The History Lesson

I have a question: when does the past stop… or do I mean start? It’s all very confusing. When I started out, everything seemed to be now –or at least that’s what everybody told me- but now all of that same stuff is classified as the past. So what’s up? Were they lying to me?

I think its time we had a once-and-for-all definition of the Past to help those of us who don’t know when we are. Historians, for example –how do they know what to study? Do they find themselves scooped every year, or is there maybe a grace period? Otherwise, everything that they write would be outdated. It must be hard for them.

But of course I’m not being altruistic here –it’s a hard, cold place for us retirees, too. Nobody thinks about it like that, though. Oh no, it’s a forgone conclusion that we are a part of that mythical Past –that other world. So I ask again: where is the boundary?

As I write this, sitting on my porch with the sun playing hide and seek above my head and the wind gently riffling the keys, I feel the dimorphic guilt of an expat: I’m apparently from the past, and yet here I am, enjoying an exile in my recent home, the present. It muddies the water to be sure because I can’t for the life of me figure out whether it makes me, an inter regnum or a memory. Or do I qualify as an honorary regnum as long as I stay in the background?  I need to know just where the past stops so I can get on with my life.

Just as I was commiserating with my dog about where we belong, Brien dropped by for a beer. In fact, he just wanted to talk to somebody –anybody- but he felt he needed an excuse. And also, I think I’m the only anybody he knows. I’ve offered to lend him my dog, but he says he’s not there yet…  Anyway, Brien, like me, lives alone and has just retired; but Brien, unlike me, does not want to live alone or be retired. This is a problem, because apparently neither party wants him back. That’s why he wants to talk.

“So,” he said, all neighbourly and curious as he climbed the wooden steps, “What are you writing about?” Before I could answer he walked into the kitchen and helped himself to a beer in the fridge. I try to keep a couple in there for him.

I could tell by the faraway look on his face that he was not interested in an answer, so I didn’t.

“Last time I was over here, you were going on about the past being a problem for you,” he said, settling into a lawn chair underneath one of the hanging plants. It wasn’t actually what we’d been talking about, but I let him continue. “Boy, it sure got me thinking. Adele was certainly a problem.” Adele was his wife and she’d left him right after he retired. “Said I’d changed…” He took a quick swig from the bottle and fixed me with his famous spotlight-on-stage stare. He did that whenever he said something I was expected to reassure him about. I’d only known him for a year or two, so I had no idea whether she’d been right, so I clamped a reassuring smile onto my lips and blinked.

“I mean, we all change don’t we? Isn’t that what the past is for –it has to be different, or we might not be able to recognize the present, right…?”

Maybe he thought he was being profound, but I was having difficulty following the logic. I raised an eyebrow.

He, in turn rolled his eyes at my density. “We evolve, over time –it’s a Darwinian fact- so of course I’m going to be a different man from the one she married. If nothing else, we age, and guys… well, stuff changes as we get older.”

I fully expected him to wink, but he blushed instead.

“Isn’t that what you said the last time I came over –that we cross a boundary, or something?”

Well, at least he remembered some of the words. I decided to probe. “I was actually wondering if there was a boundary between Past and Present, and if so, where it lies. Is it different for each of us, or is there some rule, some algorithm that others –younger people- use…?”

“In shorter words, you mean when do we get old?” He finished the bottle and put it on the porch deck at his feet. “Adele figured I was pretty old when she left, so I don’t know about any rules…”

I tried to disguise a sigh and decided to give it one more try. “So… Adele is in your Past, right?” He nodded more vigorously than I thought the question deserved, but I took it as a yes. “And when she left, is that when your past ended, do you think?” He nodded again, but I could see he was less certain about it. “And everything that has happened since then is in your Present?” I merely got a quizzical stare like I was trying to trick him on that one.

“Well, no… it’s just a more recent version of the past.” He rummaged around inside his head for a more suitable descriptor and then shrugged when he couldn’t find one. Clearly, it was a fairly low priority for him, anyway. “Look, Adele was the one who left me. She was the one who started the past, okay?” He got up and helped himself to another beer, but when he returned, he’d changed his mind. “Actually, she phoned me yesterday…” he said, almost apologetically. “So maybe my past is beginning again…”

An intriguing concept: a Past that could begin again as if were a new day, or something. I was about to comment on how profound that was, when he sent his eyes over to my side of the porch for a moment. But as they hovered over me, uncertain where to land, he called them back. “Does that make Adele my future, then?” He took a very long pull at the bottle and emptied it with one go at it. “Or would she be a new past?”

He had me there. And as he staggered down the steps to leave, I realized I would have to rethink my approach to time. It’s good to talk to other people about the Past when you get old, though –you never know where it might lead…



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