The Future That Doesn’t Exist

In a future that isn’t past derived, where does memory fit in?  The past weighs us down, thwarts progress, and embeds stories that cause us to behave the way we do.  Events long in our childhood change the way we see the world forever.  And yet can the past really be banished?  Does memory count for nothing?

I grew up in Pittsburgh, where my father was an executive in the steel industry.   Steel was still the vital financial backbone of the city when I was a child.  The soot and smoke hadn’t yet cleared to make way for unemployment and a remarkably transformed economy. The descendants of  Eastern European immigrants who worked in the mills lived their lives far from the leafy hills of the exclusive distant suburbs.  I remember being taken to the big Jones & Laughlin mill on the South Side of Pittsburgh, along the Monongahela River, to see the giant cauldrons of molten steel pour their liquid fire into moulds for girders. I imagined this was what a spewing volcano looked like.


My father is descended from a long line of Pennsylvania coal industry people, going back to the beginnings of the State.  There were land grants in the old Rimersberg Courthouse in Clarion County signed by William Penn. (My former wife used to ask, “well, where’s that land today?”)  Memories of this industrial childhood formed my worldview  for decades.  Against my father’s wishes, I never wanted to be part of that industrial legacy.  I associated steel with everything my father did: he shot skeet and pheasants, hunted big game, fished big fish.  Having failed at football I became a swimmer to his distaste.  I wanted to play the violin and he said no, I had to play the clarinet–just like Benny Goodman!  He said the violin was a sissy instrument, not for boys.  Fearing I might be one of those sissies he became the Scoutmaster and I became an Eagle Scout.  Because I read compulsively I knew there was another world beyond the smokestacks and the Duquesne Club.  My father wanted me to go to Penn and become a lawyer. Instead I went to Bowdoin and became an English major.  I loved that Hawthorne and Longfellow had graduated together in the famous class of 1825.


Can I excise these memories from my brain?  Cut them out and toss them into a past that no longer exists, to create a future that doesn’t yet exist?

“But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight. Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life. How often this has caused me to feel that my memories, and the labours expended in writing them down are all part of the same humiliating and, at bottom, contemptible business! And yet, what would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere never-ending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past. How wretched this life of ours is!—so full of false conceits, so futile, that it is little more than the shadow of the chimeras loosed by memory. My sense of estrangement is becoming more and more dreadful.”

W.G. Sebald,  The Rings of Saturn.

Oliver Sacks in his new book Hallucinations writes about “false” memories–vivid memories of events and experiences that never happened, or happened to someone else.  Maybe we assimilated something we read, or were told, into our own memory bank and it became as real as if it had actually happened to us. “We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections–but also great flexibility and creativity.  Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength: if we could tag the sources of all our knowledge, we would be overwhelmed with often irrelevant information.”

My own first memory must have been when I was  three or four years old. It was a summer day and I was mowing our lawn with a tiny toy lawnmower.  I remember exactly where I was on the lawn and that I was wearing a bright green polo shirt and white shorts.  I was happy.  Why such a completely unimportant and ordinary situation should be my first memory is a mystery.  It’s so banal  I assume it’s real.  Later, from the same time, I remember my mother carrying me to a neighbor’s during an electrical storm.  I know this came after mowing the lawn. Neither seem to have influenced future behavior, although I have always liked lawn mowing and enjoy thunder and lightning.

Other later memories may be concoctions of real events and imagined responses.  When I was sixteen, and already a champion swimmer, my father drove me to a swimming meet in Cleveland. I was to swim one event and was expected to win. Instead I came in second, by less than half a second.  The boy who won set the National Record for the event. My father met me at the locker room and told me he hadn’t driven me here for me to come in second. He didn’t talk to me during the entire ride back to Pittsburgh.  I’m sure he made that remark, but could he possibly have been so callous as not to speak to me?  Or is this a story I made up–with full legitimacy in my mind–adding to my inventory of injustices at his hand that I’ve carried, among so many more, to build the case he never loved me?


Over the years, these stories filled more volumes that the works of Thackeray. All this perceived pain came to an end last Saturday.  Encouraged to take the initial step towards establishing an authentic relationship, I called my Dad and talked to him for the first time in thirty-five years about how all of these experiences came to haunt me and determine the future of how badly we related to one another. The call was easy, the conversation difficult and emotional. We both cried.  Memory had served neither of us well.

Creating a future that doesn’t exist demands leaving the past in the past.  A past derived future only creates more of the past. There can’t be a future.  All we have is this moment right now, and the next one, and the next one.  Once when my boys were small we were all sitting at our dining table when David, aged around nine, said he would do something “later.”  Adam, still in his high-chair, looked up and said, “Later means never.”  When a three-year old understands this, why can’t most adults?  When do we lose this intuitive understanding that now is all the time we have?

Time to grab the day and make the future happen.


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1 Comment

  1. Dear Niland,
    I enjoy your thoughts immensely especially the end…That all we have is now.

    I recently lost my husband after 5 years of battling cancer. The only way we coped is by siezng the moments of each day that were good and loving. It was an incredible roller coaster of highs and low, making us very intimate. ( But I would not recommend it for the weak at heart.)

    Also, I am an artist. All my life I focus on the will of the natural world: it’s will to live despite all
    odds. The heliatrope of a plant, the quiet bend of a tree to follow the light, the surge of water to it’s passage leaving it’s memory in it’s wake are all sources of solice. The intense focus
    of this work leaves all else behind. I trully live in the moment of the work.

    The last thing is you are beginning to date a very dear friend of mine, Brenda. She is a true
    person, a friend who dropped her life several times to help me in my loss. Without her insight
    good judgement and calm, I do not know if I would have survived. I will always be grateful
    and in debt to her.

    I am also now dating, I forwarded your artical to my new friend, he really enjoyed it.
    He works for Cornell in their labor relations school, so the understanding of your Dad’s
    world is deep. He also thought it was a good artical. So I was happy as time is passing fast.

    Best regards,
    Robin Dintiman


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