A Record of the Present

In late June of an otherwise uneventful summer, the untimely death of a family acquaintance returned Harrison Parks to his childhood home and neighborhood on the North Shore of Long Island for the first time in twenty years. The whole affair left him feeling like the victim of a cryptic dream he couldn’t quite decipher. Funerals were surreal enough, but what really surprised him was how much smaller the area seemed, as if it had been somehow miniaturized over the passing years. Moreover, he was a stranger to nearly everyone who now lived there. Few of his former neighbors remained, and he learned from his relatives that many of his friends’ parents had passed away without his knowledge. Harrison struggled with the notion that the life that had defined his identity in so many ways no longer existed in any measurable sense, and the places he once cherished now belonged to total strangers. He also noted that developers had carved a number of boxy neighborhoods into the woods formerly reserved as a special territory in his imagination. The only thing that looked the same to him was the old lighthouse that sat by the edge of a cliff overlooking Long Island Sound. He left the East Coast feeling confused, empty, and defeated.

Harrison was reasonably alert to how the mind works. He realized that memory might be nothing more than a cluster of neural firings reinventing experience. He wondered if his remembrances were any more significant than those of a lone squirrel encountering an angry snake in the forest. Perhaps memory was just something to be used as a general reference frame—not to be dismissed, but to be applied as an instructive, not dominant, tool. True, most of Harrison’s subjective impressions owed their existence to some form of objective reality that could be understood in empirical terms. The lighthouse still stood in his old neighborhood, for instance. Nevertheless, who could remember every person who contributed to the lighthouse’s construction, and did anyone really care? It wasn’t even possible to accurately reimagine the essential experiences of all those involved in the construction process beyond a sketchy historical overview that, like all historical inventions, could only trace general events in broad and largely speculative terms.

All the separate fleeting impressions that flooded Harrison’s memory coalesced arbitrarily as a loose confederation of connections that meant something only when he chose to give them significance. Unraveling the tale of his life was a shadowy, uncertain process based on moments from his past that no longer corresponded fully to what he saw and felt. Memory served to invest meaning in whichever life narrative most intrigued him. At times, he used inductive reasoning to puzzle out the foundation upon which his identity rested. He considered each perceiving consciousness from different phases of his life. Separating and then observing his past impression-generating imaginations as best he could reconstruct them enabled him to metacognitively detach himself from the involute corridors of his mind.

From this, Harrison concluded that idealized, static, and transcendental notions of existence were mostly just aberrant distractions and a terrible waste of time. Transcendence served a purpose in these terms only if it meant living in the present, where immediate experience was a synthesis of action and reflection. The rest was comparatively illusory and symptomatic of fear-based thinking, which vitiated the richness of the moment. It would all be over soon enough, anyway. Living in the present with a mature understanding of memory and a keen eye to the future served a purpose. Actualizing achievable goals in the here and now gave life a more palpable meaning. Anything was possible, and inspiring or creating new and unexpected possibilities kept his mind active.

Harrison decided it was time to take an indefinite leave from work and spend a few months traveling in Southern Europe. Who knew what would happen from there? It was a risky decision, but at this point in his life, taking some sort of risk was better than not really living or feeling anything. He thought about the literature that had informed him over the years and how Odysseus chose inevitable death over immortality because he valued the electrifying immediacy of terminal life. Daring the fates for a flickering moment was better than living an eternal but passionless life with Calypso. This was a memory worth keeping, a tragic binary, no doubt, but at least it corresponded with what Harrison had finally figured out about his own life.