The Past is Never at Rest
Updated: Nov 11, 2021
Last year, I took an art marketing class. One of the exercises in the class was to examine your life and re-tell it as a Hero's Journey. It was difficult and painful. Self examination on that level was something I avoided doing.
The past is the past. I buried all the things and the feelings for a reason. Why do I want to open up old wounds which I thought were healed? What's interesting, to me, is that traumas that I thought I'd processed and dealt with were still there. In re-casting my life as a hero's journey, I had to confront those old wounds and traumas. By the time I finished that exercise, I felt lighter and free. Good, I thought, I have processed the trauma. I've made peace with the pain of childhood.
Unfortunately, it's never that easy. Just when I think the past is settled and sorted, the dirt pile shifts and I'm confronted with something I thought I processed long ago.
When I began school as a small girl, I was so open and accepting. I was ready to be lifelong friends with anyone and everyone I met. That didn't last. I learned that other children are not to be trusted. I started building walls.
By the time I got to high school, I was not particularly trusting or open. I'd built my walls taller and thicker. I would still let people in but it took time for me to open up. Still, there were a few solid friendships made along the way. I am in touch with maybe five people from my high school years. Everyone else, I've let fade away to sepia tones in my memories.
I've never attended a high school reunion. I was left with very little desire to see any of those people ever again. I'd established a pattern when I left high school because of those people.
By the time I got to college, I was almost completely walled off. I wasn't ready to let my walls down for anyone. I made what seemed to be a circle of friends. I had people to talk to, people to live with, people to do social activities with, but I was never really close to any of them. I didn't know what their hopes and fears were. I didn't know significant events from their childhoods. I didn't know what they were afraid of. I didn't know what made their souls sing. I didn't really know them any more than they knew me.
Looking back, I can see that I'd established a pattern. I escaped from college, I felt, with a minimal number of traumas and pains. I felt safe. I'd learned the secret. Be an island. Be a rock. Never let anyone get too close.
As I've learned to process the pains and traumas of my past, I always skimmed over my college years as I didn't think there was any real point to it. I didn't think I'd connected with anyone enough to have painful memories from that time in my life.
I maintained even fewer connections from college than I did from high school. I'd learned the fine art of not being vulnerable. But, here's the thing, I was deluding myself.
On Saturday, while I was working the New Orleans Art Market in City Park, someone I knew in college stopped by my booth. I found the moment strangely surreal. I'd never have recognized him. Our brief exchange felt stilted and strained. After he left, I experienced this wave of overwhelming sadness, but struggled to understand why.
The past wasn't safely buried. The sands can still shift beneath my feet. Was it because he seemed so drastically changed? It's not as if I could reasonably expect him to still be a 22 year old clad in cut off jeans and wearing tie dye. Was it because he was a very physical reminder that my youth has fled and I am no longer a cute, leggy co-ed?
Maybe there was a little bit of both of those things in there. I hadn't thought about him in years. He was very good friends with one of my roommates. If we had a party or went out, chances were that he would be there so he was a central figure in my college experiences.
I'd cast him as a character in the story of my life. I took away his essential realness and turned him into a two dimensional figure in the story I told myself about my life, but, in person, he was a physical reminder that the past is never really past. There are events and pains that I haven't dealt with. I hadn't learned the fine art of emotional distancing as well as I thought.
Time to take those old stories out of their graves, shake off the dirt, and make peace with pains I'd buried away, only half cognizant that they existed at all. We're never really done. We can never be completely free and clear of our pasts. Our stories, our experiences, make us. They form the foundation of who we are and what we've become. As I process those old memories and re-tell a story I thought I knew, I realize that I have once again taken from him his flesh and blood realness and turned him into a story that I'm telling you and also that I'm telling myself.
Who is he? Who was he? I don't know, not really. He's a part of my past that I didn't get to know deeply and I'm left with superficial knowledge and superficial memories, realizing that the real tragedy is that I wouldn't allow myself to be vulnerable enough to make deep, lasting connections and that all I'm left with are a handful of two dimensional stories of two dimensional characters and a mountain of regrets.