What is it about nostalgia that makes the past always seem better? Is it that things are getting progressively worse? Or is it just a distorted lens?
A week ago from the time that I write this, I was driving home after dropping Karen and our girls off for a week-long trip to see some family. I was in the sort of contemplative mindset that I often find just out of reach lately. I drove past a house with a truck parked in the driveway. The logo on the side of the truck indicated that it belonged to a fire safety business. Because of where the truck was parked, and the time – it was a Sunday night – my mind, crafting stories as always, began to fill in the details.
The person who owned the truck worked for, or perhaps owned, that business, according to this story. This was a local business, and he would go to work the next morning, driving to jobs around the area, into adjacent towns. He likely knows the area extremely well, and is accustomed to the rhythm and schedule. This person would get up and go to work the next morning after the alarm went off at the same time as always, beginning a new day and a new week.
I grew up around that type of work. I understand – if only by close proximity instead of by doing – that rhythm. That rhythm is such a counterpoint to my life now.
A few weeks ago, I sat in a small local restaurant in Seattle and, over lunch, coordinated a complex technical event that was happening in Boston from my phone. That sort of flexibility and capability is exciting, and fun. I still don’t grasp the rhythm of this work, though, perhaps because there isn’t any. Time bends in on itself, loses its meaning. Everything happens with immediacy. I long for a rhythm, for some local work.
A colleague joked a few years ago that she wanted to stop doing our profession and be a barista for a living. I laughed at this, and I also recalled a friend from my undergrad days. He said that, when he finished school, he didn’t care if he worked at a gas station all night for a living. He just wanted to write. I remember laughing at that too, but, honestly, sometimes I wish that I could just serve coffee during the day, read, and finish that novel, the draft of which has been collecting dust since our first daughter was born. I think that, when I want that, I want it not only because it would be simpler, but because the rhythm would be more….defined.
The rhythm of the life that I have now, filled with fast-paced technology and the controlled chaos of two children, is syncopated, wildly unpredictable. There’s a sense that it’s always delicately balanced, just on the edge of being out of control. There’s no real option but to embrace that syncopation at the moment. Like in jazz, those rhythms can have a purpose, even be playful at times. I long for the quiet, though, the purpose of knowing that your work is just your work, and that it is done when it is done.
Perhaps that is a thing of the past.
I’ve been shopping for a new pair of gloves. This is a deceptively difficult thing to get right. When you live in New England, you don’t own just one pair of gloves, because the mid-weight gloves that you wear in December are useless in January and February. Having the right gloves at the right time of year is very important.
After Karen and I had been married for a couple of years, I joked that I was a master of the suburban jungle. We fell into a rhythm of grocery shopping every Sunday afternoon. This sounds mundane, but was something that I enjoyed. Our rhythm is no longer the same with two children, and this is true not only of grocery shopping, but of many other aspects of life.
Even within these interruptions, however, one adapts. We used to have these little outings as a family. Again, nothing huge, and often mundane….trips to a local store to pick up some items that we needed, then eating out. I love those excursions, even when they are something as trivial as shopping, perhaps for the right pair of gloves.
When our oldest daughter was younger, I took her for “cookies and milk” every weekend. This was an inviolable routine. Even when traveling, we made time. Even if it was as simple as grabbing 15 minutes at a coffee shop (which it frequently was), I made the time. As life progressed, this, too, began to happen less and less frequently, a fact that she has lamented to me recently. Now I find myself digging for ways to accomplish this simple act amidst all of the work that I have to accomplish, all of the daily life commitments that come with family…almost none of which, it occurs to me, involve leaving home.
This was a utopia long-predicted and, now that we have it…for all of its telecommuting benefits…I can’t help but wonder what we’ve relinquished. Years ago, when I was in grad school, I recall sitting upstairs in my favorite coffee shop, when a classmate walked in downstairs. I began to IM him (remember AOL?), and realized the absurdity of such an action. I walked downstairs and said hello. That was a precursor to today, as the absurdity of that moment becomes commonplace when we use Slack to talk to a co-worker who is only a few feet away.
Of all the face-to-face interactions that we abdicate, it is the interactions with my children and family that are most painful. As crazy as it sounds, those random weekend shopping excursions held something that just doesn’t spark when we have those same items delivered by Amazon. The convenience of having such a plethora of options for a new pair of gloves is somehow not worthwhile, because the substance of doing the activity together, even when it’s only shopping, is more important than the outcome of the activity.
That idea, though, is counter-cultural in an age of scientific pragmatism. We are, after all, only data, right? And thus intrudes a cognitive dissonance into my life. I love shiny new toys. I love that I can have groceries delivered to us on Sundays if we are overwhelmed with daily family responsibilities. I miss the act of intentionally doing those mundane things together, though. I miss it deeply, because it now happens so rarely. And thus, so do our connections with each other.
Except virtual connections. Those will never go away.
For whatever they’re worth.
I suppose that I was a relatively early adopter of social media. I remember when Twitter functioned primarily by text message, but my roots go back even further. While I never boasted a MySpace account, I joined Facebook during grad school, when it was only available to students and faculty. I’ll be honest…I joined because one of my colleagues told me that it was a great place to meet girls.
