One of my friends is about to turn 25, and the other night we were discussing our 20s, characterizing the decade as one of restlessness and confusion. I told her, "Dude, we have license to fuck up so badly in our 20s, but we've got to work it out." That is to say, my 20s have been all about trying on different lives to see if they fit, which has meant a few very unflattering outfits. However, I've come to the conclusion that if one refuses to move through the pain of losing or disillusionment, he or she may never feel anything but the pain. Like pain is a permanent attachment--or a permanent attachment to pain.
Staying with the analogy of trying things on, I've had a few lives that felt fashionable for a while (being a student in Italy, interning with famous editors at Random House, working for magazines in San Francisco, embarking on a year-long yoga adventure) and others that busted at the seams (moving in with a badly behaved CEO in London, slaving for a hedge fund in Manhattan). Maybe spontaneously combusted at the seams would be a better description of the latter. Anyway, without these “fittings,” if you will, how would I ever know what I want to put into motion?
Which leads me to the question: What if we considered our failures as mere diagnostic testing? What if the past meant nothing to us except the wisdom and sensibilities we've gained from having gone through it all? (By the way, all of these lives have culminated with the one I have today, living as a mostly blissed out mommy who works with writing students at a small liberal arts college.)
The reason I'm pondering these questions: I watched a totally fascinating documentary tonight called “Unknown White Male.” It's about a man called Doug Bruce who mysteriously developed amnesia early one morning in New York City. He woke up on the subway on March 7, 2003 and did not recognize his surroundings. He had no recollection of what he was doing or who he was. He soon realized he was wearing a backpack, but all it contained was a vile of clear liquid (later identified as medication for a dog), a travel guide to South America and two sets of keys. Since he didn't have any clue who he was, he went to a nearby police station for help. The police noticed his English accent and concluded that he must be English, which, at the time, meant nothing to Doug. After five days in the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Brooklyn, Doug called a phone number scrawled on a scrap of paper he found in the travel guide. He reached a woman who recognized his voice. She told Doug over the phone, “I know who you are. You have a great life, and I'll be there to pick you up in half an hour."
Doug soon found out he had been a successful stock broker who had retired at age 30 to pursue his passion for photography. He owned a large, sparse loft in Manhattan, three cockatoos and two dogs. He spent the next several years meeting family and friends for the first time and creating a new version of himself amidst the relics of his forgotten past. He soon concluded that he did not care if his memory came back and later grew to fear its return.
What excited me about this documentary was watching Doug experience the joys of life for the first time with an adult mind. New York was a new and exhilarating place. He wept the first time he saw the ocean. He fell in love for the first time--the all-consuming and devoted kind. His photography was suddenly elevated to a new level of artistic depth. It was as if he was only left with the sensory faculty of his past--almost like muscle memory of living without ego or cynicism (i.e., what we all enjoyed as small children).
As the mother of two-year-old Landen, I am constantly in the presence of this lack of inhibition (for which I am forever grateful). Before dinner tonight, Landen and I were walking along Seneca Lake and the moon was full and bright. He pointed to it excitedly and ran down the bank toward the lake shore. He stopped on a hill, reached up and grunted--thinking he could somehow grasp the moon in his little hands, fingers spread out like stars. He then stood there with his back to me for a while, his head tilted upward and still. The lake reflected the moonlight like sparks on the water and the moon floated above it, a giant pearl in the purple sky.
This moment reminded me that every moment is original. As every two-year-old knows, our origins lie in this moment and then the next...