The smallest of things have the strongest effects on me. Once, it was a stranger holding a door open for me, once it was the slow smile that spread across the face of a beloved teacher upon seeing me, most days I find the words or actions of one of my daughters to be incredibly powerful, sometimes it’s a stubborn character or chapter in a book that won’t leave me in peace, sometimes its the sight of our church with its peaceful comfort that robs me (momentarily) of speech, hugs are often thought-provoking to me too, once, it was the face of a stranger driving the car stopped at a red light beside mine—these small, seemingly insignificant events that all of us have multiple times a day rewind like broken records in my mind, demanding evaluation, until I give in and use the written word to examine it. Today, the simple act of flying a Strawberry Shortcake kite moved me in powerful ways, even encouraged and comforted me.

Flying a kite is something I never did growing up. Upon reflection, I can’t think of a single time in my childhood where we took a kite and successfully flew it. Breathe was born before I ever attempted (unsuccessfully, I might add) kite-flying. Each summer, the weather turns bright and beautiful, and the girls and I inevitably go to one of our city’s wonderful parks. Inevitably, there are some grown-ups flying kites, creating for me an image that seems to have been plucked straight from one of my novels. I always smile and determine to buy a kite.

I finally did it. Wal-Greens had a Strawberry Shortcake kite for $4. My girls both love Strawberry Shortcake, and I loved the idea of flying a kite. So home with me the kite went. And, for two days, we have successfully flown a high-flying kite. I was so excited—and Breathe was too, once it finally took to the wind and she was able to hold the line and run with it. She thought it was really neat. So did Alight. I did to: indeed, I felt as though I was smack dab in the middle of some sort of fairy tale. Most of the time, it flew straight and held nicely but, then, shortly before the inevitable tree branch popped a hole in our fairy tale, a huge gust of wind picked it up and that kite dipped and did a full 360 turn — in the middle of the air, without ever touching the ground. It spun around in a full, upside down circle, before resuming its steady hold of the wind. It did this circle spin a full three times.

That upside down circle might as well have been a wrapped present for me.

The first time it did it, I just briefly thought, “Cool! It didn’t fall to the ground! Girls, did you see that?” The second time it did it, my brain began shouting warning signals at me to pay attention, the kind of bells that go off when someone says something I know I’m going to have to steal for use as a line in a novel. The third time it did it, I thought, “It’s like the past.”

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve read quotes or status updates about how it’s best not to look in the past, how we’re not supposed to let the past influence our present, about how the purpose of the past is to gain wisdom, to keep us from committing the same mistakes in the future, but that to dwell in it is to, in essence, lose our present (and future). I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been told, subliminally or directly, by everything from the TV to Facebook to quotes I like, that we have the choice of whether we’re going to let the past define us or if we’re going to choose to let our future be whatever we want it to be. I always smile and nod whenever I hear or read such comments. They’re optimistic and who can fault optimism?

I don’t know, however, that I find such comments to be particularly helpful, comforting or even realistic. I’m of the belief that the past determines the type of person we are destined to become. Even the Bible says, “Train a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it” while a genius in the psychology field once made an extraordinarily controversial claim: “Give me seven babies to raise and I can make each baby become whatever I want him to be.” As bold and arrogant as that comment is, it is also probably accurate. Childhood defines most of us, whether we wish it to be that way or not. The values that we end up holding dear are set in childhood (at least, most of them). Now, this is not to say we can’t change aspects of who we are. It’s not to say that we can’t improve upon the failures of the past. Of course, we can. There are many abused children who grow up to become exemplary parents because they can’t stand the idea of hurting a child in the way they were hurt. There are many children whose parents were drug addicts or alcoholics who grow up to despise such substances because they are afraid it may have the same effect on them that it had on their parents. There are stories of children raised in poverty who knew that the only way to break the cycle was to avoid gangs and embrace education. In other words, for every stereotype, there are the exceptions, the extraordinary, the brave and the wise. Be that as it may be, however, even for the ones who defy logic, the past influences what they care about.

The other night, I watched a new show called “Undercover Boss,” where the CEO of Roto Rooter went undercover in his own company. He worked the fields. At the conclusion to each show, the CEO rewards the exemplary employees with substantial gifts. One of the employees who “trained” him in the field work was a recovering alcoholic who spoke freely of his dependency and his time in rehabilitation. This guy moved the CEO to tears because his own father had been an alcoholic who never recovered. At one point, the CEO’s wife said, “He was what made you who you are today” and, at the end, the employee’s “gift” was being invited to travel to different offices of the company to speak about his alcoholism and recovery period. The point? The CEO was a sober and successful businessman who, by his own words, had not considered his father in many years; yet, all it took was one man’s story of dependency to bring back painful memories and tears. Regardless of how “successful” we are at overcoming our past, it is always at our shoulders, ready with a memory at the slightest encouragement. We can run from the past, we can confront it, we can overcome it with degrees and marriages and stability and all the things which define for us “happiness”, but we cannot “beat” or outrun it. It is a part of us. It is the reason we cherish the things we deeply cherish and resent the things we resent. It is the stuff many of our dreams are made out of, good or bad.