Turns out that she was right: I met Karen on Facebook. As it expanded and grew, I found, or was found by, more and more old friends from the past (oddly, though, never anyone from my undergrad days). I posted to those friends updates to our 24-hour labor experience when our first daughter was born. Facebook was a huge part of my life for a long time.
As I became more and more aware of how carelessly the network regarded my privacy, though, my use of it waned. My profile sat for four years with no use, save the occasional professional necessity. Facebook was obviously becoming a rough neighborhood, even before recent scandals, so, a little over two months ago, I finally followed through with what I had wanted to do years prior. I deleted Facebook.
I feel more free already. pic.twitter.com/qCivn8SAXY
— Dave Brown (@truthscribe722) November 14, 2018
I wasn’t careless. I exported my data, I confirmed that what I wanted to keep was present, I sorted photos to make certain everything was there. Karen wanted to preserve our chats from when we were dating and engaged, but those were sadly unavailable…apparently Facebook doesn’t keep messages beyond a certain point. Then, I clicked delete.
For those of you considering this, Facebook gives you 30 days to change your mind. All you have to do is log back in! And certainly I was tempted…so much of my life was invested there, recorded there. I held firm, though. I didn’t need the noise in my life.
I was then forced to return to what I suppose would be considered an older way of doing things. I still ascribe to the belief that you should never delete anyone from your address book, personal or professional. Perhaps this comes from the fact that I am old enough to remember keeping a hand-written address book. I intentionally reviewed many of those contacts to make certain that I had them…the groomsmen from our wedding, for example. I’m also still connected to several of these people on other networks…LinkedIn, or Twitter…but there are some that I realize now that I missed. I mourn that I may have lost connection with those people, one the person who recommended that I join Facebook in those early days, the person one could say was responsible for Karen and I meeting.
Even more do I mourn the fact that we have permitted a state of affairs in which losing contact with loved ones is as easy as leaving a social network. We’ve allowed someone else to hold that most valuable part of ourselves for their profit, certain to lose some or all of our connectedness unless we choose to be complacent to their nefarious motives. I wish that we had kept this, were intentional about caring for one another deeply enough to make certain that we know how to keep in touch with each other….and then following that with the action of doing so. As revolutionary as social networking was, and as ubiquitous as it has become in our daily landscape, the effort of keeping addresses, and even of writing letters, meant that we truly stayed in touch.
I hope that I can find the space in my life for that intentionality once again.
Christmas does odd things with time.
After a frantic rush of activity with gift-buying, parties, and performance schedules, time suddenly seems to expand as the last Sunday of Advent draws to a close. The act of lighting that fourth candle seems to be the beginning of this strange effect. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are subsequently disconnected from any day of the week.
This season, Sunday still felt like a normal weekend, and it wasn’t until after that we stretched into Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve, though, was not a Monday, nor Christmas Day a Tuesday. It’s as though they stood outside of time, much like the time altering event that we celebrate, when the Word became flesh and a dwelt among us.
Karen and I stayed up until the early morning hours of Christmas Day struggling to assemble the larger gifts, only to be awakened before 7 a.m. by our children bouncing with excitement that could no longer be contained. Over breakfast, I was talking with my parents, who recalled staying up until 4 a.m. one year putting together an elaborate toy with which I still recall playing. I could recall, I told them, a specific set of Christmas mornings: finding Luke Skywalker next to Christmas cookies that “Santa” had eaten from, tearing back wrapping paper to find Optimus Prime, opening the coveted set of sneakers in high school. Those mornings reached through to me from the past, just as real today, intertwining with our children’s joy at princess costumes and toy dinosaurs.
After Christmas, we travelled to spend time with my parents. It’s always surreal to visit that same house in which I grew up. Sometimes the memories take on a life of their own. This year, that wasn’t so much the case. This year it was the past continuing to meld with the present. I sat one afternoon in the quiet of the living room, taking a break from the activity, and I watched our oldest daughter run through the kitchen, grinning ear-to-ear, sliding in her socks around the corner before continuing to charge full-speed into whatever adventure came next until she was out of sight, in much the same way that I used to in that very same kitchen. I experienced so much joy as a child in that house, and thought about how fitting it is that my daughter can now do the same.
I have so many memories of my father working at family through my childhood. I remember him building part of that house as I watched, one my earliest memories. I remember him bringing in wood for the stove in the winters. So many Christmas mornings, so many Christmas gift outings.
Karen and I refer to our Christmas tree as a “memory tree.” We collect ornaments from our travels and life events, and it is with those, as well as ornaments gifted to us, that we decorate our artificial tree each year. Each year, I try to find time to reflect on these, even as we add new ones. There are so many layers to our life together.
Christmas lately seems as much about celebrating the past as the present of our family. Which is fitting, as we are celebrating the Child born to be the Sacrifice for us, who is still with us – through Him, by Him, and for Him. Our relationships, like Him, stand outside of time…eternal, immeasurably more important than any gifts that might be exchanged. While my memories tend to key themselves to certain gifts associated with certain Christmas mornings, it is the bond that I formed with my family on those mornings that surrounds me now, a tangible expression of His love, and what I hope my children remember in their adult lives.
I hope that peace and goodwill followed you this Christmas season.