Recently, my husband and I stepped back in time for a few hours on a date that was both nostalgic and present-affirming. Although most of our fellow date patrons, having a median age of about 60, were probably not affirming the present so much as reliving the past. The date consisted of a matinée movie on an old and rather pixellated projector. It was shown at the local planetarium that has most likely not been updated for decades. They were serving locally brewed beer and classic candy in the lobby as they waited on us to take our seats before starting the movie. And to top it all off, the movie itself, ‘Midnight in Paris‘, was directed by none other that Woody Allen. If that doesn’t inspire nostalgia, I don’t know what will. But the irony of the whole experience was that the message of the film was about not living in the past. So many of us tend to view our own generation with the opposite of rose-colored glasses. We eye each other with a cynicism that loudly exclaims how much worse we have it now than they did back in the day. How many of us have sighed and thought to ourselves that we were just born in the wrong era. If only we could experience the golden age of (fill in the blank). Or perhaps it’s not a time period that you covet so much as a location. If only we could live in Paris! The air is pink there and music fills every street. Inspiration would flow freely and unabated and life would be so much better than it is here in (fill in the blank). But the truth is, as the film so beautifully illustrated, life is what we make of it. Despite how it seems sometimes, the grass is not always greener elsewhere. Generations prior to us also believed that they had it much more difficult than the generations prior to them . . . and so on and so on. If we are constantly envying people for their position or place, then we fail to see and experience the things that people will envy us for later. This is the central theme of my blog. Learning to appreciate and really live now the things we’ll reminisce about later. And then, when we do reminisce, it will not be a wistful longing for what might have been, but a happy remembrance of what actually was. ‘Midnight in Paris’ was such a beautiful illustration of this idea that, although I could never claim comradery with such a brilliant man as Woody Allen, I felt it was to the world of film what I aspire this blog to be for its genre. If you haven’t seen it, make every effort to do so. It will make you smile and appreciate your life for what it is and not for what it might have been or could be.
I am a people person. Far more than most. Although, I think getting older has made me a bit more cynical or selective about who I chose to befriend. But I recently found myself wondering if that is a good thing. Shouldn’t age and wisdom teach us tolerance and open-mindedness rather than keep us bound to the immaturity of judgementalism? All people, from all ages, walks of life, classes, and cultures have something to offer. We can all learn from each other if we are open enough to receive the lessons. Even from people we deem to be beneath us. Perhaps especially from them. I have learned more from my son in the two years he has been on this planet than I have from many of the “intellectual” adults I have encountered. I have learned more from old people who many would call out-of-touch than I have from some of the hippest acquaintances I have made. Some people who I may have initially thought too immature to contribute much to a balanced friendship, end up being the light-hearted relief that I crave in the middle of an otherwise stressful time. Others, for whom everything seems to come easy, who have never had to fight for their supper and electricity, may once have spawned jealousy in me, but lately inspire gratitude for the richness that the struggle has brought to my life.
This awareness of the unseen value in friendships that we might not have initially given much of a chance, came yesterday as my husband was making plans with a relatively new friend. Without being asked, I volunteered that I was not very fond of this friend. My husband was quick to point out that I used to say the same thing about another of his buddies who’s friendship I now consider myself lucky to claim. If he had not prodded me to overcome my initial judgements about that person, I would have missed out on a valuable, affirming, kind relationship simply because I was too closed minded to be accepting. Patience with people is an immeasurable virtue I am only beginning to comb the depths of. Acceptance of differences is what connects us with people unlike ourselves and these people then bring balance and change to our lives in ways our other similar, like-minded friends never could have. Friendships come in all kinds of packages and sometimes it’s the oddest looking ones that have the most valuable contents.
There are moments we know, without a doubt, that we will remember fondly. But it doesn’t mean that those moments were completely idyllic or picturesque. Often times, as we dive back into our memories, they are blanketed with a think layer of nostalgia that covers a multitude of sins. Family gatherings, for instance, are often fraught with familial tensions. Unspoken but implied criticisms. Hurt feelings or frustrations. But these are not the things we remember. We remember with rose-colored glasses the good times. The unguarded enthusiasm of children experiencing things for the first time. The brash and also unguarded comments of the aged who no longer feel the need to bother with social niceties. Fingers in mixing bowls getting smacked by mammas. Christmas presents opened just a smidge at the corner when no one was looking. Or endless games of monopoly in which we seek to dominate our beloved.
