versus rural, rather than high versus low-tech.

      I was reviewing my photos from our trip last night. New England is still exquisite. Tugs at my heart.

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