Last Friday I watched “Midnight in Paris” with a couple of friends. I’ve seen this film a few times and had just purchased it on DVD. The story largely revolves around a man who has idealized the past, to be precise, has idealized Paris in the 1920’s. And to be sure, there is much to appreciate in that time period. Some fabulous writers, artists and bon vivants were inhabiting the city in that time period. The man is given a chance to go back to that era, rubbing elbows with Hemingway, Picasso, and Stein. However, the longer he visits, the more he is surprised by how unimpressed others are with this time period. Paris! In the 1920’s! In the rain! One woman he meets scoffs at his ideals, saying how the Belle Époque was the place to be, not her present day. Paris in the 20’s? Meh! No matter how fabulous a place can be, we just have this tendency of looking on our pasts (or futures) with rose colored glasses.
As I was pondering the value of remembering this past week, I also considered the ways in which we can get stuck in the past. There seems to be a temptation in the midst of remembering to find one’s home in what has been. The first image that comes to mind when I consider this is in Dicken’s “Great Expectations” with the character of Miss Havisham, a woman who still wears a bridal gown for a wedding that never took place.
As one who tends to look kindly on the past, it has taken time for me to see the dangers in this line of thought. When I was a little girl, I used to dream about living in the days of “Little House on the Prairie” or “Anne of Green Gables.” The beautiful dresses, the adventures, the simplicity of life. However, my dreams are attached to such small slivers of reality from those time periods. Along with the beautiful dresses came corsets. With the adventures came high death rates. And the simplicity of life meant no movies (and other forms of advanced technology that we enjoy today). Being a person who grew up sickly, I have begun to see how modern medicine has been a gift to me. If I had lived in the time of Anne, I might not have survived past infancy. Or, due to my scoliosis, may have lived life as a hunchback. I also appreciate the opportunities available to me as a woman today, which would have been nearly impossible back then. All that to say, I have greatly benefited from living in 21st century.
This skewed view is not in touch with reality. In an odd way, it becomes a fantasy, which we attach our hopes and beliefs to; a place where we escape from reality. “If only I lived in Prince Edward Island, then…” I wonder how much we miss when we live in the past? While living in the past or future may seem more ideal, or even safer, neither of these are, in this moment, real. While the present has its challenges it is the only thing that is actually before me. To live in reality then means to live in the present. It’s good to remember our history and appreciate values of a past time, but the truth is that we do not live in that time.
Following the film I began to wonder if the 21st century will be a time in history where people will lovingly look back and wish they could have experienced it in person? It might not be, but I suspect there are many things that we take for granted purely because it is our norm. It’s impossible to see the full scope of a story when you are viewing it from within the story itself. There is so much we miss. Today I ambled throughout the retreat center I work at, stopping for a moment as I was hit with the reality that I may not always work here. I paused and felt gratitude and an appreciation that this is part of my life. For right now.