“Time is a one-way mirror” — Tyson Motsenbocker
“it was the way, standing still
or looking out,
walking or even talking
with others in the evening bar,
holding your drink
and laughing with the rest,
that you realized–part of you
had already dropped to its knees,
to pray, to sing, to look–
to fall in love with everything
and everyone again” — from David Whyte’s “Leaving the Island”
You can’t go back, but maybe you can.
When I was 12, my friend and I would ride our bikes like shooting stars, dreaming.
One winter break, we met at the corner stop sign at the half way point between our homes, thinking that the rapture had happened because it was the day after Christmas and not a kid was outside but us. And in a way it had, because the technology age had enraptured all our neighbors with iPads and PlayStations and Halo 4. And we would be next, of course; it was only a matter of time before we, too, would be taken up into that paradise of screens, but for the moment we were happy with our own little world of staring up at the stars and crawling through sewer drains like we were looking for Charlie.
To quote Levi McCallister, “innocence, though it never was, could have been.”
The past can be both a dagger and a mirror. A mirror to that which was, or at least that which we wanted it to be. And seeing it, whether for what it actually was or for what it could have been, may very well be a dagger because grief is so damn painful and so is longing. Our histories are never as clear as we remember them. But we try. We try to remember, to re-member, to put back together a collection of memories in such a way that we can make sense of whatever it was that happened, or didn’t happen. And perhaps the ways in which we remember are just as important as the actual events themselves, if not more. To quote Frederick Buechner, there is a deep need to “enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember.”
My friend and I are not the same kids we once were. It’s been years since we drifted down Sturgess Run with our feet off the pedals, like that street was Ventura Boulevard and we were the vampires in Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin.” And while we once stood in front of the bathroom mirror with my head up to his shoulders, puberty eventually caught up with me, and I’ve now got a few inches on him. We had each other’s home phone numbers memorized, but all I remember now is the area code. The woods behind his house was our salvation from homework and chores and the complexity of adolescence. In the shelter of pines, we talked about everything from God to sex and all the other mysteries we had yet to figure out and may never will.
And yet, there is something to say for saying that, in many ways, we haven’t changed. I’m not sure how many friendships ever make it past a decade. But for the ones that do, it’s a sacred thing to share the coming-of-age years with another, and then be able to look back on those years with laughter and joy and grief and regret. Tacos and movie nights tend to be our preferred method of sharing both the present and the past these days. Maybe it’s all one.
We wandered through the woods together a few weeks before I moved out West, following the overgrown path that no feet had touched since the two of us last walked it, years before. Rotten wood pallets marked old Airsoft battlegrounds, and previous fields we had cleared with machetes were now home to pine saplings. It was a sudden juxtaposition of a world that died and a world that was born, a sign of childhood lost in the midst of nature coming alive. I was, quite literally, walking the path of my innocence, if innocence ever was. The years before I saw violence for the hell it is, and the years before I was opened up to the mystery and terror and beauty of sex and love and growing up.
I am not sure if we ever get to leave the past, or if we just slowly make peace with it. I think we carry it within us, holding all of the ambivalence together like some sort of cacophony of convoluted memories. At times, we are more awake to certain memories than others. But they are all there, speaking to us and, perhaps, being spoken to by our current lives. The past and the present, the present past. The past has passed, and yet, remains. In ways we didn’t ask for, to be sure, and at other times, in ways that, without them, we may not make it through the present.
I’m not the same kid I was, but I am. There’s a 22 year old in the mirror every time I look, and while he looks a lot different than that kid a decade ago who was scared to shit the world was gonna end in 2012, I see the same kid who loved swerving down the road on his bike and walking barefoot through Beaver Creek. He thinks differently about God now, and yet thinks the same. He’s a far, far bike ride to the room he grew up in, and his 12 year old self would be glad to know about all the countries he’s been to, but would be pissed to know he hasn’t learned to ride a motorcycle yet. He’d weep at the fact that he’s gotten so “old” but still isn’t married, because the younger self always thought he’d marry the girl from Willis Road that he had a crush on all those years. And the two of them, the 22 year old and the 12 year old, they would hug, despite both of their complicated relationships with physical touch, and the 12 year old might even shame his older self when he finds out about his sexual history, and the older self would let him do that, until maybe the grace the 12 year old needed all along finally breaks through to him and he sheds some tears as his older self parents him and pastors him and maybe even weeps with him. And they’ll go for a walk, the older one with his arm over the shoulder of the younger, like Andy and Opie from The Andy Griffith Show, and they’ll walk right down to that creek that raised them, barefoot, of course, and they’ll let the cool water rush over their ankles as they sit back on moss-covered rocks with the river from Ezekiel cutting through both of their hearts, their one heart, as they listen to each other and the world around them and finally learn to be.
A few months ago, I went to see Tyson Motsenbocker in concert at the Sunset Tavern in Ballard, Seattle, a bar with an ironic name considering the lack of sun in that city (the summers are a dream, though). I stood there, with some Seattle brewery’s version of a Shock Top in my hand, standing there as awkwardly as I used to stand around a group of friends back in high school, trying to hold back the tears as Tyson sings, “time holds me down like a brother, showing me all the things I couldn’t bear to lose.” Actually, I’m not even sure if Tyson sang that song that night (titled “High Line”), but I like to imagine that he did because its a set of lyrics that is so set in my mind it haunts me. And the best of words, as well as the worst, are the ones that haunt us.
In his reflection on David Whyte’s poem “Leaving the Island,” Pádraig Ó Tuama writes, “Nostalgia can come with great romanticism […] And that romanticism has a function, to tie you somewhere, to remind you that you can look at things from new points of view, and to hold you together in terms of the story of your life through its places.”
The past, of course, is likely far different than I remember it. But I remember it anyways. Creating a set of memories in my mind, attempting to hold on to a time in my life I sentimentalize, now that I’m removed from it. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing: to hold on to time, to hold on to a time, to allow a glimmer in time to be grieved and also to influence the way you live now. Because, of course, time is carried within us, or maybe it carries us. As my friend Father Kenneth Tanner once so artfully told me, “God fucks with time.” Maybe part of what that means is we remember the way we need to remember — the way that gets us through our current moment, not as a way to escape the present but as a way to honor the past and listen to whatever it has to tell us. Because, if we listen, it whispers.
I wanna be a kid again. I wanna go rest in the eternal summer of Southern California, bathing in innocence with each wave crashing over me as I ride a foamie back to shore. I wanna eat street tacos somewhere along the central coast, letting my feet play in the sands of Big Sur. I wanna go on dawn patrol at Mavericks, knowing damn well I can’t catch one of those waves, and the lineup is too long anyways, but I’ll sit on the outside with my feet dangling in the blue abyss like I’m a character in the next “Jaws” spinoff. And then I’ll pray for rain as I make it up to the evergreens, and go for one more surf (this time in a 4/3) at the jetty in Westport, and after I make it past the breaks with the seagulls singing their song above me, I’ll ride a lefty to shore and start the cycle over again with a longing for sun and sand and unfulfilled dreams that I dream for anyway.
And then, just as the fog starts to roll in to Rain City, I’ll put my flip flops on the floor board of my Mazda, and with Kenny Chesney playing through the speakers, I’ll go searching for innocence.