The Present Is All We Have Left
You will have another “now,” but you will never have more time.
I wanted to grow up to be 17. Forever. To be a man at his perpetual peak — a man with an endless future. And then I turned 17. And it was everything I expected it to be. I want to tell you a little story about that.
I caught up with 17 in a driving thunderstorm on a moonlight night. Covered in rain, flanked by four best friends, standing shirtless, being cuddled and clutched by my alluring lifelong love, while the Red Hot Chili Peppers played “Breaking the Girl” nearly in the ballpark of on-key. Two weeks prior, I had just run 9.3 miles in less than 90 minutes.
At that time, my every waking fiber-optic moment was spent tirelessly pursuing Syracuse University’s prestigious S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. I was to be the next massive sportscasting star, risen from the ashes of a Central New York town of brawlers, boozers and future opioid addicts. I wanted to be the elephant that was always too big for the circus tent.
And I was in love with her. Just … her. My first love. My best love. A slice of human perfection warmed in a brick oven, carrying with her a sunset’s glow and an ocean’s calm. 300W eyes. The type of woman who, when you look at her, a vulnerability shoots straight through you. And when she holds you around your waist, clutching your bare back as you brush back her hair and gently kiss her lips, you hold onto that moment in the mind’s retina for as long as cataracts don’t coat your limbic system.
I photographed that image in my mind’s eye, re-cropped and auto-tuned, roughly 400 times since then. I never wanted my memory to lose track of her smiling eyes, or the way her kiss melted my shivering cold. I’ll always smell the hamburgers from the parking lot, and the unleaded erupting out the back of the 1991 Pontiac Bonneville. The way I was far more excited to be alive at the time than I was at any other time before: A young man’s heart grows three sizes in moments like these.
Except these times are fleeting, and none of these details I’ve recalled for you remain true anymore. I’ve had four cars since then. I can’t recall the names of all the friends I once knew. I never sports-casted, I never got famous. I’ve moved away and moved on, and the woman I adored is gone … vanished into the ether like the Ghost of Romance Past and replaced every few years by vague approximations of the original model.
When we hold on to our pasts, our memories, as the world around us shifts, and the plate tectonics drift us all apart, and our dreams become floating docks that come unhinged in tempest waves, we fail to be present for all the beauty fading all around us. I had dreams back then. Now I just have ghosts. And for years I’ve been chasing them. Except that the past, that moment, is a distortion — a lie. A destination that’s no longer on any map.
I’ve tried to re-calibrate. Vowing to take my life back. Maybe you’ve been there, too. “This is the year I start fresh. When I get back to my roots and go back to what’s worked before.” I’ve seen people make feeble attempts to become the classicist version of themselves, a vintage throwback to that time when barriers were as elusive as the horizon, and home was always there to return to. I always watch as they come back and open that door again, only to find that the locks have all been changed. I’ve been there, too. Countless times. In a place that can no longer be found, isn’t as beautiful as you remember, and only exists as a romanticized idea untainted by the harsh winds of reality. And so we press on.
We migrate. We find a new, shiny city to call home. We find new love. We find new friends. We learn to cook a new authentic Pad Thai and discover new art-rock bands. We wax and wane between the suburbs and the city center. We angle for a promotion. Or two. A raise. We find our “calling.” (And leave it to humans to frame their chosen way of contributing to society something so arrogant as a “calling.”) We take risks and we find our kindred spirits. We meditate. We try goat yoga and puppy brunch. We run marathons. We climb mountains and when we can’t get any higher, we build new ones to scale. And we realize we’ve peaked again. Right now. And we take a snapshot of it in our mind’s eye as a new peak to return to — a System Restore point we can roll back toward when chaos erodes all progress made since.
But we can never return. Only evolve. And we do it day by day, brick by brick. Today is a powerful day. Use it for good. Not like it’s our last, for when we do that, we ignore what comes next and overvalue what’s come before. No, we should strive to live every day like it’s our first. Curious. Captivated by all that glistens in the morning glow. With an open mind and an endless soul. Because, no matter where you are in your sojourn around this speck of space-dust, you’ll never have more time on a cosmic level than you do right now.
Your kids (at this moment) will never depend on you the way they do at this moment. You will never have more energy, more youth, more freedom. This is it. This fleeting, flimsy, fragrant world is as vibrant and brilliant and available to you as it will ever be. All money is house money. And we’re playing with all of it, all the time.
There’s nothing left of that old picture. That one I’ve photographed ad infinitum to remind me of that last wholesome All-American night, when innocence was still alive and possibilities were still endless. When I was young enough to not know better, yet wise enough to know I had the world by the hand and looked it square in the eye, clutching and grabbing it in the pouring rain on a hot summer night at what I once thought was the apex.
No, I’ve moved on from that place. Not young forever, but younger than I’ll ever be again and laughing at a world that cannot kill me — not yet, anyway — so long as I don’t help it along. No longer a man with an endless future. There is no future. Only an endless string of presents.
Not long ago, I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers again at a music festival with a woman from my past, from a former home, who visited me at my new home, and she again became a woman from my present. She made great company, and I was reminded of the hope and joy and youth and freedom of being half my age again. But the band was terrible … and I can’t help but ask myself how much of that was age catching up with them vs cynicism catching up with me. I’ll never know, nor do I care to. My friend and I left early to grab a drink in 2017. In the now. In the present. And it was every bit as wonderful as all the nights that came before.