Everything that’s worth anything is about love and memory.
Memories are malleable in all the best ways. To live a satisfying life, I only have to turn to my past and find myself draping rosy haze that disguises the worst of what I’ve been and morphing myself into a heroine. After all, that’s what we humans do.
Edmund Blair Bolles, himself a humanist, insists that “Remembering is an act of imagination,” and notes that we constantly interpret our past as opposed to producing an objective account of it. In light of our continually updated world views, I find myself trying to build some form of consistency that forms a bridge between who I was and who I think I am—someone I’ll find a way to make consistent with the person I will become.
Having just hung up my combat boots after 26 years and two days in the Air Force, I’m persistently readjusting what I’ve done across that career to match with the young woman I was, whose motivation to serve in the military fell somewhere between seeing how cool my brother was (and thinking I could be that cool myself) and the paralyzing realization that, if I left the all-expenses-paid Air Force Academy, I would need a plan.
Psychologist Daniel Schacter writes about how we “cannot hope to understand memory’s fragile power without examining what happens to memory as time passes, and considering how we translate the residues of experiences that persist across time into tales of who we are.” Today, I am that young woman who served, with pride, and still was planning to get out when my five-year commitment is up, even if I waited an extra 21 years.
After a full career of deployments where I skirted my way around the edge of danger, never intersecting the violence around me, I find myself reaching to a plane of greater experience to sort out this sense of identity. I’m still determining if this life I’ve lived and the life I am living has been, after all, worthwhile.
In 2013, Joseph Urgo handed me an Armed Forces Edition of My Ántonia. The Cather scholar and now Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, thought I might enjoy reading it while deployed to Kyrgyzstan over the next year. I still recall the windowless cave, my home for nearly 14 months, where I reread my favorite lines from the novel. Cather describes sun-soaked young Jim Burden as thinking that he was “entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.” I find myself, often, in that glow, perfectly content in the sense that I’m merely a microbe in the cosmos, serving a purpose.
As Willa Cather’s WWI soldier from her novel One of Ours, Claude Wheeler, gazes at the stained glass of a cathedral window while playing tourist on his way to the frontlines of war, he notes how the “purple and crimson and peacock-green [. . .] had been shining hundreds of years” in light that traveled from a distant star. He’s contemplating his role in the Great War, and how he, as a person who always believed there would be “something splendid” in his life, is finding out that even a farm boy from Nebraska is part of everything.
As for myself, I can see that I am merely stardust—a speck in the light ray of stained-glass human experience. But I still believe that I’m a viable part of that universe and a particle of light that produces color. I am light. I am color. Maybe that is happiness.