But it struck me this weekend as I experienced just such a moment of pure nostalgia in the making, that it is often incredibly hard to get past the difficulties that exist in those moments so that we can see, all around us, the things we are sure to remember fondly. Why is it that we so often only appreciate things that have already passed? It is because we’re too busy dealing with the stresses of the present to notice. But shouldn’t our memories, time and time again, be a lesson to us to let go of the things that don’t matter in the present? If we can just find it in us to brush off a harsh word, let go of unwarranted criticism, or never return the slight of someone else in kind, we can remember, in the present, the love that holds us together and the joys that are the building blocks of our memories.
This weekend found me and my family in a very small town in northern Mississippi where my husband was participating in a reunion concert for a local band who’s first gig occurred 40 years previous. It was astonishingly beautiful. Already, I remember it warmly. But I do regret allowing myself to be taken up with some of the stresses that surrounded the weekend. Some of them were silly stresses. Some of them serious. But none of them will factor into the beauty of the memory. What did it matter, in the long run, if the hotel room was old and small? Or if my sick son was a bit whinny and slept in my arms for most of the concert? That, in and of itself, will bring a smile with its memory. Was it really justified of me to feel somewhat jealous of the time I didn’t get to spend with an old friend when he was surrounded by family, friends, and a girlfriend he doesn’t get to see often enough? Should I have allowed myself to embody the stresses of those around me who were prepping for the concert or dealing with their own family tensions? Or should I have been an oasis for those same people – a stress free zone to refresh their mind and spirit? Of course, none of these difficulties compared with the wonderful beauties that the weekend afforded. Such as the constant bombardment of strangers telling me how wonderful my husband was both as a person and as a musician and how much they appreciated his help over the last several months. Or seeing the pure excitement on my son’s face, despite being sick, as he watched his daddy play in a concert. Or witnessing old men relive the passions of their youth with unrivaled enthusiasm and the support of their home town for their endeavor. And seeing a mother dance with her grown son, my friend, as though no one was watching and imagining myself and my son, who was sleeping in my lap, dancing in their shoes in the not so distant future. This is the stuff of life. All the rest is not worth remembering, and so, it is not worth dwelling on.
It is so easy to look at the behavior of a toddler and condescendingly shake your head and think how silly they are, when, in reality, many of their desires and actions mimic our own. We’ve just become better as masking the silliness of it. But it struck me the other day that maybe we’d all be a bit happier if we stopped trying to mask our own silliness and sought to learn in such an independent and experimental way.
Allow me to illustrate. Last weekend, I took Aiden to the pool on both Saturday and Sunday. The difference in him was so stunning and remarkable from one day to the next that it was hard to believe that Sunday’s child was even the same boy. Had I not witnessed it with my very own eyes, I would not have believed. Saturday’s child was anxiety ridden and whiny. He clung to me like a chimpanzee repeating the same constant refrain, “I wanna get out!” It wasn’t until we gave up and went to the baby pool that he finally began to relax and have a good time. Whereas Sunday’s child was jumping off the edge of the pool into my arms, getting fully submerged, and crying, “I do it again!” He never even mentioned the baby pool. But what was the difference? Had some magical developmental switch been flipped that suddenly bestowed bravery on him? I think not. The difference lied entirely in my approach to him. On Saturday I simply undressed him and brought him into the pool with me and went straight out toward the middle. And, because I had read in some parenting book or blog that it was wise to do so, I held his nose and dunked him completely underwater. He emerged coughing and sputtering and even more terrified than he had been previously. He had no control over the situation or what he did and how he felt about it. Whereas on Sunday, I listened to his ever-present mantra of, “I do it myself!” and let him take the lead. I got into the pool by the steps and never told him one way or another what he should do. I left him walking around the steps on the concrete (watching carefully of course) and let him see me enjoying myself. When he determined for himself that what he was watching looked like fun, he got into the pool on the first step. I proceeded to lure him with a ball, just out of his reach, till he was standing, of his own volition, on the “deep step” where the water reached up to his chin. Then he surprised even me by stepping off of that step and letting his feet dangle in the water while he held onto the edge. Later, after seeing the other kids do it, he decided he wanted to jump in, but absolutely could not do it without both of my fingers and “no dunk.” This quickly morphed into one finger and then no fingers, full dunk, followed immediately by “I do it again.” The whole way home from the pool all he could think about was sharing his accomplishment, “I tell Daddy I dunk!”
