I find it obscure how memories can be latent and lost for years, beyond recollection, until something suddenly awakens them again. There are massive gaps in my childhood memories, and yet there are certain moments I remember with such precision, it seems as though they only happened yesterday.
Many of my vivid recollections seem to be attached to a particular age, and for some reason, ages seven and eight seem to hold some of my most accessible memories. I believe these years brought with them the wonderful and equally tragic world of self-consciousness. For me, they mark the beginning of a more abstract and complex pattern of thought.
Age seven. I remember standing in the large foyer of our house, my small form swallowed up by empty space and high ceilings. I remember staring out the windows that bordered the front door and thinking about God. Who was He? Where was He? What would life be like if He had decided not to create any of this, any of us? What would the absence of life feel like? All I could imagine was a void of nothingness. All I could picture was blackness. The thought made me shudder, but I found myself returning to it again and again, as if my mind was a new toy I was just learning how to play with.
Age eight. I remember carpooling with my friend to gymnastics practice. I remember sitting in the backseat of her mom’s Mercedes Benz in my leotard, my thighs sticking to the tan leather seats in the humid Atlanta heat. I looked over at my friend’s thighs and noted how much skinnier they were than mine. I thought that if I positioned my legs in a certain way on the seat then they might look as small as hers. When someone mentions the word “self-consciousness,” this is one of the first memories that comes to mind.
One afternoon, at around this same age, I remember sitting on the wooden swing set in my best friend’s back yard. I anchored my toes in the dirt as I swirled the rest of my body around in a circular motion, trying not to tangle the metal chains that suspended me. These random details surround the first time I can remember having “the thought.”
It’s a thought that we’ve all had. It says, “What if I had done that, and not this?” The thought looks like a person standing at a crossroads and choosing one direction, and then, miles and years down that chosen path, looking back and wondering, how would life be different if I’d chosen the other way?
This thought of “what might have been” can be intricately laced with regret and longing, and if carried too far, can become unproductive and even damaging. However, I also think there’s a chance that it can enhance and inspire how we choose to engage in the life we have chosen, or rather, the life that has chosen us.
As a seven-eight year old, I didn’t do much with the thought. Most decisions were made for me; life was still quite simple. At the time, I think I was more intrigued that a person was capable of pondering such things and that the human imagination could construct such vivid scenarios in attempt to fill in the blanks to questions it did not know the answer to. In the years to follow, this would become a favorite past-time of mine.
And now, twenty five years later, I still find my mind drawn to these questions. What if I’d never gotten married? What if I’d never had children? What if I had never joined the military? What if I had never met this person or attended that university or gone to that church? Where would I be now, and how would life be different from what it currently is? The current one I’ve been pondering: “What if I had chosen art instead of nursing?” (more on that later.)
What if? What if? What if?
I believe that my ability to construct elaborate and fantastical answers to this question can be a strength, but it has also been one of my great downfalls. My mind can create and imagine that which has not yet become a reality. This means that I also possess the ability to scare myself–to create my own worst scenarios and entrench myself so deeply in them that I start to loose a grasp of what is real and what is not.
Over the years, and with support, I believe I’m starting harness up the darker side of these thoughts while also loosening the chains on the brighter side of my imagination. This is leading to a greater sense of gratitude and contentment with where I am now, while also allowing myself to dream deeply about what is yet to be.
I’ll finish with a poem that comes to mind as I write all of this. After all, there is a poem for everything…
“What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,
and put your lips to the world.
–from “Mornings at Blackwater” by Mary Oliver
Food for thought:
What are some of your most vivid early memories?
When do you remember first pondering more abstract and complex ideas?
What thoughts does the question “what if?” provoke in you?