“The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” ~Marshall McLuhan

We march backwards into the future. Doesn’t that thought take a little air from your lungs? Not stumbling, but marching with heavy, direct, confident steps. Backwards with our eyes looking behind, searching for that which is catching up to us – that which is closer than it may appear. This is our future we are talking about! In order of importance, today is paramount, tomorrow is important and the past is last. Done and over. Apparently though for many of us (most of us – myself included) the past is looming; hanging over us like a dark cloud threatening rain even when none has yet to actually fall.

I just found this quote today. Serendipitous timing since the story I want to tell today is how I have let the past infiltrate my vision of the future and how I am taking steps to fix that. I’ve found myself at times quite *literally* transfixed with the image in the rear view mirror of my car (cars approaching, animals darting and dodging, scenery, litter, was that the street I was supposed to turn on…) and I have thought to myself, “how will I explain myself if, at this very moment, I smash into the bumper of the car in front me, or veer off the road”? I’d have to say something like this:

I was more concerned with what I was passing by than what was directly in front of me…
I was too busy with the images and scenes behind me to bother looking ahead…
I was paying attention to the wrong thing…
I was facing the wrong direction…

I have a nasty, all too human habit of doing this with my life and not just with my car. And with good reason (at times) because it seems like just when my life becomes sharper, more focused, the Universe throws me some haze. I’ve noticed that when big ticket items like relationships or careers start to get a little blurry, then that is when I start to grasp at minute details of sense. I start looking backwards instead of forward – or for that matter, inward.

PERHAPS… this is one way to keep some control over the road – breadcrumbs if you will, to help me find my way back to start. Pumpkin cupcakes in the oven, cream cheese frosting in a bowl, sprinkles on the counter. In the Fall of 2009, I went through a baking phase. I bought a simple cookbook (the only kind of any use to me) and bought all the necessary cooking items one would need to make any variety of mini-cupcakes. It was more of a hobby than a passion. It was methodical, killed time, tasted good and besides, I was in love with life. Isn’t that what one is supposed to do when in love with life: bake cupcakes? Then, MS happened. On the very best of days, I could walk myself to the kitchen to grab a box of cereal out of the cupboard and safely return to the couch with it. Microwaving was a superfluous activity – baking was out indefinitely. The new baking toys were stored away, the cookbook put back on the shelf. Just last month, I once again tried to make pumpkin cupcakes but this time I ruined them and scratched the idea altogether. With all of the baking supplies out in the kitchen, and the smell of pumpkin wafting out of the oven, I couldn’t help but emotionally “glance back” to State College and what this scene meant to me before the diagnosis. I can’t really say that these glimpses are traumatic – that seems a little exaggerated; sometimes though they are a little too sharp and I would prefer they did not appear so close in my rear view.

And I know I’ll get there – I know there will come a time, shortly, in which baking cupcakes won’t automatically bring me back to that house in Pennsylvania. I know this because I’ve been seared before by images and places, only to experience the mental scar fade and grow harder – not so susceptible to reinjury. Breakups, seizures and job losses… all large experiences that I’ve identified by minute details… and all wounds that have healed. So the story goes…

MAYBE… when the confusion we face is too intense, we compensate by honing in on one image. Coworkers finishing their Periodicals shift and walking across the quad to Old Main. During the second week of Spring Semester in 2004, I ended my engagement with Kris. We had been dating since 1999 and when I broke it off, we had been engaged for 1 year. That experience is absolutely one of the defining chapters of my story and will find its way in to many future entries; it was confusing in every conceivable way and more than that – terrifying. It was my first and only breakup and when people around me told me how devastating it could be, I found no comfort in their empathy. I was alone in that misery. It lasted 5 months, and it undoubtedly would have ached longer if not for Thommy entering the picture. But those 5 months were horrendous and again, the confusion of the event permeated every detail in the fabric of my life. One of the most intense images is that of the Memorial Library, where we both worked and where I spent most of every day studying and avoiding the outside world. My dorm was inhospitable since he lived there too and since it seemed to me that everyone who lived in Clark Hall loved life with a fervor that I no longer understood. So the library was home and in the room behind Periodicals, there were windows that watched snow blanket the campus in white and saw students hustle back and forth between the different spheres of their lives. To class, back to the dorms, now to the gym, grab some food, go to work, head downtown. Repeat. It seemed everyone that passed by did so in a group, or at least with one other person. It couldn’t possibly have been this way but it seemed I was the only person alone in Cortland. I couldn’t wait to get off that campus – no matter how strong I made my “bubble,” I just couldn’t keep Cortland from taking my strength, all my energy. But I did go back, met Thommy and wrote the first chapter of our story there on the very same campus. Even after all the amazing memories and exciting firsts of our relationship, for years I couldn’t go back without feeling like it was January 2004. But just recently, I made two affirming trips to visit professors and friends and left with the feeling that my story at Cortland is not quite finished. There was no trace of winter there, no heaviness; I felt safe and at home. I am thankful for that.

