‘All this time I was leading another life
and it is clear now which was the shadow and which
was the substance…’
Gerald Stern, ‘Crosshatching’
I have memories that make me cringe. They run the gamut from acts to statements, from truly harmful to simply stupid. Some get dug up from childhood, some may have occurred in the past few days.
Throwing dirt in a brother’s face. Hateful things said to a loved one. Flunking a test because I didn’t study. Failing to show up to meet someone when I said I would be there. Dumb things I did as an exchange student. Procrastinating on a task to the point where someone else has to pick it up.
These memories pop up at the oddest times, and for no particular reason. My brain must be lazy and it wants to throw ugly reminders over the wall. Or they show up in nightmares, with people and places and timeframes mixed up, out of order, or thrown in with the latest movie themes just for the dramatics.
These are long shadows that trail us on our path, glued forever to our soles – and souls.
But they don’t have to stay attached. Certainly, we carry our blemishes, bruises and mistakes with us. They become part of who we are as characters, as personalities, as people. We learn from them, we try not to replicate them.
And we try to overwhelm them with the positive aspects of a life worth living.
Stern’s poem steers away from the negative theory of such shadows:
‘…though I particularly hate the word
shadow to describe it since a shadow
itself is a substance and shadows are lovely and stretch
across my lawn at six in the evening and they
take different forms—when it comes to painting—and one
is a mass in the foreground, one is a shake of likeness,
simply defined, a true state of color’
Rather than the black hole of bad memories, I prefer this latter description of shadows and their use. Stretched across the lawn in the rising sun. The statue of a likeness in a true state of color. An image simply defined.
Friend Jane likes to take shadow pictures. She places a group of people with the sun to their backs and takes a photo of the shape created by the shadow on the ground. In a photograph, the shadow becomes a piece of whimsy, a straightforward representation of our shape in the sun, reflected in the grass.
That’s a better image than the blackness of bad memories.