All my life I’ll cherish
So much I can’t forget –
The things that didn’t happen,
And the girls I never met.
I wrote those lines a long time ago. But for most of us, the sentiment, no doubt, remains true, no matter where we are in life. The great question of how different things might be now, if only something other than reality had taken place then, constitutes the stuff that dreams are made of.
There must be, in everybody’s life, events and decisions we look back on, wondering how differently everything might have turned out… the person we didn’t marry, the job we didn’t take. Robert Frost said it for all of us in his haunting piece about The Road Not Taken.
In my case, the person I didn’t marry married somebody else, and had a happy, successful, and fulfilling life. The college job I didn’t take might have frozen me permanently into academia, with who knows what magnificent or dreadful results.
In Citizen Kane, one scene lingers in my mind because of what it says about memory. Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s long-time associate, reminisces about what Kane might have been remembering, when he uttered his last word, “Rosebud.”
“A fellow will remember things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on a ferry, and as we pulled out, another ferry was pulling in – and on it, there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on – and I only saw her for one second and she didn’t see me at all – but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since, that I haven’t thought of that girl.”
As it happens, I have a similar romantic memory – although this happened when I was only ten years old. I was attending a summer camp for boys in Maryland, called Camp Airy. We had a “sister camp” nearby, called Camp Louise. Somehow, I was in a train carriage on which the only other person was one of the girls from Camp Louise, who, it happens, was also dressed in white. As with Mr. Bernstein, I don’t think she even noticed me, and I never saw her again – but I have never forgotten her.
Fiction writers, especially science fiction, make great play with ideas about alternative realities. A favorite concept is time travel – especially the notion of going back in time and making changes which will cause the present to be different from the one we know. Of course, things like that happen all the time – but only in our dreams. Indeed, for all we know, that may be the purpose of dreams – to help us cope with what might otherwise be an intolerable reality.
But the simple truth is that you are here, and this is now. To quote one of my more popular epigrams: “Nothing we can do can change the past – but everything we do changes the future.” The trouble is that too many are playing this game at the same time – and there are no rules. If you want to change the future, be sure you know what you’re doing – but how can you? The future is unexplored territory (or, as they used to label it on the old maps, “terra incognita”).
The past is spilt milk, which, as everyone knows, is no good crying over. All the milk in the future, however, is as yet unspilt. In fact, it hasn’t yet even been produced. Yet many of us do cry over the future, especially as, for us individually, and for those we love, it becomes shorter and bleaker, and more inevitable.
On the other hand, what if we could make our own happy endings? I at least have the power to give this article one. So, here’s another poem I wrote, which may at least balance out the sad one I started with:
I woke upon a day so fair, your name was written in the air –
Spring must not come to find us still apart!
I rushed along a busy street – a wayside flower bloomed at my feet –
I knew that Spring had gained an early start.
Breathless at your garden gate, I heard a bluebird sing – too late!
My speed could not compete with Nature’s art.
But oh, to feel your warm embrace, rejoiced me I had lost the race – For Spring was on your lips, and in your heart.