Living in the Past or the Future – which is worse?

The summer holidays are drawing to a close. A pretty banal statement, you might think? Not if you work in the field of education, as I do, or if you’re still in the process of being educated – which we all were, once upon a time, right? That is, unless you happened to be brought up by some undiscovered Amazonian tribe. Which, presuming you are reading this, and have a laptop or smartphone to do so, does not apply in your case.

So, as I said, the summer holidays are drawing to a close. In Poland, schools will be back in action a week on Monday. In England, a week on Wednesday. In the US, they’re already up and running in most states. At least I still have a full week left. One final, blissful week!

What is it about the closing of a long summer holiday that makes one start feeling all nostalgic? Well, at least that’s what it does to me. Right now, as I’m sitting here by my laptop listening to the rhythmic refrain of crickets outside my open window – the onomatopoeic score of summer – I’m already feeling nostalgic for the earlier part of the holidays. For instance the beginning of July, when my daughter and I were in the verdant island of Corfu, accompanied by mosquitoes, power cuts and rain. But oh, how we loved it, in retrospect! (That’s what’s so brilliant about memories – in retrospect, they’re always so much better.) And now Corfu is locked in the past, all of eight weeks ago. EIGHT WEEKS! Where has the time gone? Where have all the flowers gone? (Apologies in advance if you’re too young to remember that poignant song.)

The answer is that the time is still here, right now, still with us all. It’s still deep within me: in my diary, my photos, my reflections. It hasn’t gone, it’s just … well, moved, I suppose. Shifted from one place to another. Rather like a bank transfer. Only in this case, the bank account is a cache of memories, all of which are priceless. Even the bad ones. So right now I’m living in my current account, but this morning when sitting in bed propped up against my pillows and sifting through recent diary entries, I was living in my savings account labelled ‘Recent Past’. The other morning when sitting up in bed, ditto, I was living in my savings account labelled ‘Distant Past’. My younger years. My youth. My teens. My childhood. Oh yes, my diaries go back a LONG way!

Whether all this sifting through the pages of the past does anyone any good is a question to which I know the answer not! But apparently my very philosophical Polish business partner does.

“Wendy,” he once said to me, peering above his spectacles in that certain … how to put it?  … that certain way of his. Intellectually disapproving but fond. “You should stop living in the past. You should live in the Now, or the Future. But not the Past. It is unhealthy.”

At the time he made me feel guilty for my diaries, my memories, my nostalgia, my addiction, as though they were all some sort of pathology. But were they? Are they? Is living in the past any worse than living in the future? Methinks not! Is constantly dreaming about the life you hope to lead one day – the wonderful things you might have, the perfect partner you might meet, the fantastic career you might forge, the bestselling novel you might write – any more dangerous than constantly remembering all the things you did indeed have, maybe just without the flowery adjectives? If some of those things didn’t work out and some did, does it do any harm to remember them? Isn’t it quite apt that the good memories bring a nostalgic smile to your face, and the bad memories make you breathe a sigh of relief that those awful times are over? The toxic mother problems? The postnatal depression? The marriage break-ups? (Is there anyone else out there who’s had not one, but TWO marriage fuck-ups? Sorry, I meant break-fups. I mean break-ups. It’s the bloody laptop again. Or perhaps it’s the wine. Anyway, if you have, then please do get in touch and we can share bitter-sweet memories.)

So where was I?

Ah, yes. My intellectual Polish partner, who told me that living in the past is Bad For You, just like drinking fizzy water is Bad For You, and smoking menthol cigarettes is Bad For You. (Apparently even Worse For You than normal cigarettes.) But what he didn’t – or doesn’t – know is that my very act of living in the past is what has saved me, time and time again. It is not a Bad thing. It might be a kind of addiction, but it’s a heavenly addiction, leading to positive things. It is not a pathology.

WHAT positive things? do I hear my philosophic Pole ask? Well, for a start, the palliative effect of memories, both the good and the bad. After my mother’s death, the memories led to a kind of catharsis, which in turn led to the creation of a novel, For Some We Loved. And another positive thing: the analysis of diarymania. Is there such a word? Well, there is now. It’s what I suffer from and I’m proud of it! And, what’s more, it led to yet another novel, The Diary Keeper. I had a literary agent not so long ago who represented both those novels. But this is not one of my better memories. No, definitely not, considering how he … Well, whatever. That’s all in the past now. A memory to relegate to the ‘Learn and Move Forward’ cache rather than ‘Cherish and Take to Heaven’. (Is there anyone else out there who’s had not one, not two, but THREE literary agent fiascos? If so, then please do get in touch and we can share yet more bitter-sweet memories.)

At the end of the day, or of the summer holidays, what can be said? With the new school year imminent, and the glories and disasters of past summers fading away at the very same moment that they’re catching up by the simple act of remembering them, sometimes longing for them, sometimes desecrating them, what can be said? We can choose to remember or choose to forget; we can long for the past or we can regret (oops, that wasn’t meant to rhyme); we can learn from the past, transferring what we’ve learned into a brighter future, and we can yearn for that too. But we can’t change a jot of it. What’s done is done, and remembered, and there to stay. Forever. There’s nothing we can do about it, so why not at least remember it well?

An eleventh-century Arabian poet phrased it far better than I can.

The moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,

Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.


The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam




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