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What Came Before

What Came Before

“Don’t look back,” we chide ourselves. But Christine Pountney has learned to relish her regrets.

Illustration by Ahn Na Lim.

When we leave a place, we often look back. We look back to make sure we have our keys. Our wallet. Did I turn off the stove? Kiss my wife goodbye? Did I leave anything on the subway? My son’s sippy cup? Where the hell is my son’s sippy cup? Whatever needs to be done before leaving—which loose ends sewn up, which precautions taken—all these things yank us back for a moment and make us turn around.

A famous case of looking back: Lot’s wife. She looks back and, without so much as a verse of mourning, is turned into a pillar of salt. And for what? Disobeying God, primarily, but also for showing too much love for home, her city—where she bore her children, planted olive trees, lost her virginity, had that affair. She was going to miss the cozy inclusivity of debauchery, the golden-hearted hookers, the happy Sodomites. Or maybe she was looking back with horror at her own sinful ways, looking back so she wouldn’t forget. She may have earned herself an invaluable piece of wisdom by glancing behind her, wisdom so powerful that even God felt jealous and had to shut her up. We will never know what she saw in that daring split second before her mouth dried up. She doesn’t even get a name.

Here is Anna Akhmatova, Russian poet, writing about Lot’s wife: “Her body flaked into transparent salt,/ and her swift legs rooted to the ground./ Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem/ too insignificant for our concern?/ Yet in my heart I never will deny her,/ who suffered death because she chose to turn.”

Of course, attachment to the past can weigh you down. We must march toward our own ambitious dreams and cast off our past failures. It is a simple lesson thoroughly taught in the book of Genesis. Northrop Frye taught it again two thousand years later when he wrote, with a hint of admonishment, “In time we all face the past, and are dragged backwards into the future.” And that’s what Lot’s wife was doing. She may have been looking back, but she wasn’t heading back to those twin cities. She only threw one last look over her shoulder. So why the tsk-tsk that accompanies nostalgia? Are we so scared of getting stuck? Have we, by not looking back, lost the lessons the past has to teach us, out of fear we might all become catatonic with regret and forget to feed the kids?

You leave a building; you look over your shoulder. In that vulnerable space between here and there, on the threshold of a doorway, you perform a quick glance. You may not even notice that you’re doing it, but everybody does. It isn’t really a looking back, because you’re not looking in the direction you’re coming from. Rather, it is a looking toward the way you have chosen not to go.

I made a little film to test my theory. I set myself up with a video camera across from a subway station, then a shopping mall. I noticed that if there was heavy traffic through a doorway, people tended to exit as if corralled—they neither looked up nor over. The observations that confirmed my hypothesis had to be chance exits, observed over time, in a wide variety of doorways, and not squeezed out of a rush-hour commute.

This glance happens more often when somebody is alone. If someone is talking to a friend, it rarely happens. If she is leaving to untie her dog from a bench or a lamppost it won’t happen. My boyfriend suggested this turning-to-look represents a hangover from our caveman days—just making sure the way is safe behind us. The presence of a dog, perhaps, takes care of this need for safety. The dog is there to watch our backs. Or maybe not; once, when I was a kid, my mother was carrying laundry home and a Great Dane leapt a six-foot fence and landed on her back. She is one of the few people in Canada with a valid reason to check over her shoulder for fear of wild predators.

People with children tend not to make this look either. Their safety concerns are cast upon the backs of their children and, in turn, children make their parents feel safe by putting us in charge. Children rob us from ourselves. They are a barrier between us and our self-preoccupation. In that, they are like a meditation practice.

For all the choices we make, there are a myriad of choices we forfeit. To walk through that door and go left is to not go right. And what lies to the right? What radically different fate awaits you there? Will you bump into a flower-seller—the woman of your dreams—and have six beautiful children, five of whom will become opera singers? Or will you set in motion a series of events that lead to your own death by drowning in a frozen lake six months from now? Stepping out of that door, we are at a junction. This is why we swivel to look. We see ourselves departing in the other direction. There you go. And what do you have but a wistful feeling? A small interior howl of longing? Perhaps a shiver of relief, sensing the disaster you may have averted?

I’m not suggesting that any of this is conscious. I don’t think it is. But consider the possibility that, for a moment, your body has become the physical catalyst for some latent, unexplored impulse—a kind of sign language in the hands of your psyche. Charades from the subconscious. Exit a building. Swivel your head. Tap your forearm with two fingers. Tug your earlobe. Sounds like. But what’s the message? What does it all mean? This is the mystery: that unconscious acts, especially repetitive ones, have a greater significance than we might think.