I’ve often been accused of looking into the past too much, of giving it too much credit and power. But when the kite did its full circle, it touched me deeply because it reminded me that, perhaps, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. To remember the events which influenced us to such an extent that it shaped many of our beliefs and our values is to respect it. It doesn’t give us the right to pity ourselves or to demand pity from others. It doesn’t give us the right to adopt a victim’s mentality. But to remember it, and to never lose sight of it, is simply to acknowledge that it was important and that it shaped who we are. There is nothing wrong with that.

The kite did not even touch the ground when it did its circle. This is important. It didn’t crash. But it looked down. We don’t have to crash, either, we don’t have to look back only to seep into depression over events which are years removed from us. We don’t have to give freedom to the fear and the anxiety that the worst of childhoods may still inspire. But looking back and examining it may provide us with understanding: if I can understand why I’m afraid, or why I have a hard time trusting or allowing myself to relax, then I remember that those reasons are no longer applicable. I can lift my nose in the air and began to pull myself up, just like the kite did today. Giving power to the past isn’t a dangerous or bad thing, in and of itself. It serves to remind us of the people in our lives who were once important, it serves to remind us of the lessons from our childhood which we need not forget, and it gives us insight into the reasons why we act the way we do.

I recently read a book that was absolutely horrendous, with extremely few redeeming qualities. Still, in the book, was a sentence that said, “to be part of my family was to live in the past” and it went on to talk about that being the reason the family protected characteristics that more modern day families have allowed to fade. People speak of “living in the past” as a bad thing but, so long as we don’t allow the past to dictate how we live today, living in the past is merely an extension of the present. For me, personally, my past reminds me that violence accomplishes nothing. This is a lesson worth remembering — even if I have to revisit the past sometimes to remember it. My past teaches me that repetition promotes learning and so I have no problem repeating things that, without the knowledge that my past brings me, would seem tedious and mundane. My past teaches me that family is critical. My mother used to tell me and my sister a thousand times a week, “she’s your sister and she’s the only best friend you will ever have.” Now, I find myself realizing how true it is that there isn’t a friend like a sibling and I’ve heard my own mouth repeat the line to my own daughters who are far too young to care at the moment.

People think that we should just take the lessons and leave the rest of the past in the past. But that would mean attempting to forget intense pain, and true joy. For me, whenever I’ve been told, “Just forget it. It’s not important anymore. It’s not right now,” I feel so confused. How am I supposed to forget events that, by their occurrence, deeply wounded me and left me with scars that effect my present day life? How am I supposed to forget my high school, which was perhaps the happiest place of my childhood, and all the teachers who were kind to me? What’s wrong with reliving and re-telling past events as they occur to us, as long as we don’t allow ourselves to get trapped by them? We can examine the past and choose to accept or let go of any tradition, or behavior, that we find inappropriate for our modern lives. I can look back and say with certainty that I will not allow my daughters to be moved from home to home to home like nomads — yet I can also recount my own nomadic llifestyle and say that it taught me how to be open-minded toward people who are different from me; it taught me to value stability, it allowed me to see and experience places many people only dream of. As an adult, then, I am able to acknowledge that the nomadic lifestyle left some positives in my character that I am proud of today but that the damaging pain of instability and lack of friends and extended family was worse: the risks outweigh the benefit so my girls will know one home alone. That doesn’t keep me from remembering traveling and living in motels and in the back of the car, or at a KOA campground. That doesn’t keep me from remembering all the different kinds of schools I attended. I remember them, I talk about them, but I choose not to accept that lifestyle any longer.

Take worse memories.

Are there parts of my character that are positive but that were shaped by traumatizing events between my dad and I? Yes. I communicate well with children. I love volunteering. And two big ones: I know for a fact God is real and I learned to write. These are huge positives in my life. I know I would have believed in God regardless because of my mother. But I’m not sure I would have had as many real experiences with the Holy Spirit at such young ages if I hadn’t really been in need. I may have eventually learned to write, but I’m not sure that it would have ever become as important to me as it is today. Yet, the damaging effects of that pain also results in nightly insomnia or night terrors. It results in consequences for my personal relationships, especially concerning intimacy. It results in shame that is unspeakable and yet hard to pinpoint. It results in the efficiency of withdrawal. So, I have a choice. I can take the memories and live the best I can with them, which is what many, many people do. There is nothing wrong with this. Or, I can take them and channel them out; talk about them in the only way I can. There is nothing wrong with this either.

In other words, looking back, revisiting the past, even walking in it, is not a bad thing. Memories of the past can bring great solace. It can teach valuable lessons. It can serve as a call to action (as it does for me; hence, the writings and the volunteerism). Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember that. I think I’m “supposed” to get caught up in the present and the future. But living in the present is failing to acknowledge and consciously choose to remember foundational events that shaped me into the person I am today. Accepting myself, then, can only come after accepting and re-visiting the past.

After it dipped towards the ground, the kite curved sideways, then tilted skyward; then it flew itself back high into the air. Much like we can do. We can dip downwards, we can walk in the past for whatever reason we need and for however long we need. Isn’t it possible, after all, that after doing so, the joys of the present and the opportunities of the future, can make us soar that much higher?

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