by Mary Hrovat
One of the things that fascinates me about history is the different ways we know historical periods. We know the times we live through in a very deep way, not just the events and how they affect us, but the details of daily life. We know the slang, the jokes, the mid-list books; the forgettable songs and the ephemeral news; what the world smells like and how it tastes and sounds. It’s very hard to know another time period in anything like the detail we know our own: what people wore to work, what they did on Saturday afternoons, what all the machines did and why they were made.
However, it’s easier to see more distant periods of history as a cohesive whole, or a completed story. As details inevitably fade from collective memory with time, and most of the possible futures are abandoned, meaning and coherence can emerge. Distillation and compression over time reveal story lines, themes, and meanings that weren’t obvious in the rich confusion and immediacy of experience.
The meaning we find or make may be illusory, but we value it anyway. Galen Rowell, in The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, says, “Minute by minute, year by year, details fall away as our mental imagery becomes more iconographic. That’s how we see; that’s how we think.” Perhaps it’s also how we remember, and especially how we form collective memories.
I can only guess how future generations will view the times I lived through. It seems obvious that the Apollo moon landings and the COVID-19 pandemic will loom large. It’s more difficult to say which politicians or writers or entertainers will be remembered (or for what), or even which disasters or events. I don’t know how things will turn out. It’s even harder to guess which books or paintings or films will survive, or how much anyone will know about, say, how we worked or vacationed or died.
Distillation adds value by subtracting substance, and the two ways of experiencing history seem incompatible. Still, I’ve often wished that I could have both types of understanding of historical periods: to know the longer arc of my own timeline, and to see other timescapes in something like the way their inhabitants saw them.
One reason for reading history is that it can immerse us in the particulars of past worlds while putting them in a context that reveals larger patterns. Fiction written in other times, or good historical fiction, can also do this. Even there, though, we may need footnotes to support our immersion. And even if we can learn what a barouche was, and why Fanny Dashwood wanted to see her brother driving one, we’ll never have the effortless knowledge of the economic and social connotations of possessions, religious affiliations, names, places. We can’t know the past as if we lived in it.
Until I started to accumulate a significant stretch of personal history, I didn’t realize that you actually can, to some degree, hold both perspectives on the times you’ve lived through. At sufficient distance, the threads of experience form something that resembles a pattern. Themes emerge and connect events that seemed confusingly random at the time, or that didn’t seem important enough to think much about. You may understand (or at least think you understand) why people did things, including yourself.
In Mrs Dalloway, Peter Walsh realizes that “The compensation of growing old … was simply this; that the passions remain strong as ever, but one has gained—at last!—the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence—the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.” Gaining this power involves a certain amount of consolidation of similar memories and some loss of fine detail. However, the sense of what it was like to be alive at a particular time remains, and the details are often still there. It can be surprising how many of them come tumbling out of memory’s hoard, once you pull one recollection out into the light.
This is especially true if you’re talking with a sibling or an old friend and can pool your memories. You may also have diaries or photographs that will recall to you the finer-grained texture of earlier days—the restaurant where you went with people from one particular job long ago, the names of your neighbors, the clothes you wore and the music you listened to and the bed you slept in.
The problem with photographs, especially photographs of special occasions, is that they can come to define an experience more thoroughly than your actual memories do. On the other hand, sometimes when I look at photographs from my childhood or my sons’ childhoods, I’ll notice some small thing (that lamp! those dishes! that shirt!) that calls the entire scene to my mind, restoring a part of my past life to me. (Although sometimes the things I notice are baffling, and then I wish I had written more things down. But sometimes the journal entries are opaque, and I must accept that my past self, like many of the people I have known for a long time, is in some ways a stranger to me.)
That’s one reason I save things; even a trivial object like an old keychain or a letter (in an envelope, with a stamp, and an address written in familiar handwriting) can call up half-buried memories and briefly revive a former time. The vivid recall evoked by a particular scent, or song, or taste, or image, sometimes involves both a flood of specific memories and a flash of comprehension that fuses the details into a gestalt.
I had just such a moment recently as I listened to two songs that someone put on a playlist for me more than 20 years ago. I call it a playlist now, but at the time it was in fact a mix tape. The songs are Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill and Rush’s Time Stand Still. They both meant a lot to me in the context of what was going on in my life at the time.
Solsbury Hill is about leaving part of your life behind to move forward into something better. Time Stand Still is about appreciating the things around you wherever and whenever you are (“see more of the people and the places that surround me now”). I still like to listen to these two songs together. Last week, as I listened, I felt a very strong overall sense of the time in my life when I was given the tape. My mind was also filled with specific memories of people and places that are not part of my life any more.
Although that mix tape is associated with a time that was stressful overall, I felt nostalgia for those days and even a wistful longing to relive them. Even difficult times have good moments, and all of those experiences, stressful and otherwise, are mine. I was simultaneously pleased to recall them (from a safe distance) and mildly melancholy at the things that have gone from my life.
As I listened, I realized that at some point, I’d be old enough that my present would never turn into that kind of past. I might be that old right now. Immersion in the chaos of daily incident and interaction may be the only way I’ll know this time. I might not have enough future left to be able to distill the rich variety of the present into a more coherent whole or to see the bittersweet beauty in times of uncertainty and loss.
Actuarial tables suggest that I probably will be able to someday look back on that recent evening, the quarantine and the music and the glass of wine and my thoughts, in the context of what has happened since and how some of the storylines have resolved. But if that loss of perspective be not now, yet it will come.
This was a painful, almost terrifying realization. The days are packed with particulars and yet constrained as beads on a string. It comforts and excites me to think that life will gradually carry me to a time in which I can see the bewildering or difficult or simply unexamined circumstances of the present in a new light. I imagine a much older self bereft of this opportunity to watch incident consolidate into narrative, and my heart clenches in protest.
But time has taught me that emotional reactions are context-dependent, and it can be difficult to understand the feelings of a past self or predict those of a future self. The very fact that I came to that moment of insight the other night shows me that the slow and mysterious alchemy by which people change is still at work. Time is not done with me yet.
You can see more of my work at maryhrovat.com.