The other night, I found myself in the most unlikely of places: In the back of a cab with my high school boyfriend…
It was late at night, and as the car wound its way through Midtown Manhattan, his face flickered in the glow of blinking marquees. When we stopped at a red light, he leaned over to whisper in my ear. “I don’t love you,” he said. “And I never have.”
The scene’s ending was identical to every short story I wrote as a child: I woke up. It was all a dream. But as I went about my day, I remained haunted. Why did my subconscious want to dance with someone I haven’t seen or spoken to in nearly 20 years?
Joan Didion wrote, “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” As much as I revere the canon of Joan, this point has never been my strong suit.
My past selves were sometimes mortifying. They wore strange outfits and said awkward things, then stayed up too late fretting about it. They sometimes made errors in judgment that, while necessary for learning, I’d rather not relive. But lately, in these months spent largely at home, I’ve been forced to confront them — the parade of people I used to be. Without new memories to feast on, my brain replays the old ones, like syndicated reruns of a show that hasn’t aged well.
For many of us, the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a surge of vivid, bizarre dreams, due to changes in stress and activity levels, sleep patterns, and pretty much every facet of our lives. For me, it has also resurfaced long-forgotten memories. They appear not only when I’m asleep, but often in the midst of some innocuous, everyday task.
Scooping coffee grounds stirs up technicolor images of my elementary school playground, while taking out the trash reminds me of the Halloween, age 10, when I dressed like a picnic, with copious rubber ants. And don’t even get me started on the shower. There, I am joined by flashbacks of the thing I said. The thing I wish I’d said. The boss who could never find the stapler. Another boss who threw things and called me names. The job I quit too soon. The job where I stayed too long. There is a lot more where this came from, but we’ll leave it at that.
My former selves have a lot to say, and as it turns out, they have not gone far. They live inside me like a matryoshka doll, the fashion growing more regrettable with every layer. The more time I spend with my past selves, the more I discover the embarrassment runs in both directions. I not only uncover old disappointments, but also old dreams — things I wanted but was too afraid to try. My younger selves demand to know what happened, and I have no suitable response.
I decide the only way out is to confront them, like a friendly ghost. Since Didion was right about all this, I begin keeping a notebook. If the memories can live on paper, I reason, maybe they won’t feel the need to run around my head. Sometimes, I feel lighter. Other times, I feel like I’ve immortalized the very thing I wished to forget. Like personhood, it is an imperfect science.
Where writing fails me, I look outside. Whenever I get too caught up in my own internal chatter, there’s a game I like to play. I gaze out my urban window, which has a view of many other urban windows, little glowing boxes of life taking place. I imagine what the people behind each of those boxes is stressed about, sad about, looking forward to. I bask in feeling both connected and blissfully, inconsequentially small. It’s like the opposite of Instagram: Actual, unedited panes of people’s humanity.
Lately, I play a similar game with my memories. I gaze out the window, picturing all the rooms I’ve occupied, all the places and people I’ve been. There I am: at five, at twelve, at twenty. In some quantum universe, I imagine that I am still there, albeit with the benefit of experience. Slowly, I discover I am not a threat to myself.
My past selves remind me that we are not one constant entity (and thank goodness for that). We are the sum total of our experiences. We are both before and after, both phoenix and ashes. Even when it seems like the scenery is stagnant, we are subject to constant reinvention, like the pesky upgrades threatening to overtake my phone. Finally, I realize: My former selves aren’t (just) here to harass me, they are also here to keep me company.
I wish I could tell you that I’ve joyously merged my selves and made peace with my past, that I go about my days (and nights) without the shudder of remembrance. But that would be a lie. Still, we are all a bit closer to nodding terms. Perhaps that’s the best I could hope for.
Have you experienced heightened dreams or memories these days? Are you on nodding terms with your former selves?