What’s Past is Prologue

What’s past is prologue.
The Tempest, William Shakespeare

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley

So, which quote is right? Is the past something that sets the stage for the feature attraction—that is, the present? Or is it a haunting force you can never escape, more powerful that the present can ever be? Or is it almost completely inaccessible to us since we are not now who we were then?

I’ve been thinking about this since I started using Facebook in earnest last week. I created the account last fall because I wanted to see the comments to something Beth posted on her Facebook account (Noah’s Presidential stump speech, I think) and I needed an account to do that. I had no intention of actually using it for its intended purpose–social networking– but then the friend requests starting trickling in and I was kind of intrigued and within the space of a week I found myself with a rudimentary page and almost thirty friends. (I know this is a pittance in the world of Facebook, but it was still surprising to me.)

Except that a lot of them are friends in only the loosest sense. They’re friendly acquaintances or friends of friends, or siblings of friends. (A couple of them are people from high school whom I don’t, strictly speaking, remember, but who sent me friend requests.) I think I had the idea that if I started poking around I might rediscover a long-lost friend, someone who touched my life in a profound way. This isn’t meant to discount any of the connections I now have the chance to renew. I’m grateful for the opportunity and it’s interesting, mesmerizing even, to find out who’s living where, the work they do, who’s married or single, who has children, etc. It can cause a little cognitive dissonance, though, to know someone’s weekend plans when you really don’t know much else that has happened in her life since ninth grade. You have the feeling you are corresponding with an entirely different person than the one you knew because of the gap of decades between you. Was Hartley right? Did we know each other in another country?

My Facebook interactions with people I actually know in my current life (mostly Purple School parents) seem more natural and less fraught, because they are just extensions of things we might share in the school parking lot at pickup time or during a playdate.

It’s not exactly true that the people I’ve found from my high school and college years on Facebook have all been minor players in my life. When you log on to Facebook, it gives you three suggestions of “People You May Know,” using your school attendance information and the friend lists of your official Facebook friends. The very first time I logged on one of the three faces it showed me was possibly the one person from my past whom I least want to contact. It left me so shaken I didn’t go back to Facebook for several weeks, even though I think the chance that this person would send me a friend request is extremely slim. For a little while it seemed like Faulkner was right.

Meanwhile, in the real world, I have been trying to combat my tendency to sink into isolation with a concerted campaign to socialize more often. June had her very first playdate (at the Dragonfly’s house) several weeks ago and since then we’ve had three of her classmates over to our house with one more scheduled tomorrow morning. Last Friday I was even bold enough to host a double playdate. Both Noah and June had a friend over at the same time. Our house has been filled with preschoolers and second-graders and the mothers of the little ones. It’s been fun.

Then last Saturday we went to dinner at the house of our friends Jim and Kevin. Jim is one of a handful of people in my life who bridge past and present. We lived down the hall from each other our first year of college and we were roommates the next year. We were living in a student-run co-operative dorm (http://osca.csr.oberlin.edu/about/coops/keep) where co-ed rooms were possible with a little administrative subterfuge. The summer after sophomore year, when I fell in love with Beth, Jim and I were living together again and he was the one who urged me to kiss her while I was agonizing over the decision. Even if we had no more history than that together, I’d be forever in his debt.

Jim and Kevin are avid gardeners so the visit began with a tour of their garden. Beth and Noah played hide-and-seek in the yard while Jim showed us around. Mostly, he was showing us what will be coming up where in warmer weather, but he had started some plants under plastic bottles stuck into the ground like tiny greenhouses. They also have a little greenhouse consisting of a plastic cover that zips over shelves. There are plans in the offing to build a real greenhouse onto the back of the house and grow a lemon tree there. I told him about our considerably more modest gardening plans and when I mentioned how much June loved the cucumbers we grew last summer he offered me some cucumber seeds he won at a garden club raffle. (We forgot to get them from him before we left, but he was nice enough to drop them off, along with some broccoli seeds, Sunday morning while he and Kevin were en route to the Takoma Park farmers’ market.)

Inside the house are Kevin’s orchids. There are a few picked for display in the dining room and in an alcove near the staircase, but there are others all over the house. Noah loved the lighting system they’ve rigged up in the basement where they keep the plants that are not yet in bloom. Two lights run back and forth on tracks along the ceiling, ensuring that all the orchids receive an equal amount of light. “Your own suns!” Noah exclaimed.

