How do you explain the past to a three-year-old? Over the last few days, I spent some time with my goddaughter. I had hardly seen her in previous years because of the prolonged and non-sensical US travel ban for Europeans during the pandemic. I am a non-immigrant visa worker going through a lengthy process for a green card, further prolonged thanks to several bureaucratic ‘missteps’ (which means that I pay taxes but remain treated like a tourist for the purpose of travel during official restrictions — the US travel ban for Europeans locked me in a state of waiting for Godot for 18 months). I mention these missteps since I am currently on the other side of the pond. This time, I am with my family while being stuck with a clerical error that left me unable to re-enter the States for more than a month — despite having a valid working visa for the entire duration and, you know, a job there. Details, details. So I am spending some time with my goddaughter and ended up with the question of how to explain the past to a three-year-old.
The question of former times emerged when we passed a car. Orange. Leather seats. An Opel. It looked like from a 1970s movie. I told her this was an old car, built and driven half a lifetime ago. She looked at me. What does half a lifetime even mean to a 3-year-old, I wondered. I am now of an age that one may count as half a lifetime.
So I told her the past was like an echo. She looked at me again. An echo is like a more silent shadow of sound, I said. While I began thinking more about this unplanned expression, she quickly found something else that fascinated her (seeds fallen from a nearby tree, you would not believe how fast the mind of a three-year-old can shift to new things, it’s a state of perpetual exploration).
A silent shadow of sound, but a sound made by whom? Just like a shadow, my memory of the past has begun feeling like the echo of someone else’s voice in recent times. The last two years especially feel like a displacement without roots. As if my memory of anything past, even the recent past, has been nothing but an archival record, filed away and stamped “discharged.”
This feeling is not a matter of age. An older colleague of mine appears perfectly on board with all these recent changes of public understanding in which everything up is down, and verbose public signaling has replaced real action and thought in people’s lives. Signal me virtuous, oh internet voices! My colleague feels proud of this adopted new Zeitgeist mindset. I increasingly feel disconnected. We’re shitting on the past to avoid acting toward the future. Where’s the vision of progress in that? Meanwhile, Zoom teaching started to usher the next generation into a new era,… so bring on the metaverse university! (Some universities apparently do precisely this now, involving opaque contracts with Zuckerberg et al. Hasn’t anyone read Snow Crash??) But anyone who feels sufficiently bewildered and skeptical about this development can only be an evil old white man who never went with the times. Listening to some conversations like this in recent years, while seeing either unnaturally dull faces or faces distorted with socio-emotional overexpression on little windows staring back at me, I wondered at what time I must have boarded a different train than the people who remained overly online. When trying to converse in these times, a conversation that was not idle chat with the simple emotional affirmation of views, echoed into a formless void. Whatever remains to reach public thought these days, feels dephysicalized and stripped of meaning as if nothing matters. Indeed, nothing felt as if it connected with matter anymore. I still struggle with this dematerialized echo of now.
Have we lost the sound to our echo? Once upon a time, I remember we had bodies and desires. There were silly jokes and the acquisition of experience with learning by doing, including the liberty to be mistaken. Now we mirror ourselves in reflections of the lives of others.
My mind’s echo was soon brought to a halt, and I was quickly catapulted back into the now. My goddaughter was tired of walking.