losing one’s past

    “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged–the same house, the same people–and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence.” — Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

I have a different problem. I feel my past shifting from personal memory into objective history and thereby ceasing to be fully mine.

When I was a little boy, the 1940s seemed an entirely different epoch. It was the lost world of my parents’ youth, of FDR on the radio, genocide, jazz, Marines on Iwo Jima. It was black-and-white, sad, and dignified. But now the decade of my childhood, the 1970s, is closer to the Roosevelt Administration than it is to the present.

I presume that when I walked down the streets of London or Syracuse, NY, holding a parent’s hand, I did not especially notice the wide lapels, mutton-chop sideburns, punk graffiti, decaying American downtowns, and leftover Blitz bomb-sites that characterized that era. I probably focused on the perennials of childhood: cracks in the sidewalk, low walls for walking on, crunchy leaves or splashy puddles, food smells and parents’ voices. But now I can remember hardly anything from a first-person perspective. Instead, I see myself from the outside, a representative of the period, shot in lurid Kodachrome like a used album cover. The image is historical, long-gone, much more like the newsreel footage of 1945 than the real world of today.

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