Greig, Neal; The Mists of Time; Queen’s University, Belfast

Last week marked the 60th birthday of someone very close to my heart.

There’s a familiar pattern and flow to “milestone” birthdays. Hitting any decade sticks out like a signpost against the backdrop of our lives, and feels weightier, as though somehow, thirty were more substantive than twenty-nine or thirty-two; fifty any different than forty-eight or fifty-one. Invitations are emailed, phone calls made, a reception room reserved, photographs collected and scanned. This is the ritual.

I’m resistant to the milestone birthday concept and have been for as long as I can remember (except maybe number 18, which opened so many new doors). Marking the passage of years and then decades seems like self-brainwashing—like self-inflicted neuro-linguistic programming:

You’re __ years old and thus, you must feel (THIS) way.

The higher the number of the milestone birthday, the greater is the focus on looking back and taking stock: Look at where I’ve been; look how far I’ve come; look at everything I lived through (and survived!). Here, my wedding day; there, the births of my children, the deaths of loved ones.

 The surgeries, the summer trips, the mundane biographical moments caught on camera that have meaning only to the handful of loved ones who were there, and even then, will recede in value as their subjects age and fresher memories are made by younger people.

A list of events seen through a nostalgic lens: It all went by so fast.

Clayton, William J. M.; Time to Remember; Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

I’m not a great fan of nostalgia, though every now and then, I’m gripped by a sudden and intense longing to re-experience feelings from the past, to excavate sense memories like the softness of the tops of my children’s heads against my fingers and the curves of their fragile skulls when they were babies; the feel of their bodies against mine when they were in my arms; their tiny hands settled in my palm with such trust when we went walking; the experience of feeling crazy in love with their father and knowing only joyful optimism…

There are times when I feel like I would give anything to hear the young voices of my sons again, their distinctive speech, and watch their small faces that were full of sweetness and innocence as they spoke—in which not a glimmer of the sharper bones of manhood could yet be guessed at.

A thing as banal and lifeless as my kitchen floor is a doorway into the power and cost of memories. It was there 34 years ago—freshly installed by the previous owner—when we bought this old house. It was ugly even then. There used to be a tiny corner table in the kitchen, and it’s where I bathed my infant twins every morning, warm water splashing onto the floor as they kicked and thrashed. Through the years– from high chairs to kitchen chairs–chunks of spaghetti, splotches of applesauce and crumbs of everything edible that entered the house formed temporary mosaics on its surface, miraculously disappearing into its ugly pattern. When we eventually removed the corner table, we left behind the holes in the linoleum, undisguised. With no porch space between the kitchen door and the world outside, we tracked all of the grit of the outdoors back into our house and onto the floor. New appliances we brought in, making fresh indentations on its surface next to the old ones. I cooked thousands of meals over it, slopping and spraying ingredients onto it as I went. I still get down on my hands and knees to wash it.


I hate that floor, but the story of why it’s still there is also telling. It speaks of the modesty of our means, especially when we first started out. It speaks of harder times when the boys were older and there just wasn’t enough money. It tells of a terrible, painful time when our baby died and a pall fell over the house that I had, until then, thought of only as a safe cocoon, and which I began to love less. It documents the abandonment of certain dreams, and an exhaustion, a turning away from what, to me, was no longer desirable.

In spite of how intensely beautiful some remembrances are, I would never want to go back in time. My memories are a laminate composed of innumerable experiential layers. They’re what’s made me stronger and more human and I know that they can’t be peeled apart and separated one from the other. They can only be added to.

Phillips, Norman; Hewing out; National Coal Mining Museum for England;


Time travel has no allure for me.

How could I go back into the past without losing most of what I’ve learned and come to understand over time? It would be like trying to fit myself back into size 5 clothes. It would mean being painfully reduced.

Time seems to be passing more and more quickly as I grow older.

 This is said and heard so often that we accept it as canon.

I understand why most of us feel this way. It comes as we begin to brush up against our mortality.  My lifetime went from being counted in years to being counted in decades, and those are piling up. The sense of the end of my days is no longer a vague and amorphous thing hanging somewhere out there in the ether.

But I honestly don’t feel that time is speeding up. And I don’t feel like the days were endless when I was a child (though summers sure seemed to be). Something altogether different is happening. In recent years, I’ve begun to feel squeezed by time.

Schober, Helmut; Time with No Beginning 2; Bury Art Museum

My problem is one of perception. It seems to me that for the first thirty-five years or so of my life, all I did was keep my eyes on the horizon because there was always something out there I was after: every project, every choice was about moving forward and building the future I would inhabit with my family. And everything else flew by, just like the scenery did from the back seat of the car when I was a child.

And then, not long ago, my foot came off the accelerator, and I began to see that I’ve arrived. I’ve reached the place where I want to be. All of the pieces seem to be here. There’s family, closeness, love. There are the new sprouts: my grandchildren. There’s friendship, deep and intimate. There’s work that it took me years to find and that’s a little like standing in a stream that brings the whole world to me. There’s art and science and travel and learning, as immediate and accessible as this laptop. There’s reading and there’s my writing.

Instead of looking far off into the distance for the future I want, I now too often find myself straining to find large, open spaces of time, like gaps in the calendar, that I can stretch out in, where I’ll be able to write more, read more, travel more, experience more.

