Friday, October 15, 2010

A Matter of Distance

The continual volcanic eruption which is my mind is forever spewing out chunks of thought. Usually, there are so many of them that I can't concentrate on any particular one of them. However, a random thought will often score a direct hit and remain long enough for me to deal with it.

It suddenly occurred to me how much of our existence is based on our distance from events and people. The closer we are, the more involved we tend to be and the more the events effect us. 100,000 people killed in a tsunami does not have nearly the emotional effect as witnessing the results of a fatal car crash.

In our increasingly mobile society, friends and family do not always remain in close proximity. Until the late 19th century, the vast majority of people never travelled further than 20 miles from their home in their entire lives.

The physical distance created when close friends move apart too often leads to a gradual cooling of the relationship--with fewer and fewer immediately common ties to refer to, the contacts grow less frequent, until eventually the only exchanges are at birthdays or Christmas, if that. While there are notable exceptions, distance in time compounded by distance in space cannot help but cool the fires of friendship. I've made frequent attempts to locate people from my past...service friends, for example...only to run into a brick wall. It is as though they never existed; all that remain are warm and bittersweet-from-their-loss memories. I've recently been extremely lucky to reestablish contact with three good friends, one a girl (well, she was a girl when I knew her) with whom I worked shortly after I first moved to Chicago, and two from my college years. I'd totally lost touch with all of them for more than more than 50 years, which is proof that with true friends, glowing coals linger and can be reignited.

Facts may not suffer much from physical distance, but most certainly fall victim to the distance of time. The more time that passes between an event and the present, the less clearly they are seen. Once razor-sharp mental images blur and become obscure as more and more time passes. Probably the majority of the facts of our lives are all but totally lost to time. I am again blessed to have at least two years of my life--the time I was in service--down in writing, and to which I can refer whenever I question something that happened during that period. Even now I am surprised, in re-reading the letters written to my parents while I was in the navy, to discover that what I remember "clearly" is not the way things really happened.

Returning to Chicago after 40 years provided more evidence of how our minds see things differently than history or the calendar. I had convinced myself, somehow, that our apartment on Wellington was near Clark and Division. It wasn't. It was near Clark and Diversey. Of course, over the years, physical changes, not merely within myself, altered my perception. Landmarks I remember clearly from the early 60's are now long gone. The tennis courts across from my first Sheffield apartment are now a parking structure.

This blurring/fading of memory, while subtly changing many of the good memories, also serves to soften the pain of the bad. Perversely, for me, so many of my fondest memories are accompanied, and occasionally overshadowed, by an overpowering sense of loss and longing. I often say that I "ache" for things I no longer have, and it is literally true. I ache for lost experiences almost as intently as I ache for lost friends and family, and they are of course inexorably linked.

So I guess the best thing for any of us to do is to try to stay keen to what is happening now, fully appreciate each moment for what it is, and worry about the fading of its memory when the time comes.

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