Agents of the Undertow
Take this picture: a young child stands in the half-sunlight beneath a group of large pine trees, reaching out to touch the flowers and smell their spring-time fragrance. The child is smiling. The back of her printed dress hangs loosely in the breeze as she bends forward. The picture is a conduit, a reminder of simpler times, of the sun’s warmth and how there are moments when time can stop and the sun can wrap its warm rays around us and coddle us. This momentary sidestep of time that accompanies such episodes--this photo--breathes life into us and connects us, making us aware of the fluidity of existence. This standing still of the world--where the minutest detail is crystal clear--is unexpected but always welcomed.
Keep that photo, place it away somewhere safe, somewhere that you are sure to come across it in the future. Regardless of the synaptic rust that may have accumulated, there will come a day when viewing that picture brings back the sun’s warmth and you will again step into that place between yesterday and today, that place where time slows down and tranquility washes over you and memory ambushes you.
Now fast forward several years. This is that day, or one of those days, for they are not limited to single encounters. Rust has accumulated in the intervening years. It makes some of the events of the past hazy while others seem to have disappeared altogether. All areas of life have been affected, rusted over, buried. Births and rebirths. Successes and failures. Loves and love lost. Deaths and illnesses.
Life gets rearranged on a daily basis, priorities shift and tides come and go. The waters that wash upon our psychological shores deposit new forms and grains of experience, covering others and pulling some back into the ocean, into the depths. But everything of the earth is recycled, transformed. Nothing is ever lost. The present always contains the past. Occasionally, like today, the past merges with the present and the rust is momentarily wiped away, as tiny bits of experience break to the surface. Occasionally, the forgotten bits form a mosaic of past experiences that are lived again. These experiences that come rushing forward are connected in an asymmetrical fashion, lacking apparent form and reason. But they develop their own rhythm, and they flow effortlessly into each other. They make sense in a realm that is beyond reason.
In our need to deal with present crises and pre-occupations we lose some of the immediacy of our experience. Lessons learned long ago become agents of the Undertow; working beneath the surface they exert their influence in unseen ways. Today’s shores were yesterday’s endless horizon. Each day brings a new view, a new perspective. Like the layers of sediment that collect on the earth’s surface, each experience is piled on top the other, the more recent of them usually the most influential, but always there is a pull of invisible forces.
Nothing is ever lost. Everything is recycled. It is a common theme in our inner lives, in nature and, too, in the mythology of man. Since we banded into groups and began forming civilized communities we’ve had the need to explain our place in the universe. Among the early bands of man there was a common belief that when a man died he became one with the earth again. Ancient burial rituals dating back to the Cro-Magnon speak to our fundamental belief in an afterlife, or of a rebirth back into this world. Hunting societies commonly believed that they would return to the earth in the form of the animals they hunted and respected. Agrarian societies believed their buried dead allowed the plants to grow and nourished their forests. Later, we invented Gods to take us to a better place, a place of higher order. Like the cycles of the earth, man is continually reborn. Nothing is ever lost.
On the bookshelf in my office is a copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The paper back is worn around the edges from the number of times I have turned its pages. The book is a favorite of mine but I had not revisited it in a while. Some years ago I placed between its pages the photograph mentioned above. Now, all this time later, I find that it is actually a postcard. The back of it is blank. But the sight of it shakes the rust from covered memories and brings them rushing forward, into the present.
Standing there, suspended in time, I relive events that had been forgotten. The events are unrelated except that they are now exposing themselves in a rush, one on top of the other.
There is the puppy I was certain I had killed. I was eleven years old. We were having a picnic in our back yard, bees buzzing around the fallen fruit from the apple trees, the Midwest’s summer sun slowly slipping from the sky, and the sound of water being splashed in a small pool. It was a practice swing, no pitcher, no ball that I recall, just me and a bat. Later, years later, I learned that the puppy had, in fact, survived.
Today, I see how that puppy speaks to me softly, almost silently. It tells me to be careful of the things and people around me, respectful of their fragility. Making contact with the puppy put a pit in my stomach and sank me to a depth I had not before experienced. Today, that memory swims in the Undertow of my psychological waters and prevents me from becoming too calloused or too lax with the well-being of others. It was a single event and accounts for only a small portion of the reasons for my behavior, but at this moment, while time takes a break, it surfaces and quickly encompasses me.
Years before that summer picnic I attended Damon Road Elementary school in Greenhills, Ohio. That I can recall, I had never had a crush on a girl before I met Laura A. on the playground. First grade is still a fog, but the postcard pulled from Tim O’Brien’s book forces me to relive several things from those days; a praying mantis on the edge of the field behind the school, butterflies of every color, a game of Red Rover, Red Rover, and the blonde headed Miss Laura. These memories are so real and immediate that I become a part of them. I can smell the wild-flowers, once again, and feel the sun beating down on the back of my neck as I bend over to look at the Praying Mantis. I can sense Laura standing next to me, sharing the experience.
These are the facts regarding her--or the lack of them, if you will. I do not remember ever speaking to her. Beyond first grade I cannot say anything about what she looks like, her personality or, for that matter, whether she is even alive today. The postcard, however, has dusted off some serious rust and thrust her to the surface and back into my life once again. Perhaps the memory of her has something to do with the women in my life, maybe she is an archetype that I am unable to comprehend at this time. Or, she could just be a reminder of a time when responsibilities and duties were foreign, when butterflies, a praying mantis, and a cute blonde headed girl were the most important things of the day. I cannot say. The Undertow moves against the normal current and forces me to look at things at odd times. There is no guarantee that I will understand them on a conscious level.
Time beckons. The day presses onward. And from the Undertow comes this: life is short, memories fleeting, but lasting. Yesterday’s horizon is now fading in the rear view mirror. Of all the things I own, memories and their emotional baggage – experience - are the things I will take to the grave and the great beyond. It is not always kind, the Undertow, but it never fails to spark the humanity in all of us. It keeps us in check and though it throws us odd emotional curveballs that often seem incongruent to our current situations the Undertow gives our lives depth and balance.