After years of living with two mismatched but well-loved cushions on our sofa, I decided it was time to take a small step towards improved interior decorating and purchase matching cushions. I chose two large pillows with identical covers—a beige background with embroidery in muted earth tones and a maroon elephant in the centre. I was well-pleased with my purchase and marvelled at just how much of a difference coordinated cushion covers could make. That feeling of inner harmony upon seeing the elephants lasted for a couple of years, but then I began to notice that the embroidery was showing signs of wear. Each time our young son was ill, which he often was until having he had his tonsils removed, he would lie for hours on the cushions watching TV. This proximity to the pillows, combined with the boredom of illness, led to him pulling at the stitching. Little snags developed in the threads. One of the cushions became so worn that it changed colour, becoming darker than the other one. Finally I admitted that the cushion covers had served their time, and I ordered new covers, in nubby beige chenille.
When the new covers arrived, I debated whether it was best to pull the new covers over the elephant covers or to remove the old covers and replace them with the new ones. Because leaving the elephants on underneath meant that when the new covers required washing, the cushions would not be bare, I left the old covers on. I briefly admired the positive effect on the appearance of the room, but I observed that although the new covers were pleasing to the eye, I was unable to see them without calling up an image of the rather tattered elephant cushion covers underneath. I assumed that this x-ray vision effect would disappear quickly, but it has persisted.
It can sometimes be a blessing to know what came before. A significant number of my Facebook friends are from the town I spent most of my childhood in, a picturesque village of about four thousand in rural Vermont. Some of these Facebook friends were close friends during my childhood, some were teachers, some were casual friends. Before Facebook, I kept in touch with only one friend from my hometown, and for a great many years, that suited me just fine. When I re-established contact with some of my childhood friends, I understood that many of them had been closer friends than I had realized at the time, and I relished the renewed connections.
One of the most wonderful aspects of communicating with friends from my childhood is that they know my history. When forming friendships as an adult, I hold several salient facts about my background like a poker player holds cards. I wait, sometimes for years, carefully considering the timing, before laying a card down. After exposing a card, I pause, hoping my developing friend will lay a card of her own, wondering if the next card I play will be the one that will cause my partner to fold and walk away. With friends from my childhood, many of these cards are already on the table. Even casual friends from my hometown, because of the way information is stored in a town so small, know more about me than casual friends I have made as an adult. Beyond my personal history, these friends also share the history of the town itself. Last fall a Facebook group called “You Know You Are From ___” appeared; it gained members at a breathtaking pace. Recently posts about mud season, maple sugaring, and long-ago grade school teachers all received multiple comments. I feel a warm glow reading many of the posts on the group wall; shared memory is a powerfully unifying phenomenon.
Yet there are other times when the ability to start fresh is invaluable. When our son, Sam, was three and a half, he was diagnosed with autism. Just before Sam’s reception year at primary school, we moved home, relocating from Cambridge, England, to southwest London. We were thrilled when Sam was given a place at the well-respected local primary school, but we knew that proper school would be challenging for Sam as he did not yet have a statement of special needs. While I am sure the school Sam first enrolled in is a wonderful learning environment for the overwhelming majority of its students, it did not fit Sam at all. So many incidents occurred on the playground that I went in repeatedly to plead with the powers-that-be to allow me to supervise Sam personally during all of his playtimes. His behaviour in class was disruptive; he once threw a chair at a learning support assistant. When the other reception children moved from half-days to whole days, we met with those in charge and agreed that Sam would remain at half-days. Looking back I am stunned that I went along with, and even begged for, a solution like that, but I was desperate for Sam to be happy at school, and I knew that full days would be debilitating for him, and therefore for us.
During that awful year I was working diligently, aided by a few skilled and selfless volunteers, to get Sam a statement of special needs; a document that would entitle him to individual help at school. Towards the end of the school year, the statement became a likelihood, and we were told we had the option of choosing a new school for Sam, if we wanted to do that. We wanted very much to do that, so we scheduled tours and meetings with the head teachers at two other primary schools in the borough. After a great deal of consideration, we settled on the primary school that emphasized music and had a large international population. That school was further from our home at the time, but felt more likely to be the right school for Sam.
Sam had started two different preschools and one primary school before starting at the school we handpicked. The anxiety of those first days was negligible when compared to the anxiety of this first day. This school felt like Sam’s last chance. If he wasn’t happy at this new school, I was determined to pull him out of the school system altogether and pursue home-schooling, although the idea did not appeal to me. I don’t remember the drop-offs those first days, but I remember home time. I arrived early each day and stood nervously outside the classroom door, wondering what terrible things may have happened: would Sam have been bullied, would he have been violent towards other children or adults, would he have taken unkindly to some element of the school day and flipped out entirely? Each afternoon when Sam came out, seemingly content, I crept up to the teacher, and in hushed tones, asked her how the day had gone.
“Fine,” she answered each afternoon. “Sam seems to be settling in quite well.”
Hugely relieved, I would practically dance home, but the same gnawing stress would return the following afternoon. How could it be that our child, who had rarely been happy and had often been shockingly unhappy at school, could be doing so well?
During Sam’s second week at the new school, when I went up to the teacher at the end of the day, she said to me gently, “You really don’t need to check in with me every day. Sam is a lovely boy and he’s adjusting brilliantly. You have nothing to worry about.”
“I’m sorry to keep asking how he’s doing,” I responded, “But you have to understand, this is such an enormous change from how Sam was at his previous school.”
The teacher looked curious. “How was he there?” she asked.
“He was miserable, and aggressive,” I said. “It was very difficult.”
