At the New Year

Going through some old letters recently, I found the tale of an incident that had been completely lost from memory. It was a summer of the 1930s; I was living in Munich on a scholar's pittance, learning German for my PhD requirements. A close college friend wrote me from Salzburg that he had two tickets for a performance of the Mozart festival. A booty rarer than gold! Would I not come down and enjoy with him the precious evening of music?

Counting my much diminished stores, I figured I could just afford the journey to Salzburg and return. When the great day came, I stepped down from the train to see before me the desolate and stricken face of my friend. He had lostm the tickets. There was no recourse, no possible method of entrance to the concert hall. We dined that evening at a local coffeehouse, our spirits subdued and our dreams shattered.

Now it seems to me that the interesting part of this minor disaster is that it totally passed out of my conscious mind. Only on being reminded of it by the rereading of that long-ago letter could I reconstruct the scene. It was as if a bridge had been built, word by word, to an island that for nearly half a century had remained forgotten and inaccessible. All this time it had been standing there, like a rock sitting unapproachably off the coast of Maine -- until suddenly I could clinb over it and explore its tide-washed pools.

At the year's end, which is a time of stock-taking and reminiscence, I dwell with uncertainty upon the episode. Looking backward, do I exclude what has been unpleasant in the past? Is my mind like the garden sundial, bearing on its bronze face the sentimental legend "I mark only your sunny hours"? I do not really think so.Much that is sad, disappointing, pathetic or askew is embraced withint he scope of my recollection, and they return, as the sands of the old year run out, in softened or shadowed form. Yet I seem to have a particular way of remembering; somehow the happy experiences do linger, while those that are painful or unfortunate gradually recede.

A man sits before the fire these nights of winter, going over days and hours of the seasons gone. Perhaps he strays into wider perspectives of the past, recalling a youth that will not come again.Is he not what he is because of what he remembers and what he forgets?m I have a sort of fantasy that each one of us contains within himself or herself something like a common-or-garden sieve -- an instrument made with an individual pattern or mesh through which all experiences passes. One person's sieve lets through elements of a different kind from another's, so that one man or woman will see a past composed of highly colored particles, while another sees contrasting hues and substance.

Even those who follow the same path through life, and are perhaps closest in affection and temperament, can harbor different memories. A man and his wife, recalling a bygone event, will keep particular angles of the whole. Indeed, one will feel amazement on hearing the other recount --situation which he retains in a quite other light.Let neither husband nor wife be too concerned. It is this very capacity to remember things differently that makes them unique individuals, filling their relationship with odd surprises and revelations.

It may be necessary, sometimes, to alter the pattern of recollection, dredging up what has lain buried beneath layers of oblivion. As an expedient, such a process may be helpful; but as a rule of life it is unwise, I think, to meddle too much with one's natural way of remembering and forgetting. "The unexamined life," Socrates said, "is not worth living." Socrates surely did not mean, however, that we should alter the balance between things that are lost and those that are kept vivid, a balance that is at the very heart of personality.

And so for the New Year, if I may make a wish, it is that we may all have pleasant scenes to recollect. More than that, it is that we may recall at the end, not what has been mean, but what has been best and brightest in our days.

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