The past comes back in a surprising way

A while ago, I learned that a wallet I’d lost decades ago as a college freshman had been found. I didn’t recall losing it, but when I saw a photo of it, I remembered the wallet—once ochre-colored embossed leather, bought, I think, at the kind of Indian clothing store popular in Greenwich Village at the time.

The contents were photographed too: a receipt from the campus health center, and one for room and board; a couple of stamps; a record of my summer job at a department store near my Brooklyn home; a picture of my best friend; a business card of someone in Japan that a professor of mine had put me in contact with.

Each of these items, and others, brought the past to me in a different way. Each stood for a different but very particular time in my life, and each meant something to me. Thinking about them, as they had been nestling together in a now-cracked, dried-out, grayish billfold, I was in awe of the meaning of time—both the distinct periods from which these pieces of paper came, each of which affected me differently, and also the meaning of right now.

Anyone who thinks of the past will have some mingling of regret and pride, a sense of what we wish we had done differently and memories of moments we look on fondly. What should we do with the past? How can it be useful to us now?

In an “Outline of Aesthetic Realism,” Eli Siegel writes:

“The past is what it is, but it can always be seen better. The past, seen better, can reasonably be regarded as changing. If we see what has happened to us better today, we give the past a more promising future. There is no limit to how well we can see anything in the past. This means the past can join the present and future, wisely.”

From the moment I first read this, I felt so hopeful about the possibility of making sense of the past. Though there is much I wish I had done, and much I wish I hadn’t done, I know the choices I made all led to my being who I am today. And today is a chance to be different, so that when I look back at the “right now” of late May 2015, I will see someone who was aiming to be more and more the person she hoped to be.

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