This photograph shows me wearing a T-shirt I acquired in 2002, when I visited New York University (where I was accepted but did not attend). Not that you could tell, but I was listening to a Richard Thompson record, specifically “Beeswing,” a song that reminded me of the personal travails an acquaintance in the comics world whom I greatly admire was going through at the time. What you can tell is that there’s a giant black trash bag looking out of place in this brightly lit, bunk bed-dominated room.
I went back to Ohio for a week last month, two days in Columbus to see my brother graduate with his M.A. from the Ohio State University and then move him into his new apartment, then a week in my childhood home, including time in my childhood bedroom. Time cleaning it out.
I am a bit of a packrat. It’s hard for me to get rid of things because I always think I’ll one day want to look back on them, give them down to…somebody? The children I might have? The wife (hopefully) or friends who would inherit my possessions if I don’t? But I never have time to arrange or organize my past, my present being full of the writing, the day job, volunteering, and making new memories with the wonderful people here in Chicago. And conversations with some of those people made me realize that my mother and father, who are spending their retirement remodeling our home into what they have always wanted it to be, could do even more without all of this stuff of mine taking up space.
So I turned up the fans in the midst of humid Midwestern weather and for the first real occasion in my life lay my entire past out.
For the better part of two days, I went through drawers and bookshelves and cabinets and cupboards and closets, turning over all that was mine, some of which is no longer mine, some of which will find a yet-to-be-determined place in Chicago.
There were books, some of which I never read and now know I had no desire to read, scrounged from years plowing through the used bookstores of Boston and Los Angeles. There were cassettes—remember those? I don’t even have a cassette PLAYER anymore—including the tape my father made with Rubber Soul on one side and Revolver on the other that kind of changed my life. There were way too many compact discs, some bought on whims, some carrying music that still runs through my head every minute of the day. These were all given away after the pick of the litter was transferred to my MacBook. One of my birthday or Christmas gifts this year will be a backup external hard drive…and yes, there was a backup external hard drive in my room as well! Except it is from 2004 and is no longer compatible with any computer systems, meaning my files from the Intro to Media Production class are all but irretrievable. Probably a good thing, I was but a learner back then. I do wish I could have gotten the 16mm film and soundtrack reels transferred to another format. Those were my first stabs at fully realizing my storytelling in public, and I have nothing but fond memories of making them, to the point where I am still Facebook friends with my collaborators on those projects even though we now sometimes have nothing in common. The experience weighs too strongly with me.
All my graduation cards from high school were sacked up neatly. I wondered why I had saved them so long…flipping through them, looking at the signatures and well wishes of people I have not seen in years and may never see or speak to again. Perhaps that was enough of a reason to save them.
A few plastic bags tucked in a cupboard alongside an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer box set, all of that itself under the shelf where I once kept my Sega Genesis and later N64, held an assemblage of documents, some terribly faded: plane tickets, admission tickets, brochures, maps, postcards, scribbled baseball scorecards, all of them from the fall of 2004 and my semester in the Netherlands, my first time truly well away from home and my first time admitting to some essential elements of my character, chiefly my sentimentality, that I’d wanted to keep hidden.
My freshman year Honors Program thesis. My senior thesis. The really lame Spaghetti Western knockoff screenplay that was part of my senior thesis. (Want to read thirty straight pages of people firing guns at each other in Scottsdale? Here’s your chance!) My notebook from Tracey Stark’s “Ethics and Justice” seminar, which I decided to save because I don’t know if any other course has introduced me to majority of the values I try to defend in my life. Programs from Trinity Church in Copley Square, where I introduced myself to the Episcopal faith.
Movie tickets and business cards collected over my years in Los Angeles, including a multitude of restaurants that are probably closed and the 2007 AFI Film Festival program, with gala screenings of Lions for Lambs, Juno, and Love in the Time of Cholera. Other programs, all of them for festivals and theatrical events my friends took part in.
And tucked into a yellow folder, the first complete draft of An Elegy for Amelia Johnson, printed in miniscule type and covered in my handwritten notes on how to move these panels here, punch up this bit of dialogue, polish off the story’s rougher edges, make the characters come more to life.
That was, of course, only part of my week home. I spent quality time with my brother, who I am so fortunate to have gotten closer to with the passing years and who makes me think about how I live in new and challenging ways.
I had dinner with my grandmother, now aged ninety-five, who told me stories of her life I had never heard before and which friends in Chicago proclaimed to be “badass.”
There was a Rostan family dinner when some of our extended clan came in from out of town. Imagine a gathering of people where nobody shares the same political opinions and things have a chance of boiling over. They never do because we love each other too much.
And of course, plenty of time with my parents, watching movies, tasting wines, and me realizing that as I keep getting older, every conversation carries an unconsciously asked question on my part and an unconsciously given answer on theirs.
(This culminated in my father driving me to the Pittsburgh airport, a journey we have taken a multitude of times. He does not like Bruce Springsteen…in retrospect, me convincing the family to see the Boss and the E Street Band live in 2009 was an incredible/incredulous feat…and at one point during the drive, after I had done all of what you have just read about, I asked him to leave a particular Springsteen song on the radio. We drove through the Pennsylvania hills and tears were streaming down my face as we listened to “Independence Day.” Either he didn’t notice or he pretended not to notice, and I’m grateful for both possibilities.)
When I think about how I can have these conversations, how I can come to believe so easily things I never considered and strongly disagree with others, and feel confident that I can back these ideas up, I think about books written for a younger person full of simplistic, incomplete versions of the truth, and papers full of poorly developed ideas by a collegian who felt he knew far more than he did.
I have grown. I have changed. And, judging by the boxes I donated to Goodwill and the two garbage bags tossed, I, as Mr. Stewart sang, am not the kind to live in the past.
And as I write this, I know while I, and no one, can live in the past, we must live with it. My cleansing process provided me some personal moments of clarity, but in other ways, this retrospection can definitely serve good and ill purposes.
I think about events of the nine preceding days, of how sometimes the weight of a past of failure, of generations upon generations seeing greatness slip away in an instant but who kept taking their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, to sporting contests, can dramatically increase the euphoric relief when one victory ends a drought. And how memories of a past that walks a line between truth and mythology, of the idea of regaining an independent, powerful, and lilywhite time, can alter our minds to the point where the past is used as motivation for action, only to find, perhaps too late, that all is more complicated than they wanted to think.
My own morals and values, my point of view, is shaped by the past, what I have done and what I have learned. And the continuing challenge I face with each new day is to walk the necessary negotiable line between clinging to what I know from the past…and being cognizant of the future and what increasingly appears to be right, just, and sustainable…and finding the place where those two meet so I may live in the present and do the best I can in the present.
And sometimes doing the best I can means taking a concrete action to not live in the past…which coincidentally doubles as doing a good deed for your parents.
If only all of my life was so win-win.
Though continuing that negotiation makes me perceive the day it will be.