Lives past and present
Michael Yoder: “like the Ghost of Christmas Past, we can show the world the shadows of the people who have been, and paint our own portraits as well.”
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
“Long Past?” inquired Scrooge: observant of its dwarfish stature.
“No. Your past.”…
…“These are but shadows of the things that have been,' said the Ghost. “They have no consciousness of us.”
The jocund travellers came on; and as they came, Scrooge knew and named them every one. Why was he rejoiced beyond all bounds to see them? Why did his cold eye glisten, and his heart leap up as they went past? Why was he filled with gladness when he heard them give each other Merry Christmas, as they parted at cross-roads and bye-ways, for their several homes? What was merry Christmas to Scrooge? Out upon merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to him?
“The school is not quite deserted,' said the Ghost. “A solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still.”
Scrooge said he knew it. And he sobbed.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
I had a dream the other night...
Everything in the dream was sepia tinted like an old photograph. We were at a tomb. I don‘t know who “we” were but there was more than just me. We lifted the heavy stone cover of the tomb and it was then that I noticed faces looking at me from below. I looked down and through a window grate I saw the faces of young men. They were the ghosts of soldiers: expressionless and staring. All I said to them was, “We can tell your stories.”
Then I woke up.
In the morning, the simple symbolism was clear to me. So many have passed, so many brilliant young men and women lost to the battle against HIV.
I heard of survivor’s guilt, but I don’t think I’ve experienced it. Having lost my soul mate – a lovely straight man, in the 1980s to a car accident, I believe that we’re here on the earth (this time around) until we’re finished. Then we leave. And I believe what the ancients believed – that we choose our experiences in this life, because that’s what our souls decided we needed to learn.
But that does not mean that lives are empty and hollow. We are guided by all our experiences, moving from one to the next, each past moment replaced by the next past moment. And we all of us have a most amazing story to tell. Each one of us has the humdrum of everyday living, but in each experience there is so much more – our pasts and our presents shape who we are in the world and how we respond to it and interact with it. When one of us dies, in a way we all pass into the forgetfulness of night. And there is in that the risk that the story of whom we are and all that we have done can become as faded as an old picture.
I have old photo albums from my mother and grandmother – I’m related in some way to the people in the photos, but I don’t know anything about them. To me they are faces and men in military uniforms, and women at weddings, but they are not stories. I have no history of them in my mind – no connection. Some have names written on the back, and now, as my own memory fades over time, I understand why they did that: to preserve who these people were – to be reminded of the funny stories, the weddings, the wars…
We only have our story to this particular moment in time. But it is the past, for good or bad, right or wrong, that has brought each of us to this point. What we learned – the lessons that taught us to love and rejoice, the lessons that brought us pain and suffering: all these are the shadows and light in the portrait that is who we are as individuals.
So this is what we can do: as long as we have memories of those who have passed before us, we can tell those stories – the funny, the mundane and the lovely. And the more we ask to hear from others and, however we do it, record the stories of those we did not know, the larger our collection of biographies becomes. The more intimately connected we become to the past: to those men and women and children who died from AIDS, in a pandemic that terrifies people still. And it is a pandemic that also holds little significance to the majority of people. We are nothing of much importance to them…
But like the Ghost of Christmas Past, we can show the world the shadows of the people who have been, and paint our own portraits as well. We can hold the mirror of their lives up for all to see and we can proclaim their importance and ours. No longer will the sepia-tinted, voiceless young faces stare blankly from the basement window grate – they will become alive again through us and our remembering.
We are the only ones left to tell their tale. We can lift the lid to the tomb and we can breathe life into the stories of those who struggled so long before us and have helped to bring us to the place we are today.
We only have now…