The other night, Cubby and I had dinner with friends. It was a lovely time, with lots of laughter and good food.
Afterward, though, it occurred to me that all we did was talk about the past. We told stories about mutual friends and relived events we had all participated in. Cubby, who was not around for those things, heard the stories for the first time. But for the rest of us, this was ancient history.
Why, I wondered, didn’t we talk about what we’re doing now? All of us are engaged in what I think are interesting activities—building a house, teaching, new jobs, writing books, planning trips. And we did talk about these things, but only briefly, and not in much detail. Instead, we returned to stories we’ve told dozens of times before, laughing at the same punchlines and groaning at the same plot points.
The more I thought about this—and I lay awake for quite a while doing just that—the more it bothered me. I have never really been a nostalgic person. I don’t often look at photographs, or have boxes filled with mementos. I don’t display the awards my books have won. I’m not generally interested in what was. I like to think about what’s next.
I worry a little that this sudden focus on the past is a function of age. I recall my parents and their siblings doing this, reliving moments that took place years before. “Remember when…” one of them would say, and for the next hour they would discuss the hilarious time 30 years earlier when they were all at the cabin for the weekend and my Uncle Dick got sprayed by the skunk. Listening to these stories as a kid, I always wondered when their lives had stopped, at what point they had given up speaking in the future tense and slipped into the past.
I suspect there’s more than a little fear involved in this behavior, specifically the fear that there might not be as much time left to do new things as one would hope. Recently, I found myself making a list of writing projects I want to do before I set the pen down for the last time. Looking at everything, I did the math and realized that some of those things will simply never happen. I don’t have enough time left to do it all. Twenty years ago, 10 years ago, even five years ago, I would take on a project just because it sounded like fun. There was time to do everything. Now, there’s not. Choices have to be made. And I resent it.
This makes returning to the past even more puzzling to me. Why think so much about what we’ve done when we should be thinking about what we can still do with the time we have left? Is it because we need to remind ourselves that we used to be people who did things? Or because our reservoirs of hope and confidence have sunk due to disappointments and failures?
Not long after this dinner, Cubby suggested we watch a movie we’ve watched before. “But we’ve seen it,” I objected. “We should watch something new.”
“I want to watch something I know will end well,” he countered. “Watching something new makes me worry it won’t.”
Maybe this is why there is comfort in reliving the past. Even when the stories don’t end happily, we’re at least already familiar with the conclusions and are ready for them emotionally. Perhaps this is why, during our dinner, my friends and I only touched on our future plans. Maybe it was too much to think about what we’ll do—how we’ll feel—if the planned trips don’t turn out to be what we’ve fantasized about them being, if the books don’t get written, if the dream house turns out not to be what we dreamed it would be. Before, we would have time to do them again, to have another chance. Now, though, these might be our last opportunities, and we’re terrified of that, and so we don’t discuss it.
“I don’t want to live like that,” I told Cubby the morning after that dinner. “I don’t want to be a person who keeps reliving the same stories. I want to make new ones.”
As I get older, I find it harder and harder to dream, to imagine different possibilities for my life. I choose safer adventures, less-risky options, things I’m more or less certain will turn out all right. But at what cost? Joy? Surprise? It hardly seems worth it. So, from now on I’m going to replace the past tense with the future tense, “I did” with “I will do.”
We’ll see how the story turns out.▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author.