“That’s hard to believe, based on what I’ve seen of him,” the teacher said thoughtfully. “But I can tell it must have been hard at the other school. He has support now though; that may be helping a lot.”
“It must be,” I said, “Because the change is remarkable.”
“Well, I just don’t want you to feel you need to ask every day. If there’s a problem, I will let you know, you can rest assured.”
I left school that day bewildered. The weight of Sam’s unhappiness at school had been lifted in just a few days, and I only saw in hindsight what a heavy weight it had been. It took nearly two months for me to begin to trust what Sam’s teacher kept telling me—Sam was happy, and he was doing well. There was one incident, perhaps three weeks after school started, of Sam kicking another boy in line. My adrenaline rushed back to previous school levels. Would this be the start of the decline? The teacher told me that she had informed Sam that such behaviour was not tolerated at this school, and she felt certain that she and Sam had come to an agreement that he would abide by the school rules in the future.
She was right. For the rest of that year, Sam was tractable and obedient. Although Sam’s teacher had no doubt read Sam’s file from his previous school, she had been able to see him as a clean slate. The teacher’s willingness to not prejudge Sam based on his history was certainly vital to his success at settling in the new school.
The ability to acknowledge change and to start fresh given new parameters does not come easily to everyone. About a year ago a good friend slowly but surely talked me into joining her on an inexpensive beginner’s jogging course run by the borough. I was not especially fit as a child; I preferred playing music to playing sports, and for several years I was, as a parent would say, “plump.” (Stopping religiously at the Village Bakery for an enormous glazed doughnut every day as I walked home from school didn’t help.) Every year in high school when the time came for the “President’s Physical Fitness” event, I would dread the day of the 800 meter run/walk. I would watch in awe as many of my classmates leapt away at the starting gun, and then I would walk, slowly, around the perimeter of the huge playing field. When I had gotten about a quarter of the way, I could see the runners approaching the finish line on the opposite side of the field.
I was eighteen before I ever really tried to jog. I went out with my future husband, Håkan, in the early evening, and jogged for maybe seven minutes before exclaiming in agony that I could go no further. Håkan looked at me quizzically.
“Are you serious?” he asked. “You honestly can’t do more than that?”
“No,” I said, panting. “I honestly can not.”
“OK,” he said. “We’ve got a long ways to go to get you fit.”
After that seven-minute session, I could not walk down stairs facing forward for an entire week. My calf muscles felt like rubber bands, about to snap at any moment. I was able to increase my jogging time to about twenty minutes, but I loathed the actual jogging, and only forced myself to do it because I knew I would feel good afterwards. That initial jogging phase lasted perhaps three months, and then I gave it up and went back to walking. During the next twenty years, I repeated that pattern four or five times, taking up jogging with great intentions of carrying on forever, then giving up a few months later when I again realized that I resented every step.
But the beginner’s course I did with my friend was different. We had a leader, Frank, who encouraged us, we had each other, and we had a few other women along who were at roughly the same level of jogging fitness. The goal of the course was to jog 5K without stopping, and to my amazement, when the final session took place, I completed the 5K without walking once. Even more astounding, a couple times during that session, I actually enjoyed the act of jogging itself. Finishing the course meant I automatically became a member of the jogging club that Frank helped lead, and I have continued jogging with Frank and a rotating cast of club members for many months now. During good weeks I also go out once on my own, and while jogging is still sometimes a struggle, it is now often meditative. It helps that my route is consistently breathtaking; I jog in a Royal Park renowned in London for its beauty. But even given the stunning surroundings, I could choose each time to walk instead, but I haven’t.
One recent Sunday at the gymnastics centre, while waiting for my daughter to finish her gym session, I began chatting with a mum I know mostly through mutual friends. I once met this mum, Ella, while jogging in the park; she was running with her good friend, Hannah, who is the mum of a boy in my daughter’s class.
“So,” Ella asked in the gymnastics waiting room, “Has Hannah signed you up for the half marathon?”
An expression of shock surely appeared on my face. “Heavens no, I wouldn’t be able to do that.”
“Really? I know Hannah has gotten a whole crew together from your school, she didn’t rope you in?” Ella prodded amiably.
“I’m not that sort of runner,” I said, off-handedly. “Are you doing it?”
“I am. Hannah wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Ella said with a mock sigh.
“I can imagine that,” I said, smiling. “I hope it goes well.”
“Thanks,” Ella replied.
My husband was in the kitchen when my daughter and I returned from gymnastics.
“You’ll never believe it, but that mum Ella, the one who knows Hannah, she asked if I was going to run the half marathon!” I exclaimed.
“And?” he asked.
“Are you kidding? I can’t run a half marathon! I can barely run 5K reliably!”
“You could run a half marathon if you wanted to. You’d just have to train a little more seriously.”
“No way,” I maintained. “I am not a real runner.”
My husband, ever practical, inquired, “Did you want me to get the chicken ready to roast?”
I thought about Ella asking me about the half marathon several times over the next couple of days. I was in complete disbelief that anyone could think I was fit enough to entertain running that sort of distance. In my mind, I was still the girl who had struggled to run for seven minutes. But the seven minutes had increased to thirty minutes, and it was entirely possible that the thirty minutes could increase to sixty, or maybe even to the hundred and twenty it would likely take to finish a half marathon. Looking at the evidence, I had to acknowledge that I had become a bona fide runner. To persist in viewing myself as a non-runner would be doing myself a disservice.
I have left my sofa cushions as they are, with the old covers underneath the now not-so-new covers, although I still can not look at the cushions rather than through them. The effect reminds me, every time I sit on the couch, that history matters, but the present matters more.