I was born late in the afternoon on a Tuesday in early May, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, in a place surrounded by incredible natural beauty. But my first memory is not of this place.
My first memory is of a day three years later, across the country, in a landscape entirely different.
It was my third birthday, and from family movies I know exactly what my Robin Hood birthday cake looked like, how excited I was to see it, what people were saying, who was there, and what they were wearing. But what I remember—my only memory of that day—is of the little Fisher Price bicycle I got for my birthday. Small, plastic, red, blue, yellow, wide black plastic wheels. I remember exactly how it looked, and I remember sitting on it out in the back yard and thinking how special it was. And that’s all.
I don’t know my second memory. I don’t know my third.
It’s weird how things scale in importance. How one seemingly random memory can rise to the top of our consciousness, while others sink beneath. There is so much we have seen, so much our minds can pull up and play back to us as if it were a movie, playing before our eyes. As if not a single detail had been erased by the passing torrent of time. There is so much in our minds that we just don’t know we remember. If only we knew the keys to access it. But some things stand out above others. Some memories live with keys sitting in their locks and a bright flag pointing our conscious minds to their presence. We can always call up these memories. But so many others have all but disappeared, showing up only occasionally at seemingly random times, unlocked by circumstances we may not even be aware of. A smell. A sound. A feeling we cannot explain. Or a scene we know we’ve seen before, if only in a dream. Once again we have thoughts not thought, feelings not felt in years. And they can fade again just as fast.
And the future is the same way.
It’s hard to think about, because it’s not a common concept, but in our thoughts and visions of the future, similar patterns arise. Odd things come up and occupy our thoughts at random times as we plan for and implement the future in each moment. Something will make us think about, worry about, certain aspects of a future that to us seems as real as the past. Our minds are our only interface with the past and the future alike. And therein lies the similarity. The past does not exist; or at least there’s no way to prove that it does. Neither does the future. Both are only models playing out in our minds. And in both can our minds simulate events and alternatives and derive patterns, thoughts, predictions, and decisions. Both are trajectories in time that exist as a whole, complete with or without our consideration or input. And yet, because the past and future share the common residence of our minds, they are the most familiar. We know the past; it’s comfortable. In a way we can also be familiar with the future, or at least what we imagine or assume of the future. But the present—the present is different. It is the present that is foreign, the only one of the three that is not completely in our minds, in our control. The only true unknown. The only place where newness and novelty can arise.