Later on, Jim showed us the upstairs orchids and Noah found a computer with two keyboards hooked up to it at once. Jim attached a third one, to show him it could be done, I suppose, and Noah was in awe. (He talked about it a lot on the way home.) As I watched them standing next to each other I was struck by their physical resemblance. They both have curly light brown hair, and they were standing in a similar position, looking at the computer. They were even both wearing blue button-down shirts, though Jim had a sweater on over his. It’s not so surprising Noah looks a bit like Jim because Jim and I have similar hair. It looked more alike when we were in college and we both wore it shoulder-length. (Jim and I were once asked if we were brother and sister or lovers. Neither, we answered cheerfully.) Anyway, he wears his hair short now, shorter than Noah’s but close enough. Jim’s green eyes are also a little like Noah’s hazel ones. And then there’s the math genius thing. In college Jim took the most advanced math classes with the other handful of students capable of that level of work and he used to do his homework problems on the board while the rest of the class was copying theirs out of their notebooks onto the board. If I may be permitted a small and relevant brag, recently Señora C sent home a testing report that indicated Noah has “complete understanding” of the fourth-grade math he’s working on at school.

In case you’re wondering if I’m going reveal now that Jim is Noah’s biological father, he’s not. We used an unknown donor and I know enough about the donor to know it wasn’t Jim. (I also don’t think Jim has ever donated sperm, but I’ve never asked.)

Jim and I have a lot of history together. There was the time I went to the grocery store and bought his cat the kind of food she liked (calling it a Christmas present) because Jim was too stubborn to buy cat food when the cat already had perfectly good food and the cat was too stubborn to eat what was in her bowl. (He thanked me for engineering him out of this face off with the cat later.) And there was the tragedy of the sweet potato pies we baked for our eighty-person dining co-op that took so long to bake no-one besides us was around to eat them when they came out of the oven. We listened with sympathy to each other’s romantic woes and when he spent a semester in London we wrote each other every week. (Remember when people wrote letters? On paper?) When Beth and I moved to Iowa for two years for grad school, he was the only person who came to visit me. There was a stretch of years when we lost touch with each other, but we re-connected when Noah was about a year old. I think we have a future, too. It’s different, of course, now that we’re adults with partners and busy lives and now that we live a half hour apart instead of down the hall. I only see him once or twice a year. But it’s always fun and I think it’s good for Noah to interact with a man who shares his interest in computers and math. When he gets older and he’s doing math over Beth’s and my heads, it could be even better.

So I have to go with Shakespeare. What’s past is prologue. It’s what has happened already and what influences what comes next but it doesn’t have to overwhelm us with its power over us and it’s not always what’s irreparably lost that matters most. Sometimes the past serves you pesto pizza made with basil from last year’s garden and sometimes the past shows you little seedlings in plastic-jug homes that will be strong, healthy plants come summer.

  • Mimi

    I agree… Facebook is a tricky thing! I always have to think before I put anything on FB if I want ALL of those people from all different times of my life to know that particular thing.P.S. the pesto pizza sounds yummy. (3/1/09)

  • What a nice friendship. It sounds like Jim could be a good friend to Noah as he grows. Besides (approved!) male relatives, I hope that Debbie and I will have some male friends that Luca and Matteo can relate to and spend time with as they get older. For now, there are a few dads in our preschool circle that Luca adores that we have talked to about spending “guy” time with him every once in awhile. As for Facebook – I resisted it forever, but finally caved. In the beginning, I found myself on it much more than I could have ever imagined – what with all the blasts from the past and everything. It IS so strange to be updated on the everyday goings on of people you never knew very well. On the other hand, it has re-connected with me to some very good friends  and helps me to keep up with people I wish I had more time with. Still – virtual visiting takes a back seat to real life hanging out any day. (3/6/09)

  • Steph, thanks for posting your blog url to Facebook. And now I’m reading about Facebook on your blog! It’s all very meta.You’re right about how it’s weird to know what old high school friends are having for dinner when you don’t know what else happened since you last saw them 20 years ago, but I think that’s why it works. Trying to fill people in on the last decade or so of life is so daunting that we don’t always bother to attempt it. Regina found me on LinkedIn and we sent each other several action-packed emails, but then it petered out because it was hard to find things significant enough to email about. But on Facebook you can stay social without needing anything important to say, and that’s why it’s SOCIAL. I don’t think you and I would have found a reason to reconnect if it hadn’t been for FB, but I’m enjoying the casual glimpses into your life (which sounds like a lovely life, btw) so I’m glad it worked out this way. (3/16/09)

  • Sara

    I think the past is what you make of it. If you are living out your past hurts or yearning for good times long gone or regretting things you’ve done, then the past is very real, even more real than right now. But if you’re living in the present and accepting everything that is happening right now, good and bad, then the past isn’t so important. It’s where you put your energy. (3/28/09)