MAYBE… when all we see is darkness, the brain clings to its last Technicolor view of the world. Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers. That was the game I was watching on TV (muted, since I was also talking to my Mom) when I had my grand mal-seizure on November 19th, 2006. The next thing I remember – the absolute next second of conscious – was Thommy standing in front of me, with a look of terror on his face, the phone pressed to his ear… “I think she’s waking up… yes, our address is … how long before you get here?” It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life but it’s impossible to explain what it felt like. The time I lost between watching the Broncos and staring at Thommy on the phone is nonexistent. It can’t feel “lost” because it feels as if it was never there – as if those two things happened within one fluid second. Here now, gone, back again. For awhile, it was hard to trust anything. Have you seen the viral video, “David After Dentist” where young David is filmed while he recovers from a medicated trip to the dentist? At one point he asks “Is this real life?” and I have to tell you, that’s exactly how I felt for weeks and months following the seizure. I couldn’t really trust that sitting on the couch and watching TV didn’t necessarily mean I would find myself taken away, thrust into blackness and then placed back neatly in one piece. At some point though I realized that I am here now, and I trust that’s where I’m staying. “Here and now” replaced “remember when” and watching football is now safe from the comforts of my home. I am thankful for that.

MAYBE… after a wicked revelation, the mind brings us back to the moments just prior to the shock so that we are comforted by its relative tranquility and commonplace nature. Sunset, quite tennis park, fresh air is nice, maybe I like it here. Just prior to finding out that Thommy lost his job with Bombay and the details surrounding it, we played tennis. For months I couldn’t think of our current upheaval and turmoil without thinking about that tennis game. It was frightening to think that at any moment, I could believe life was ordinary and then have that illusion shattered by any number of traumas. What else does life have in store? What else will I be enjoying in the moments before crisis hits? Now I think of it all much differently. Maybe for a little while, to keep us sane, our brain clings the recent past so that even though our present moment seems unbearable, we have proven that we have gotten this far in life relatively unharmed. Maybe the recent past acts as training wheels as we navigate uncertain futures. The point just might be that the past reveals itself as proof that we hold ourselves as strong, independent people and even though an event might come around to shake us to our core, we are reminded that there will be time again for normalcy. Time again when we can take for granted that sometimes tennis is just a game and not a prelude to disaster. I am thankful for that.

Which brings me back to today: November 8th, 2010. Today is the one year anniversary of “Olive Garden”. Poor Olive Garden. You are one of the most infamous places of my life story; I haven’t been able to join you for dinner since last year. It was you that introduced me to vertigo, to nausea that cannot be described, to the sucker punch that would later be called “Multiple Sclerosis.” I can remember every detail of the way I felt, but can’t picture the food in front of me, or that there were diners and waiters sharing my space that night. I can remember telling Thommy that “something’s wrong… on a cellular level” (I confess, I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say that would make him realize this feeling was unlike ANY other and it really scared the hell out of me and I wanted him to be scared too). I remember pushing my chair back, so carefully, and telling my brain to make my legs move in a fluid motion, in the direction of the bathroom. I remember my brain not listening and walking like someone who was 3 drinks pas their limit and trying to walk in a manner in which no one would notice their drunken gait. I remember splashing water on my face in the bathroom and the room losing focus and spinning like it does in the movies when someone realizes they’ve been drugged. I remember sitting back down at the table and crying, not caring that I was embarrassing myself and my husband. I knew at that table, at that Olive Garden, in that town where my dreams were supposed to come true, that my life would be talked about in terms of “prior to Olive Garden” and “after that night.”