I recently overheard two men in a cafeteria talk about their favourite movies and actors, in that aggressively jocular fashion men assume when trying to rein in their affection for one another. One man said Daniel Day-Lewis, and the other scoffed. The first man retracted by saying he was not a movie buff, but music? He could wax about music. How it was a superior form to movies and books, because it was inarticulate. Music is made of energy and so are we. Then he said he missed university. He was a bureaucrat now, his friend a professor. He missed the drinking and all the talking about ideas. He admitted to feeling nostalgic. His friend quickly said, Nostalgia is the first sign of dementia. I know, I know, the man replied. I can’t look back. Regret is meaningless. It’s a waste of time. I mean, how can you regret anything? I have no regrets.

So here’s the thing: lately I’ve been ambushed with dreams about old friends and lovers. People I no longer know, would not be able to find. They are just behind me, giving me bad advice, tempting me with sex, violence, laughter and humiliation in the dark playgrounds of the night. I wake up and the past seems so close, I can feel it breathing down my neck. And I love it. Is it early-onset dementia, to be so cozy with nostalgia?

I once told my sister that I regretted my promiscuous, drug-addled teenage years, and I was surprised to hear how relieved she was, almost vindicated. She’s a Christian, and while she chose the righteous path, I took whatever path was left over. And I realized, in the tone of her voice, that she was looking back over her shoulder at me. I didn’t even regret the wayward behaviour, but the paralysis I have suffered because of those years. Not the drama; I regret the stasis that followed the drama. The rut. The exhausted, sad stillness. My sister rejoices at the shattering of the ego because it is the first step to being reborn. And I resent that model, in part because it plunges you into one extreme of yourself—namely your wretched sinfulness—only to then send that part of yourself forever into exile.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed things were defined in terms of their opposites. Good defined by evil, darkness by light and so on. So to exile sin is to exile virtue. That’s why all those fundamentalists who try so hard to be totally void of sin are often the ones so rotten with it on the inside.

Similarly, to exile regret is to exile its opposite. Which is what, exactly—satisfaction? Wouldn’t we all be happier if we could admit to our unhappiness? Let us wallow, without shame, in the things we have failed to do. Samuel Beckett wrote, “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” He understood that every success is inherently a failure, and every failure a success.

A certain combination of air and sunlight, the rustle of leaves, or the smell of coffee, cinnamon, hazelnut syrup, and suddenly I’m back as a runaway teen in California, in a Santa Cruz bookstore café. Or growing up in Montreal. Toronto is entirely forgotten, it never happened. And these moments of oblivion? Of a return to the past? I’m embracing them with real gusto, real humility, and it’s paying dividends. Somehow, it’s making sense of my life.

Last night I lay awake beside my feverish son, trying to define exactly what I could possibly mean by “dividends of regret.” Perhaps it has something to do with having a child and, for the first time in my life, really being squeezed for time and freedom—realizing what valuable luxuries those things are. And what I would achieve now, if I had them back again. Because my regrets are not for the things I have done—not the bad behaviour. I would do all that again and again and again. My regrets are for what I haven’t done. How I have squandered those twin indulgences of time and freedom.

The dividends of regret. It goes a bit like this: to have regrets is to believe you have a certain power over your own life, to change or control it. It’s active. To have no regrets is to be passive and fatalistic.

Before having my son, I often felt powerless. I was prone to feelings of defeatism and futility. Now, though, I have more confidence in my power, because look at what, in just two years, I have already created. I have given birth, pumped milk into, and watched a baby grow into a boy. I used to wait for things to happen, instead of making them happen. Was it out of laziness? Fear? It doesn’t really matter. They’re both luxuries of a sort—products of an absence of responsibility. If I don’t feed my son, he doesn’t eat. I lost him in Walmart once, and I had no hesitation in screaming out his name within seconds. I had no social decorum, no self-consciousness. I had to find him, and maybe the great realization for my generation, in having kids, is this kind of courage and effectiveness; we have had, historically, a very light burden of responsibility. So easy to be narcissistic when you have no real responsibilities.

Even the inconvenience of having a sick child at home is a good reminder of what you can achieve under normal circumstances. Suddenly you start to realize how much you have; how much you could lose; what you have already lost. In this way, regret is putting me back in touch with my own potential. And I’m trying to harness it. But in order to really harness it, I’ve had to really admit to not having harnessed it before, and that amounts to a kind of grief. That’s the unflattering look, the bitter pill that regret offers. That’s why we shy away from it: because it hurts. And it’s hard to convey, the bottoming-out intensity of these things, without metaphor.

Jan Zwicky writes in a poem: “which is to say/ a truth in nostalgia:/ if we steel ourselves against regret/ we not grow more graceful/ but less.” We will never know what Lot’s wife learned in the split second between looking back and being punished—and that, I think, is something worth regretting.

See the rest of Issue 39 (Spring 2011).

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—Nostalgia Unlimited
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—Things That Make Us Muslim

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