I’ve always thought that was an interesting phrase, “put the past in its place,” and not just because it’s another one of those meaningless pop-psychology phrases that gets thrown around when people don’t have any more solid or specific advice to give.
One of the challenges, I think, is that the proper “place” can be different for every person.
I was thinking about this while I was driving (when else) and “Where Are You Now” (Mumford) came on my shuffling iPhone (what else). It’s a sad song, and one that tends to roll around for a while. I think especially the following lines stand out:
And I hear of your coming
And your going in the town
I hear stories of your smile
I hear stories of your frown
And the darkness can descend
We can relish all the pain
But I know that’s what you love
Cause you know I love the same
But where are you now?
Where are you now?
Do you ever think of me
In the quiet, in the crowd?
Pretty heavy and pretty dark, especially on a sunny Thursday afternoon.
HW called a few lines in, he was still traveling, and when we hung up, it came back on, and I thought about how different we are when it comes to dealing with the past.
I think everyone probably has their own way of dealing with the past, we all learn ways to cope as we go along, and we all have different things that need to be put in their places, so that makes sense. Even in one limited area – past romantic relationships, experiences vary greatly. In so many ways, HW and I are very alike, in theory if not in practice, but this is not one of those things.
He is very much a “burn it with fire” kind of person. Once it’s over, it’s over. He’s not interested in being friends, or keeping in touch, or holding on to any kind of memories. He doesn’t keep letters, photos, anything. He even clears out his emails. He wasn’t ever that active on social media, but I’m sure if he had been, he would have deleted, blocked, whatever. More than any of that, he basically scrubs his mind. Over, done, book closed, or really, book burned and erased from memory. He doesn’t talk about ex-girlfriends, good or bad, although he’s willing to answer questions when I have them.
I am not exactly that way. I wouldn’t say I’m actively friends with a lot of ex-boyfriends, but I’m not not friends with them either. It’s more that our lives have gone in different directions and I’ve moved a lot, but occasionally I will hear from one of them, and it’s always a pleasant exchange, or an offer to help. It’s nice, I like to see photos of their families, read about what they’re doing with their lives, and see how they’ve changed or how they’ve stayed the same. I’ve often surprised by how old everyone is starting to look…
There are a few exceptions, like the guy who tried to choke me once in a jealous rage after dating him for like three weeks. Actually, I think we might still be Facebook friends. That’s not really the point.
For me, scrubbing my memory of the past would not be a good thing. It would signal running away, an inability to deal with it or to sit with it, and that would concern me very much. I’m not saying it’s easy, or fun, or that I do it very often. There is a time and a place, and it’s never when things are hard or sad or overwhelming. Still, if it comes up, I would like to be able to say, “Well, that’s a nice memory at least,” or, “Wow, that’s really a shit memory,” and move on with my day, hopefully with some new insight.
With a little time and space, I think it’s usually pretty easy and reasonable to do that, but I seem to be in the minority. Facebook even came up with a new breakup feature that allows a user to choose how much information to see about an ex and how much to allow them to see. It makes sense, especially with the new memory feature, but I think about what it was like for people like my grandparents, who grew up in small towns and lived for seventy years in the same town with their exes. They all saw each other all of the time, everywhere, and they just dealt with it. My grandparents went to a class reunion last summer and their stories about who dated whom and who did what were amazing, and all these years later, they still send Christmas cards.
I guess I think of my past, and all of the people in it, as part of who I am. Those experiences helped lead me to where I am now, and as much as possible, I think it’s important to make peace with that. I’m not saying I think I owe a “thank you” to all of the assholes in my past, but I do think those experiences taught me something. Or maybe that’s just something I choose to believe. To be clear, there are some situations that require a complete break, and when that is the case, I do it, but I think it’s a sad thing, and I do everything possible to avoid it, as HW will tell you, probably with a sideways look.
To be clear, HW never gives me a hard time about how I choose to deal with the past, unless he thinks I’m beating myself up unfairly. In fact, while I wouldn’t say he encourages it exactly, he seems to understand that it’s something I need to do, probably because it’s part of my need to understand things more generally, and is always willing to talk through any thoughts or memories. He’s never jealous or dismissive or anything like that, more genuinely curious.
I think this time of year a lot of people take time to look back over things that have happened in the past. Every year about this time I could always expect a text or call from my father, something sentimental (by his standards), some attempt to reach out. I don’t expect to receive one this year, in part because as far as I know he doesn’t have my new phone number, but that’s a story for another day. My point is that for people who feel unsettled especially, this is the time of year that starts to come out. I think it’s also the time of year people who have been hurt tend to be more forgiving and open. I doubt that’s a coincidence.
People start to think about the road not taken, what if X had been different, or Y hadn’t happened. I don’t think those are particularly helpful exercises, because what could have happened isn’t what actually happened – it’s not reality. What really happened on the other hand, that may be, for some people (like me), worth thinking about.
I’m not saying we should spend Christmas worrying about whether we ever made any mistakes, or thinking about people who are no longer in our lives. I do think that, at least for me, thinking about the past is a helpful way to understand who I am now, and helps me to frame who I want to be moving forward. I suppose that’s probably obvious given that I have spent the past 151 days doing that.
This is one of those posts that I’m struggling to write effectively. I know what I want to say, but I don’t seem to be able to find the words to say it as clearly as I would like. I think maybe because I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of days, I’ve had a few flashes of ideas, and trying to go back, remember them, and find some way to connect them is proving to require more energy and patience than I have at the moment. This might be a topic worth coming back to in a few days.
Until then, let’s be kind, friends.