Robin Marantz Henig


Living in the Past

Joseph Mitchell's unfinished memoir reveals something about being 60-something.

Posted Feb 12, 2015

The article was from an unfinished memoir by one of the most respected nonfiction writers of the 20th century, Joseph Mitchell—whose name I know but whom I haven't read much, I'm sorry to admit. Even though it was in such a raw state, The New Yorker chose to publish the excerpt in their latest issue; Mitchell had been one of theirs in his heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, so in a way I guess every newly-discovered piece of unedited writing was fair game.

The chapter stopped me at the very first line: "In the fall of 1968, without at first realizing what was happening to me, I began living in the past." In 1968, Joseph Mitchell was 60 years old—almost exactly my age. It made me wonder whether this is what, in essence, is different about being in your 60s: that the long view, the things you think about when your mind wanders, your dreams and your most convoluted mental work, all of it, all your inner life, starts to aim backward toward the past instead of forward toward whatever lies ahead.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, I guess; looking forward was a theme throughout my 20s, 30s, 40s, and it wasn't always a happy theme. There was a lot of tension there, a lot of uncertainty, as I found myself always wondering how the story would end—the story of my career, the story of my marriage, the story of how my two daughters would turn out. My focus on the ending, my constantly thinking about whatever was going to happen later, often made me impatient with the here and now, and I let too many lovely moments slip away unnoticed. That's what Michael Cunningham was trying to teach us in The Hours when he wrote: 

I remember one morning getting up at dawn. There was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling. And I... remember thinking to myself: So this is the beginning of happiness, this is where it starts. And of course there will always be more...It never occurred to me it wasn't the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment, right then. 

It wasn't the beginning of happiness. It WAS happiness. There was nothing further to expect, and the expectation that there was is what leads you to miss the happiness itself while you're experiencing it. Life is made up of moments. Happiness is made up of moments. I remember thinking that was the saddest thing I had ever read.

But that was a long time ago, back in 1998—I was in my 40s then, still waiting for the future to unfold. I don't really have that tension anymore, at least not in the same way, of expecting the next, bigger thing to finally be the happiness I was waiting for. Maybe it's because I'm 61. Maybe it's because I'm living in the past, the way Joseph Mitchell did, trying to make sense of what already happened rather than what's about to. Maybe it's because I feel like I sort of already know, in its basic outlines, how the story ends.

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