Sometimes you find yourself in what seems strange territory. One thought bleeds into another and suddenly you feel far afield, lost except that these are your thoughts, you finally and comfortably. A moment arrives when you discover you’ve been here before.
Recently I found a list of resolutions I wrote when I was 24, still burned into computer memory. In this list I promised to challenge myself, to prod myself into fresh territory, to discover all my unrealized potential. Those resolutions sing with charming naiveté.
Time presents limits. I try to find something new, and instead the familiar resurfaces, stains that can’t be suppressed, wincing memories returning. I try to soar into the ethereal, yet often feel stuck as myself. I know I’m not really that old and yet wonder what’s left, what novelty to anticipate and what variation might slide into rapture.
I hate to think only reiteration remains—personal truth stated differently perhaps, but still, at heart, familiar.
Lately I’ve been digging into the soil of childhood, excavating as an anthropologist might for clues I might have missed. All those middens might still yield treasure if I sift painstakingly through it all… what remains of it anyway. You might understand. I always wonder what’s similar in our piles of trash, what every human being knows is common, not our greatest thoughts but the shared refuse of our species.
Unfortunately, it’s so much easier to repeat my own words. Once you’ve found the proper formulation to express your thinking exactly, why look again? I sometimes discover I’m telling the same well-rehearsed stories. Anecdotes calcify into the hard rock of history. And the variations only tailor the story to the situation.
One of my 24 year-old resolutions was to “Meet people who can support you and help you with your goals.” The goals have slipped away but the first part remains. Maybe that’s the consolation of getting older. I enjoy company so much more now, not to tell my own stories but to hear others’. The best conversations don’t elicit stories at all but the honest give and take of how we feel today, what news we have, why the world is wrong or right, and whether presently our hopes fuel us or burden us. I don’t have so many friends, but I love them so much more now. Their thoughts are new and familiar, challenge and comfort combined, confirmation we’re human.
And, though most of the books I teach are familiar to me now, they’re friends too, revealing aspects hidden from me before. I wish I had more time to read fresh texts but enjoy every encounter that extends what I can understand. If the world isn’t new, at least it’s more varied, more subtle, more rich. Perhaps aging is supposed to work that way—experience offers you keys to new doors, even if you’ve occupied the same house all along.
Near the end of The Tempest, when Prospero reunites and forgives the people whose actions exiled him, he invites them to spend one last night on his island home in his “poor cell”:
where you shall take your rest
For this one night; which, part of it, I’ll waste
With such discourse as, I not doubt, shall make it
Go quick away; the story of my life
And the particular accidents gone by
Since I came to this isle: and in the morn
I’ll bring you to your ship and so to Naples,
Where I have hope to see the nuptial
Of these our dear-beloved solemnized;
And thence retire me to my Milan, where
Every third thought shall be my grave.
Maybe I’m just beginning to understand Prospero, the weariness that worries he will “waste” his guests’ time with “discourse,” the bravado in their doubtless interest in the story of his life, the resolution to see his ambition of seeing his daughter married completed, and the recognition that “every third thought shall be my grave.” Ultimately, he must return to Milan. He can’t live alone, and the magic he’s made only reaffirms how finite he is.
One could do worse than being Prospero. Though he’s passed that apex when he expected more and has more ahead than behind, he remembers a great deal too. At the end of The Tempest, Prospero gives his magic up by breaking his staff and drowning his book. In doing so, he becomes human, less special, more familiar, fully himself at last.
I’m not breaking any staffs or drowning any books yet, but if his example can help me face my limits, I’ll take it. If there’s less ahead of me, perhaps there’s also more inside me still.