Meeting Up

columbia-alma-mater-statueWhen I found my first masters’ thesis from 1982, I couldn’t resist reading.

The first sentence was simple enough, the second less so, and, after that, I encountered syntax and language so muddy I couldn’t trudge through it. I gave up, convinced someone else must have written it, maybe an ancient astronaut or some medieval pedant I was channeling at the time.

Am I that much stupider, or was I once so much more pretentious?

One of my favorite Borges stories is “The Other,” about someone meeting his younger self on a park bench. The narrator of the story—the old man—can’t convince the young man that he’s talking to his future self. The youth believes he’s dreaming. All the biographical proof the older man offers is dim memory, and the older man can’t clearly recall once meeting his aged self either.

The moment leads to an impasse. All the fantasies a reader might harbor about going back in time—or forward—lead to nothing. They were unprepared; they talk about books. Even exchanging currency from their respective years proves inconclusive, the money too strange to accept.

Having revised my resume recently, I think I understand Borges’ story better. We think of ourselves as one person when, like an organism whose every cell is replaced one at a time on strict schedule, we are entirely different. We don’t recognize the subtle transmutation or, even recognizing it, don’t accept it really.

My resume lists degrees I’ve earned and tasks I’ve performed at work, but they’re a better description of the turns I’ve taken than who I am. Who I am, in some sense, is where I’ve arrived. It’s a trap to be overly impressed by framed diplomas I once earned.

The runner in me hears a voice inside saying, “What have you done lately?”

I wonder, with Borges, what it might be like to disillusion my younger self, to tell him events that seem so vitally important will prove to be another staging area for another and yet another…and some of what you think will be major accomplishments turn out to be empty vanity. I’d be sorely tempted to urge him to stop dragging degrees and grades like strong boxes and accept that memory lasts longer than achievement. “Each year is a new vantage from which to view life,” I’d spout, “another plateau or valley. And that’s better.”

Some parents seek to create paper trails to testify to their children’s experience. They want something neater and more portable than the messy and contradictory people children can be. I don’t blame them because who could object to their desire to situate their children for success and happiness?

At times, however, it’s tough to tell which comes first—documentation or experience.

For some of their children, the future oppresses the present. They learn “having done” is more important than “doing,” and doing loses its pleasure. They become academic bulimics more interested in having eaten than in growing from the food.

Living in the present is difficult for me too. I dream about meeting my son or daughter’s future self and being impressed by what each has become. But I can’t ignore my own experience. My own parents loved and supported me, but they didn’t—couldn’t—control what I’ve become. Now that my children are older, my only job is to help them deal with now—the latest mistake, disappointment, or triumph—and offer what comfort I can.

Any grand plan for my children’s future is a bench where stranger meets stranger. I try not to look forward or back too far. Now is a moment moving on.

1 Comment

Filed under Aging, Ambition, Apologies, Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Modern Life, Parenting, Recollection, Revision, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

One response to “Meeting Up

  1. Pingback: Your Familiar | Signals to Attend

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