This holiday season, think of time like a river


Here we are celebrating our second holiday season in the midst of a pandemic and all I can think about is what life was like before we worried about masking, vaccines and hand sanitizer. Travel back in time to Christmas 2019. Ask yourself, would you warn people about what was coming? Would you enjoy the holiday get-togethers more if you knew that people you loved would not be there in 2021?

My naïve, optimistic, hopeful time travel dream bubble was burst listening to the radio one day. A prominent scientist, when asked if time travel was ever going to be possible, answered with an emphatic, “no!” But these stories of time travel beguiled me. From H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” and the original “Star Trek” to recent creations like “Outlander,” “Dr. Who” and “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” the ability to travel through space and time mesmerized me.

While I was pondering the impossibility of time travel, I realized we humans innately possessed the ability all along. What are dreams and memories but the way we reimagine past and future through time and space? Two examples that immediately came to mind, especially dear to us at this time of year, were Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Both imagine the past and future through dreams and memory. Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey are forced to confront the world without them while they grapple with their egos and fears to transform themselves to better lives. A large part of why these stories are so dear to us is because they teach us the value of memory, but more importantly, to treasure the here and now. In current language, they’re teaching us to be mindful and to live in the moment.

But for me, there is a lesson best exemplified in a particular scene from the movie “Peggy Sue Got Married.” Modern day Peggy Sue has fainted and in her unconscious state begins to relive her senior high school year. On this ordinary day at home, she answers the telephone in the kitchen. After the usual greetings, the caller states, “it’s Grandma.” Peggy drops the phone as if it has momentarily shocked her, picks it up again, and says “I’m sorry” while her perplexed mother takes it and begins to speak into the receiver. After hanging up, her mother asks why she is behaving so strangely and Peggy Sue explains that she dreamed Grandma was dead. “Is Grandpa OK?” she asks next. (Check out the scene on YouTube)

It’s both the restrained intensity of Kathleen Turner’s acting and the dialogue in this scene that always brings me to tears. What is it about this scene that seared it into my memory? Is it because we don’t treasure the people in front of us until it’s too late? How many of us would love to hear the voice of a dear someone who is long gone? Last night I dreamed I heard my mother’s voice. She died in 2012. As my dream hopped through time and memory, in that moment, she was real. Thank you for that gift to me, Kathleen Turner.

The more I thought about the meaning of time and people in our lives I came to love the idea of time as a river. Imagine each person we encounter during a lifetime as a small stream feeding into our wide tranquil river. Some days the water is calm and smooth as glass with sunlight reflecting off the surface. Other times it’s threatening, full of rapids and dark water. Major life events, like the death of a spouse, are huge waterfalls along the way, but just when you get scared, the current carries you forward.

Life events and tragedies impede us for a while, but time keeps moving forward just like that river. We can stop and look back, but we can’t change what’s been. As the philosopher Soren Kirkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

As a new year dawns and we look back at where we’ve been, think forward to all the streams feeding into your river. Take strength from those you gather with this holiday season and feed strength into one another’s lives. Honor the past while preparing for the coming year. Keep your rivers flowing but stop to help strangers you encounter on the banks. I wish you all a very healthy and happy new year as we together face challenges still to come.

Mary Curran is now enjoying retirement in State College after a fulfilling career as a medical laboratory scientist. This column is coordinated by, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

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