“Life isn’t fair.” He said it as if he were reporting a not-so-interesting weather pattern or the arrival of a tunafish sandwich, as we slid into backseat of the stationwagon. Mr. Fowler was responsible for carpooling us to kindergarten, and as such, he was responsible for shaping our six-year-old minds. This new statement, then, reshaped everything for me thereafter.
You see, as much as it’s convenient to believe otherwise, the new is informed by the old. Time, residue, resonance, the passage of people and place, give context and evidence for what we make, how we do.
New art is always formed out of the old. …. No man can quite emancipate himself from his age of his country , or produce a model in which the education, the religion, the politics, usages, and arts of his times shall have no share. Though he were never so original, never so wilful and fantastic, he cannot wipe out his work every trace of the thoughts amidst which it grew.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “Art,” 1841
Keeping track of the past, then, doing this sort of personal accounting of personal history, gives shape to what is (not what was). Being aware of the transition gives aspect and depth. Then stumbling upon pieces of your past — art projects, photos, essays, cover letters, ex-es, towns, and even former thoughts — these become part of a situated present rather than disjointed pieces of a dusty past. What were your early inclinations? Sketching? Writing? Deconstructing? Tinkering? They’re most likely a layered part of what you’re spending your time on now.
They are mingled and varied — the present and past — in an unbending pace forward. And with that, it’s a revealing discovery to dig into one’s origins to find evidence of where you are, and what might come next.
As for Mr. Fowler, he was right, of course. But at least I have him to thank for forever making me a better diplomat.