“The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past,” Faulkner famously writes in Requiem for a Nun.
Throughout my thirties, I read memoirs, hundreds of them. And many of them, not surprisingly, deal with hardscrabble childhoods.
Tobias Wolff writes of his barely educated, itinerant childhood with a single mother, and an abusive stepfather in This Boy’s Life. In An Angel at my Table, New Zealand writer, Janet Frame describes extreme poverty, and extreme shyness, which got her incarcerated in a mental hospital in Dunedin (to be released when her first novel, written there, won a prize).
V.S. Pritchett writes of a childhood with a fantasizing, self-indulgent father, and a subservient mother, “a marriage of rich and poor.” Always evicted, always moving–hence his memoir A Cab at the Door. (It turns out later that his father had a secret second family; his half-sister wrote her own memoir). And in the most elegant memoir every written, Vladimir Nabokov describes his charmed Russian childhood which was shattered by the Revolution in Speak Memory. The Liar’s Club, Angela’s Ashes, the list goes on.
Ah, how pointless many of these long, barren, unnourishing patches must have seemed to the memoirists, and to us, reading them. Such waste. Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/And waste its sweetness on the desert air, as Thomas Gray wrote, in An Elegy in a Country Churchyard.
But the past was not really past, not dead, not wasted. It gave those memoirists a story, a career; it made them who they were. Tougher, more resilient, more realistic, well-acquainted with the shadow side of human beings, and with more of a preserving sense of humour than if they had spent pampered childhoods in a hothouse.
* * *
The past, which seemed senseless, meaningless, oh, one big screaming “Why,” revealed its meaning in the future.
The past is never dead, never past, as Faulkner says. What seems dead and inert can come to life in surprising ways. A 2000 year old Judean date palm seed, recovered from excavations at Herod the Great’s Palace in Masada, Israel was germinated in 2005. A 1,300-year-old sacred lotus recovered from a dry lakebed in northeastern China was geminated in 1995.
And so, in fact, the years and opportunities in our past which seem squandered through our folly, through sins against us, though our fault, our fault, our most grievous fault, are in fact just inert seed-corn, which germinate and sprout in our present, giving us maturity, experience, a sense of humour, and gifts of perspective and wisdom to share.
* * *
So what do we do when painful episodes from the past bubble up in memory?
We remember that we were not alone when we went through those events; Christ was with us. He stood behind us in those incomprehensible moments, his arms around us, protecting our hearts and spirits from worse harm.
And though we were puzzled, scalded, heartbroken, angry beyond words, we were still, in a way, preserved. We were “hard pressed, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8).
And we take the painful memories of the past very carefully—knowing that God was with us through them, and can and will work them together for good–and place them in God’s big strong hands, and close his fingers over them. And there we leave them.
And we pray.
We pray that as God’s powerful nurturing hands work with the pain of the past, he will bring beauty from the ashes.
We pray that the same power which raised Jesus from the dead, and can do immeasurably more than all we can ask or dream of asking will take those painful years of strife, of depression, of wasted talent and squandered opportunity, the years of sin and the years of sorrow, mix them, and shape them, and make of them a new thing,
such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium