I always find the time at the beginning of the new year to be particularly poignant. It’s around this time that I turn into an internet detective, in search of the people who were, for years at a time, part of my life and then no more. Where had they gone? Who had they become?
As a writer, I put it down to an inveterate curiosity about stories. How did their story turn out? Some of it is predictable. The roommate who allowed her cats to replicate into a plague has postings full of cats. The boyfriend with the boob fetish married a large-bosomed woman. But then there are the surprises – the compulsive gambler now crime investigator. The ladies’ man with his life partner, Steve.
You see the broad arc of their lives and wonder about one’s own trajectory. Have I changed much over the years? If someone looked at my life from the outside would they just nod knowingly and say yep, that’s no surprise. Or would they raise their eyebrows? Really? Wow, I never thought she’d___________.
What isn’t a surprise is how we age. We all seem to be leaning towards a pumpkin shape with lots of gray hair or none at all. I’d go to a Facebook page and it would seem like the person was posting youthful pictures of themselves, but they would be pictures of their children and grandchildren.
It leads me here, thinking about what truly brief lives we live and how many details are packed into those lives. Internet searches are reductive, distilling our lives down to one-dimensional facts and pictures. Whole lives cannot be reflected on a screen. If the devil is in the details, the devil is what makes us who we are.
The picture of a glamorous couple smiling from a beach in Aruba cannot show that they met in a support group for grief or alcoholism. It cannot show the nights of tears or the lack of trust they had to get through in order to become that picture. It cannot show that he’s been cheating on her the last four months and that she has given up on being loved. It cannot show that on the second Tuesday next month, at 7:32p.m., on their way to visit his mother at the nursing home, they will be killed by a drunk driver.
It is only one detail, this picture, a single moment in their lives. It does not tell their story.
To look at a picture is only a short segment of thread in the rich tapestry that makes a human life. Our characters, our weird twitchy little habits, the things that give us pleasure and enrage us, what we think is funny or sexy or ridiculous, what makes us weep – take one human being, imagine those details and multiply it by 7 billion.
Perhaps this is why I sit here, full up on visual images, but famished for stories. It is not enough to see the photo flip book of someone’s life, multiplying and aging and losing shape. I have the momentary urge to write, call, or email. What to say? Can you tell me what happened between Point A, when I knew you as the person who could drink me under the table, and Point B, when you posted a picture of a very large collection of paper-mâché elephants?
The take on this, like most perspectives, is a matter of choice. Let the melancholia wash over me for lost friends and connections. Or realize that what lies behind portends what is ahead. The continued shuffling through more of humanity, the lives we touch and are touched by. The writer’s mercenary safari for more material and character studies.
I’m of the school of thought that the past is past for a reason. That we grow and change and hopefully evolve beyond our initial capabilities. Looking back only serves to remind us of progress and of the many lessons we’ve learned on this journey, with its inevitable end. Perhaps all we can do is bow our heads in thanks to those who, for better and for worse, met us on the road.