More than a Game, Brightmore, David;  St George’s, University of London;






I write at the urging of the voice inside my head, the Great Narrator of my small life, the one that seems to never shut up but which I trust doesn’t indicate mental illness.

I don’t know that it ever stops to rest, but I don’t mind because I know myself well enough to recognize that without it, I’ve lost a powerful way of functioning in the world, of processing my experiences and understanding my life. Of understanding LIFE. I’m no longer sure that I could find my way without it.

Shields, Frederick James; Man Repels the Appeal of Conscience;

It’s crowded here, in my head, because there’s a second voice. It’s a smaller, primal, timorous voice that I imagine living in the dark, and that I know for sure dates back to the beginnings of me, because it’s embedded with some of my first memories. Its utterings are uncomfortable and seem to always come at a cost— to be the result of an inner struggle.

It’s the voice of my conscience.

When I was a child, it felt like my conscience spoke from a pulpit.

I eventually figured out that it was being egged on by the voices of my parents, my teachers, most adults in fact, and my peers. It felt like its principle aim was shaming. Which is why it penetrated me so deeply.

Pacquette, Elise J. M.; Protecting the Heart; Bethlem Museum of the Mind;

I carry inside me a list of memories of my worst childhood moments. It’s the doing of my conscience, which still spits back up, more often than I’d like, mini-documentary remembrances of me being mean, petty, ugly.

Some of these go back to when I was barely five or six years old, but most evoke minor events that marked my passage through grade school and high school. Moments when I betrayed a friend; a moment when I tormented a classmate who was already marginalized and insecure; moments when I spoke against another for no other reason but malice and competitiveness; multiple episodes of schadenfreude.

(It’s hard not to write shameful here)

As I grew up, I often replayed these mini docs in my mind and then imagined myself atoning for them. In my daydreams, I still sometimes conjure up the person I harmed and try to express my regret.  What’s interesting is that over time, the reactions of the victims in my dreams have shifted and now, they don’t seem to remember any of it very clearly: like it’s just water under the bridge. Does this mean that I’m beginning to forgive myself? If so, I still have a long way to go. If I met any of these people in the street today, I feel sure that I would still want to dredge up the memory and apologize.

Sims, Charles; Crowds of Small Souls in Flame; Bethlem Museum of the Mind

My conscience has kept a precise ledger of my UNKINDNESS. When I was a young child, my failures of kindness were more often lashing-out impulses than anything premeditated. As those moments unfolded, it felt like nothing could override them.

I was powerless before my unkindness. And then less so, and then less so still, as I grew up.

Kindness is a beautiful word that’s strangely hard to pin down. In French, it’s said to mean a mixture of goodness—bonté—plus a blend of gentleness-kindliness-warmth-sweetness- generosity referred to as gentillesse.

Perhaps it’s simply goodness and benevolence in action.

Kindness of strangers, abstract by Blenda

I aspire to be a kind person. A kinder person. But I’m not at all sure that I am. What I feel certain of is that the wellspring of both unkindness and kindness is pain.

That explains its grip over me in childhood. Kids absorb pain without any of the filters life experience provides. They can only take so much of it, raw, into their small bodies, before it starts to splash back out in ways we and they don’t always recognize and can’t always control.

In adulthood, more is expected of us.

“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is a wonderfully mnemonic line that resonates, whether or not we know its origin. It’s a beautiful, terrible statement about our worst fears—abandonment, loneliness and dependency—and the starker truth that it’s those we love who hurt us most.

Raising my children, working in schools and now in companies, it almost seems as though the last two decades of my life have been an immersion in the lives of strangers who first are “others”, then become acquaintances, and then, often, friends.

Mostly, what this process has done is helped me to realize how quickly a stranger can become someone to discover, to know and to care about. More often than not, someone to love.

With each new class, with each new room full of strangers, I’m reminded that my openness to others is as simple as a smile (well, many, many smiles, whenever possible), grounded in my empirically supported faith that there are few human beings on this planet with whom I cannot find points of connection and kinship.

In this context, kindness comes easily.

Banksy, Kindness

Where I find myself failing is where most of the pain is: among the people I love most, if not always best. I’ve discovered that I have limits that are real and firm, and that I’m capable of a coldness that I didn’t think possible.

My coldness is a pain response that I’ve watched gain strength over time. It’s taken me years to figure it out, but I think it kicks in when I feel unsafe in the company of someone close to me. That can happen when being with a person feels like being invaded; when everything about an interaction with this person shuts me down and makes me feel like I want to hide inside myself.  It can also happen during periods when being with a person infects me with negativity, anxiety, or a sense of being controlled or pushed around. Sometimes, it’s simply that someone else’s pain is overwhelming my ability to cope.


In those instances, I can be so remote. I’ve cut people off for weeks and months at a time. It’s unkind, and it comes from pain and causes pain. But it feels like self-preservation, and I think that’s probably why I don’t feel as remorseful. The wellspring of my unkindness is my own pain.

And then, unexpectedly, the very real, stripped down pain of someone I love, or someone I don’t yet know, can pull me close once again. That’s the gravity of kindness.

* * *

These are unkind times, when under the guise of self-preservation, many of us now ignore the pain of others and reject kindness, condemning millions to a place Naomi Shihab Nye calls the desolate landscape between the regions of kindness.

It’s a place where none of us are meant to live.

Ernest Pignon-Ernest, Untitled