Clear Pictures: Taking the Long View

Two college students are talking outside my window. They are discussing their futures. "I'll be an old man before that happens," says one. "I'll be, like, 30." His friend considers this. "Oh, you mean really old," he says.

I refrain from leaning out and shaking my fist at them or calling them young whippersnappers. It crosses my mind, though. I'm from the generation that was never going to trust anyone over the age of 30. I know a thing or two about heedless youth and how, at 20, life stretches before you like a vast, blank page. How you believe that unlimited energy and an iron constitution are inalienable rights, and that nothing you say or do now is irrevocable.

I also know a bit about time's winged chariot and how the pages fly off the calendar as they do in old movies. There is a line from a John Donne poem that haunts me these days: Tell me where all past years are. It's not that I want them back, exactly. It's just that I want to know how they disappeared so quickly.

I have reached the stage of life when the past begins to catalog itself in sudden, vivid snapshots: a May twilight in Virginia in 1968, breathing in the scent of honeysuckle and waiting for my first child to be born; a Manhattan street in 1974, walking home through a blizzard and watching the city's sharp angles soften beneath a white mantle; a beach on Lake Michigan in 1978, wind whipping up green waves on the inland sea.

A clutch of Knoxville images come and go, my children building a mammoth snow fort back when it used to snow a lot here; summer afternoons on the lake in a battered john boat, learning to cast for bass. The newsroom at the old Knoxville Journal, smoke-filled, noisy with static-laced bulletins from the police scanner.

I stop at a traffic light on Kingston Pike and whole scenes flash before my eyes: the day my oldest son got his driver's license, right over there; the day the tornado struck and I sat here shaking, waiting to make the turn and find a way home through the fallen trees and see if the house was still standing. The day I got my first job, and the day it ended. A thousand workday mornings, early evenings, Saturday nights, stopping at this light. Checking my lipstick in the mirror. Checking my lists. Summing up.

Then there's the audio track that drifts in and out of the slide show, Eric Clapton singing "I've Got a Rock ‘n Roll Heart" the summer we moved here; Pavarotti singing "Nessun Dorma" in Thompson-Boling Arena and munching popcorn between arias. Conversations from last week or last decade, things I should have said, should never have said, wish I had said better. I hear the voices of mentors, friends, a few adversaries, all gone now, moved on or passed on.

I listen to the students' fading dialogue and remember the year I turned 20, a college sophomore poised on the brink of adulthood. I wrote a letter to my parents that spring, thanking them for their birthday gift and reflecting elegiacally on the end of my teens. How wise and mature I felt, putting away childish things. I had navigated two whole decades of my journey. Twenty felt like a landmark. Thirty was beyond the scope of my imagination.

It goes by so fast, says Emily in Thornton Wilder's Our Town. We don't even have time to look at each other. I stand at the window and watch the students walk away. They haven't asked for my advice, but I whisper it anyway to their retreating backs. Pay attention. The camera is rolling. Be careful of the memories you make today. They will be with you a long, long time.