I didn’t just tell you all of this because it is cute, although it undeniably is. I told it as an illustration of behavior. Many parents would look as this situation and tell the child some version of, “See, I told you! If you had just listened to me on the first day, you could have had fun then too.” But I think it’s the other way around. If I had just listened to him on the first day, then we all could have had more fun. Instead of trying to force my knowledge on him, I should have allowed him to learn it in his own way, in his own time. I believe this principle is true in most of our relationships. We need to learn to meet people where they are and not expect them to meet us where we are. How many of our relationships could be improved if we learned to listen to the desires of others and better communicate our own learning desires to them? Spouses, Bosses, Friends, Coworkers, Parents, Teachers, Boyfriends. But, when asked to learn a new project at work, too many of us are afraid of looking silly by saying to our boss some version of, “I do it myself!” (That is: “I actually learn much better and will retain the information longer if I can just dive in and experience it for myself.”) And so we let them teach us in whatever way is most natural to them and we learn only half of what’s expected. We’re too afraid of sinking to learn how to swim. And we’ve lost the gumption of our toddler selves that approached every new situation head on with a drive to learn by experience. I think we all stand to learn quite a lot if we would stop teaching long enough to listen.
Who among us has not heard granny drop the “F” bomb and complain about her food, or her chair, or the pimple on her ass? And our first reaction is often to roll our eyes and dismiss her as a crotchety old person. But you would think we’d have it in us to be a bit more sensitive since we are all just old people in the making. And I’d be willing to bet that most old people would be far less ornery if they were dismissed a little less often. Shown some respect. Appreciated more for the incredible wisdom they house than the faculties they have lost.
Having just finished reading “Water for Elephants,” which is narrated in part by a 93 year old man, and having read the incredible tributes that several friends have recently written about their beloved grandparents upon their passing, I find myself pondering the vast untapped wisdom of our elders and regretting the relatively little exposure I have had to it. I have always lived a significant distance from my grandparents and never been diligent to put in the work it would have taken to develop good long distance relationships. This makes me sad and I hope that, one day, my grandchildren are more diligent than I was.
In considering this elderly wisdom that I have not sufficiently availed myself of, I did some research looking for the advice of old folks. For better or for worse, here are some things I found. Feel free to add to the list.
- We all make mistakes and sometimes the hardest part of making a mistake is letting it go.
- When you think “I’ll just have one more drink” – don’t have it.
- Don’t be surprised when people are not pleased for your success and are happy when you fail.
- Never look at your mom when she’s eating a banana.
- Life is like riding a bike. If you look down or look back, you’ll fall off. The only way to get where you want to go is to look forward.
- Son, now you are married, you must learn this important lesson on dealing with a wife. If you are going out for a night on the town, tell her you are coming home an hour or two later than you actually intend to. That way, when you arrive home ‘early’ she’ll be delighted that you’ve cut short your night out to be with her.
- Never trust a man with a beard, he’s hiding something.
- If you take longer strides when you’re walking, your shoes will last longer.
- Never sleep with a woman who’s problems are worse than your own.
- Never skimp on spending money on a good pair of shoes and a decent bed. If you’re not in one, you’re in the other.
- Always leave a party while you’re still having fun, you’re a young lad now but later you’ll understand.
- He who is scared and runs away, lives to run another day!
- Always take a dump when you’re at work, you’re getting paid for it.
- Growing old is mandatory. Growing up is optional.
- “If we spent as much time feeling positive about getting older, as we do trying to stay young, how much different our lives would be.” Rob Brown
- “Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young.” Fred Astaire