When I was in grade school in the 1960s, we watched stories on filmstrips about things like menstruation and the Leni Lenape people, on whose land we lived.
The filmstrips came in stout metal cans, and we competed for the chance to align the perforations at each edge onto sprockets, twist a knob, and wind the stiff plastic strip. The kid who got this job had to flick on the viewing machine and make sure the first frame showed up sharp and clear on the screen. A simple title appeared in plain white type on a blue or brick-red background: The Leni Lenape Indians: First Inhabitants. There was no sound, no motion. These were images captured in time.
If we were lucky, we also got to advance the filmstrip. We would click from the dull and unpromising title frame to the first story frame, showing, for example, a drawing of the Leni Lenape dressed in skins outside animal-skin tipis—a fabricated and inaccurate image for these agrarian lodge-builders—something we would not know until decades later.
Running the projector was a warm job. A bright white bulb heated up the metal of the machine and sometimes the kid was tense with the responsibility of seating the image just right on the screen, because there was no going back.
The film advanced because of tension. The tension between the rest of the strip in the can, yet unseen, and the beginning of the strip that the child had wound onto a spool. Tension kept the film taut against the lens. Reversing the filmstrip would create slack, and the film would bulge. Once tension had been lost, the film could not be adequately controlled or viewed.
And aren’t our lives a bit like these film strips? I don’t mean hopelessly out-of-date or slow-moving or reliant on some dominant-culture paradigms like myths about how the aboriginal people of the Eastern seaboard lived.
I mean that, once my finger hits the E on the keyboard as I type, and advances to the Y, that instant of typing that letter is past, it’s gone. It’s a frame that’s been viewed, then advanced, rolled up into a tight curl, while the light shines through next second, the next letter, the next breath.
And so, what do we do about our pasts? The deep sorrows, the mistakes that perhaps we made over and over, even as we knew they were mistakes? What about the joys and pleasures? How do we reach back to that one afternoon or reconcile the 18 years once projected frame by frame on the screens of our lives and now curled into the tight, dark spools of memory?
I do not pretend to have a formula for how to live life. I only started reclaiming my own four and a half years ago.
I once let someone control me and punish me for decades. During long dark weekends when she would not speak to me from Friday to Sunday, holding me in contemptuous silence with narrowed eyes and tight lips, I would say, “We have only this weekend, this day, to be together. We will never get this time back. Let’s not waste it this way.” But her anger and her fear were the strongest things about her. At long last, I stuffed clothes into brown paper bags and fled as she slept.
Yesterday, I walked with an old friend through fields near a river. The river was swollen with meltwater that flowed off the flanks of our great mountain range. So much water that the metal and concrete dams that held it in wide lakes had opened their throats, letting loose torrents of currents that coursed a hundred miles to the ocean.
As a result, the fields on our walk were flooded in places. Herons and egrets soared over our heads and willows trunks stood above lapping waves in the afternoon sun.
We took off our shoes, rolled up our trousers, and stepped into the grassy furrows, felt the mix of warm soil and cold water that had, just last week, tumbled from a white field of snow.
Mosquitos hatched and swarmed our bare arms, our pale knees, my sweating earlobes. They were part of it, too.
Our dogs splashed diamond bright, ahead, behind, over in the next set of furrows, tongues trailing over teeth in pure, present joy.
Even as we picked our way over mats of drowned pennyroyal, between stands of canary grass, and slapped mosquitos off our elbows, I was aware that this glittering delight was also our present moving into our past. With each step, my toes, then my chin, then my heels entered the future, which became the present for just as long as a drop of water was suspended in the air, and then it all sank behind me into the past.
After, as we tied our shoes back onto our wet feet and felt the warmth of the yellow sun reach us from across the world, I breathed. And remembered it. And I looked at my friend and our dogs, and I said, “I love you.”
Sitting at my desk later, I wrote this as a way of keeping this frame, this exquisite moment, in the bright light before it was rolled up too tight and too dark in that little metal can of my past.
Jessica Letteney edited technical prose for 30 years before she picked up a pen to write her own stories. Her first poem was about the wonder of wheeling stars. A survivor of domestic abuse, Jessica writes to heal from trauma and leads a weekly circle that helps other writers heal.