“After that night” included panic, confusion and missed diagnoses and spinal taps and steroids on Thanksgiving Day, panic and anguish. It has also led me to previously unknown strength, beautiful people, new scenes, a better path and a dance with Jason Mraz. The real hard truth is that “prior to Olive Garden” was a detour. It was a “mistake” I couldn’t possibly have known of, but a chapter that had to unfold exactly as it did so that I could write this new story. Part of what makes that truth so hard is how very badly I wanted to be in State College and attend Penn State. When I watched the White Out crowd cheering at Beaver Stadium before the Lions played the Wolverines last week, I cried hard and for a long time. It’s not that I think I should be there – I know better… what makes it so hard is that I loved it so much, I think I left a little piece of my heart there. And we lose pieces time and again, but that doesn’t mean our hearts break. We just leave parts of ourself in other spaces and places and with friends from another era. And that’s a beautiful thing. We simultaneously shed tears of pain and joy. In time, the sight of Beaver Stadium and Joe Paterno will fill my heart and spirit with pride for what I was once a part of; for however brief a moment, I was there and I loved it passionately.

In time, I can hold the memory of a thing in the palm of my hand, without grasping it so tightly that it hurts. In time, the present and future expand so brightly that the past is vague, yet cozy. In time, the past is not a distraction; it is eventually far enough away that even my rear view mirror can’t quite find it. More importantly, I won’t have any urge to look for it. My eyes will be straight ahead; without any effort at all, the past will belong to me but it won’t define me. I will give my attention to all the right things – the things in front of me. I am heading in the right direction with nothing but gratitude for the things left behind.

4 thoughts on “Objects in the Rear View

  1. Also, when you’re ready…

    I have a fabulous Pumpkin Chocolate Chip recipe to share with you. It’s always a big hit at my house and soooooo good!

    Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies
    • 1 cup canned pumpkin
    • 1 cup white sugar
    • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
    • 1 egg
    • 2 cups all-purpose flour
    • 2 teaspoons baking powder
    • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1 teaspoon baking soda
    • 1 teaspoon milk
    • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
    • 2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
    • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional

    • Combine pumpkin, sugar, vegetable oil, and egg. In a separate bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, ground cinnamon, and salt. Dissolve the baking soda with the milk and stir in. Add flour mixture to pumpkin mixture and mix well.
    • Add vanilla, chocolate chips and nuts.
    • Drop by spoonful on greased cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for approximately 10 minutes or until lightly brown and firm.

    Enjoy!

  2. You know, Rhea..it has always been my belief that there is no such thing as coincidence. Everything that happens to us definately happens for a reason. A good reason! We may not get it or like it at the time, but it’s where we’re supposed to be and what we’re supposed to be doing. I keep thinking about a song I heard Jason sing the night before he danced with you about all the things he was thankful for and how they shaped his life. We would not be who we are now if those things didn’t happen to us or we didn’t walk into that room right then and meet that person and although my heart breaks at the thought of all that you had to endure, I’m so glad you were able to overcome it and be who you are! You are a beautiful person and you so inspire me!

    Peace and Love Always,

    Jen

  3. As always I’m deeply impressed with your insight and gift of the written language. Before reading this post, I had been pouring over materials that would hopefully serve to inspire and motivate a class full of struggling writers. Thanks for making me remember that inspiration comes in many forms, usually when you least expect it. Thanks for inspiring me and I’ll do my best to pass it along.

  4. Rhea, I haven’t seen too many posts from you on Facebook recently, so I wanted to say hello, and I hope you’re doing well and don’t mind that I still send out occasional “healthy and happy” vibes your way. 🙂

    Also, I love your blog and you truly have a gift.

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