Are you familiar with photographic double exposures—composites created when two images are superimposed? Double exposures haunt me every time I bicycle down a narrow alley that leads to what was once my childhood Florida home. What I see blends with vivid memories from my youth. As Southern novelist William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Early morning is my favorite time to return. Only the soft calls of doves disturb the silence. The latest generation of butterflies, whose ancestors once fascinated me, flit about in search of nectar from tropical blooms. The alley’s tarmac is fresh, dark black. But I remember its former, weather- worn surface, faded gray by the sun and imbedded with seashells that found their way from the beach just a block away. The surface had more character then, like the weathered face of a wise elder.
New homes and manicured yards hemmed in by walls now border the alley. They bear no resemblance to the once vacant lots overgrown with foliage—places where a youngster could feel like a jungle explorer, forging through tangled palms and flowering vines, stirring up birds, butterflies and smaller creatures. I developed a lifelong fascination with the natural world as I roamed about freely. Later, at home, I would examine under my microscope the treasures I’d gathered—an adventure as exciting as falling down Alice’s rabbit hole.
Besides being my private jungle, the alley was where I played with my siblings. It was also the route to the beach, where I learned from my parents to be unafraid of the ocean’s ebb and flow over my feet. It was where I learned to ride a bicycle and, later, the departure point for “bicycle picnics” with my large, extended family during Christmas holidays.
As past and present mingle in my mind’s eye, I’m unsettled by a poignant sense of loss. Time marches on and nothing lasts forever. While Buddhists remind us that change is life’s only constant, this offers little consolation.
Too often, I romanticize the past and perceive the present as a second-class reality— not quite as special as the way things used to be. Sure, the doves still call to each other at dawn and an occasional butterfly brushes my arm, but it’s just not the same as it was— and never will be. To make matters more complicated, my futile attempts to discern rational patterns in my life and imagine the future makes me anxious.
Distracted by the irretrievable past and an unknowable future, I’ve come to appreciate the urgency of embracing the present—and not obsessing about ultimate answers to life’s puzzles. As one of my sisters rightly advised, “Make memories now.” My wife, in turn, has helped me bring the present into focus—and to love humanity in spite of its flaws.
Novelist Thornton Wilder expressed the underlying theological dilemma best. He summoned us to embrace love in an unpredictable world without conclusive, existential answers. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, he writes: “Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that boys kill on a summer day, and some say, to the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God. … We ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough … the only survival, the only meaning.”
James Spencer is a writer and photographer based in Florida.