My earliest memories of Camp Arnes are vague and poignant. I remember my father running out of our cabin into a cloud of mosquitoes to light fireworks with a man who, many years later, taught me to use a chainsaw and who once saved me from drowning in a pool. I remember the way that the carpet next to the vending machine pulled at my socks like Velcro, and the surprise I felt when I pressed the button for root beer and heard the sound of it clanging and rolling and eventually dropping into the cavity below. I remember my father’s friend, a man named Roman, who served our meals in the dining hall. I remember the wide-open field leading down to the lake.
In the evening, the adults sat down at the beach and I played in the sand and the rocks along the shore. I made a game of collecting pebbles in a yellow ice-cream pail and tossing them into the water where their scattered ripples spread out and eventually disappeared. The water was otherwise still and the sun was sinking and I was four years old and not very good at my game. The moment came when the handle of the pail slipped from my small fingers and landed with a dull slap against the water two feet from the shore. My heart sank and I immediately turned to my father for help. He smiled, evidently not sharing my experience of devastation, and remained in his folded-out lawn chair from where he encouraged me to reach out and grab the pail, which remained very near to the shore, and to me. But I was ceased by a fear of the water, or, more likely, a fear of embarrassing myself while under the attention of so many amused adults, and so I did nothing. The pail slowly receded from me and I watched it drift away. Again, my father encouraged me to retrieve it. Again I tried to overcome my fear and again I remained paralyzed, staring at the pail with a sinking heart. Again I did nothing. The distance grew and so did my regret, and we watched the yellow pail become smaller and smaller, drifting out to the place where the sun would soon touch the water. They met, and simultaneously disappeared, and I could not understand the feeling of melancholy that overwhelmed me.
I remember the yellow pail. And I remember the feeling of regret, and the feeling of melancholy. What I do not remember is if that was the same weekend that I sank ineptly to the bottom of the pool. I do not remember my sisters, though they must have been there. I do not know why the mosquitoes were a thick black cloud when my father ran out to light the fireworks but why I do not remember them at all down by the lake. I do not actually remember the fireworks. I do not remember if the water was cold, or if it was spring or summer or autumn. I remember the sunset, but I know that my memory of the sunset is not real. We were on the wrong side of the lake for that. I do not remember any of it perfectly. Part fabrication, part recollection, and part information learned in later years, my memory is as much fiction as it is truth, yet it hangs in my mind as a defining moment I have never forgotten, but rather developed further, adapting it to better reflect my understanding of myself and my limitations.
The past is the past. I can no more easily change what happened twenty-five seconds ago than I can change what happened twenty-five years ago. My perceptions, on the other hand, shift as easily as the wind. And my perceptions are really all I have of the past. I imagine myself to be defined by the things I have done or not done, the things I have experienced, the things I have seen, the people I have known, or the places I have been, but memories are not so authoritative as that, nor as indelible. They’re wholly imagined things, based on real experiences but altered to varying degrees of credibility.
All that I have, all that any of us have, is now. This is freedom, that in this moment we can act, and experience, and be completely unbound from our perceptions of the past or of the future. Our memories are stories we have heard, which we continually retell in the hope that they will clarify our identity. They are based on experiences that we have had, but they are not the experiences themselves. What we remember of the past is circumspect and our perception of any event is biased, narrow, and incomplete. Our memories are stories we have heard, and they can be of tremendous value, but they can also haunt us interminably. It is only when we recognize the power of our perceptions that we can look back with compassion and redeem our regrets and begin to see our regrettable moments as the stories that have taught us, or can still teach us, the lessons we are most in need of learning.
The leaves unfold from their broken capsules. They spill out in trembling frailty to mark the air with their delicate bodies. They draw breath, dance in the sun, and are caressed by the wind. They are born, and in their present form they abandon all recollection of winter. Forgetting the coarseness of the air and the scarcity of the sun, they relinquish themselves of the past and emerge. They become free.
When we are haunted by a memory, we are choosing to perceive our past through the lens of fear. We are wielding a past event as a weapon against our present selves, and thus suffering imaginary wounds again and again. By our own delusions we dwell in the belief that we still exist in that moment, and that it can still touch us, and that it does, and that we are still suffering because of it. But this drama of pain is a game of make-believe. We cannot reach back and undo what has been done, or unsay what has been said, and nor can we reach back and experience what has been said or done. When we return to the past, we do so only by our imaginations. We cannot change it, and we cannot experience it, we can only imagine it.
I remember being a young boy, standing at the edge of a lake. Behind me there is safety and familiarity. In front of me is the water. It is still and I am looking out across it at a yellow pail that is floating away. It is precious to me but I am afraid. If I step into the water I will be alone. I will stand apart from the ones I believe know me best. If I step into the water I don’t know what will happen. I watch it float away and feel sickened with regret, resenting every moment as another in which I have failed. I watch it until it disappears and the feeling of failure that overcomes me is one that I never forget. I take it from the water and I put it on like a mask. It becomes the part of my self-perception that I return to every time I approach an edge that I am afraid to go beyond. It becomes the story that I retell, chapter after chapter, in ever-spiraling circles, until the feeling of inescapability overwhelms me and conceals my power to choose something different.
Our choice to be haunted rarely feels like a choice. At best it feels like a default position that we are struggling to overcome. Our perceptions have become so masterfully assimilated by years of repetition that little remains of their plasticity. We repeat our stories again and again, believing that we are hapless protagonists destined to re-experience our dramas without reprieve when in reality our stories are of our own making. We sit at our desks and, with ardent devotion, approach the point of crisis we have so often endured. Just at the moment when we could transform the story with a deeply meaningful ending, one that challenges us to grow and be redeemed and become the hero that we have so often wished we could be, we repeat the last chapter. We return to our tragedy, or our mediocrity. We write ourselves into the same corners and our perceptions are further solidified and our identities further trapped. We fail to acknowledge the authority of the pen we hold in our hands.
The leaves unfold their bodies to the nearness of the sun and without regret they discard the memory of winter. Though it happened, it no longer exists. The lake is not frozen and the ground is not covered in snow. My skin does not freeze in the wind and my toes do not grow numb where I walk. I can imagine it, but I cannot experience it. Instead, I sit on the rocks and feel the sun on my shoulders. I listen to the birds skim the surface of the lake. I dip my toes into the water. I look at the sky and watch the shape-shifting clouds that, in every passing moment, release themselves from what was. I know only this: I am here. I am now.