I held the bowl in my hands, feeling its organic weight as I turned it over. The glossy surface was a marbled array of amber and blonde ribbons swirling about each other. Occasionally, the warm-toned hues wrapped around a dark streak or mark that interrupted their flow; stubborn rocks in the midst of a tranquil stream.
“This is where the tree was tapped for syrup,” said the craftsman, pointing to a conspicuous, cone-shaped scar.
He was a wood turner, specializing in bowls made from various hardwoods. The particular specimen in question was a large maple vessel whose masterfully stained surface glowed like a campfire in my hands.
I ran my fingers over the rings of grain and the anomalies hidden within them; years of life, from sapling to felled lumber, wrapped around each other. Successive stories echoing outward from a singular core of origin, shaped by those that came before it.
Time and memory. Life and legacy.
We like to think that life behaves linearly: you wake up, go about your day, then go to sleep – you’re born young, live life, then you grow old. The thought is that we go from point A to B to C in a straight line, each stage having little to do with those of the past.
Our existence is a concentric one, like the maple tree. Whether from intrinsic growth or external influence, each of our layers have specific contours and marks. People, places, and events are continually shaping us and consciously or not, we all circle back to them. Memories drift to the surface or we reenact old behaviors and choices when something from our present reminds us of something from our past. For better or worse, with each successive pass over those old layers, we either preserve their shape and carry it forward or try to cover it up, smooth it out, and move on. Like the tree, our current layer reflects the shape of those under the surface and in the past. Life is not a straight line.
I was reminded of this principle recently when a friend from college, Albert Keever, released his debut album. Aside from his incredible songwriting, the album also features the production and instrumental contributions of several other friends, including my former roommate. These people all played significant roles in my life at one time or another. Reading their names on the album roster and hearing the expressive work they produced together awoke some tucked-away college memories. Thus, began another pass over one of the richest and significantly impactful layers of my life to date.
I began college a decade ago. A decade. Whether or not that time-frame seems significant to you, the existential shivers it drizzles down my spine sure are to me.
I went to school in Boston where I now live and work. From my freshman to senior year at Berklee, the setting of my story encompassed the Back Bay neighborhood. At the time, the primary building on campus was 150 Massachusetts Avenue whose developers endeavored to convert the city block’s former hotel and bank buildings into a unified dormitory/classroom/cafeteria/library/storage/studio/performance space for students while preserving the original floor plans. The resulting compound is an MC Escher-inspired maze of whimsy, mystery, and music. Outside of summer breaks and an out-of-state internship, such settings were my home during those years.
The people I met there were just as unique as the architecture. Everyone from teachers to classmates and strangers to roommates bore wildly diverse talents and personalities. It was here where I would meet many long-term friends and share life. These are the friends with whom I would make music, eat cafeteria food, watch The Lord of the Rings into the morning hours, wrestle physically and spiritually, pray countless prayers with each other and with people on the streets through both jubilee and agony, and see God do mighty things we once thought were impossible. Bright as these moments are, these years are also marked by some of my darkest nights. In these buildings, rooms, and streets, I would face the coldest loneliness I have ever known, be haunted by an invasive compulsive disorder, and attempt to navigate a fear-based spiritual insecurity rooted in certain false teachings and my own misinterpretations.
This is an incredibly dense layer of my life and it was created almost exclusively within a small radius of Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. It is truly amazing how one can climb the highest heights and plunge the lowest depths in such a small span of space and time. But it happened.
And after graduation, another confounding thing happened: I could never go back. In some undefinable yet indelible way, those same places where I learned and laughed and wept and strove seemed suddenly off limits. I pass near those same places during my daily commute. I can see the familiar buildings in the distance. I could bike to campus and revisit those same rooms if I wanted to. But I know there would be nothing there and I don’t know why.
My life is different now; marked with a little more routine and stability. Cafeteria food has been replaced by home-cooked meals, my wife and I spend the occasional all-nighter helping our beautiful daughter fall asleep, and frantic spiritual wrestling is tempered with wise counsel and the faith that God is indeed a good God. At times, I can’t quite reconcile how life then and life now fit together. The contrast between the two is so sharp that it can seem as though my memories of the past belong to someone else.
Maybe it’s because the people with whom those places resembled a shared significance have moved away. Maybe it’s because that’s just what happens as you grow older. And its not just true for college. Think of a house you used to live in, a significant period of your history, or a person you used to know but have fallen out of touch with. Whatever the objects are, they represent different layers of your life. Perhaps those layers are smooth and beautiful. Or they could be riddled with scars that persist to this day. In either case, there’s a reason you find yourself face-to-face with them from time to time. Maybe there are unanswered questions or simply memories that are worth savoring again and again.
We can never live in the past, nor should we try. When God puts our lives into motion, they orbit upward and outward, like the concentric veins of the maple wood bowl. Each layer is built on the foundation of those beneath, but is a different one altogether. It need not bear the same old contours and scars. We are shaped by the past but don’t need to be defined by it. There are many things in my past that I don’t understand yet. They still cross my mind now and then and I wonder what brought them into view. Maybe someday it will all come full-circle.