Our past prepares us for now
“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last for which the first was made …” begins the poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra” by Robert Browning. Meanwhile, his wife, Elizabeth, immortalized their relationship in her poem, “How Do I Love Thee?” which is an exquisite expression of love, and how it can change a life.
The couple met when Elizabeth was 38 and Robert was 34. After a courtship carried on primarily through letters, they married secretly in 1846, and Elizabeth ran away with Robert to live with him in Italy. Her tyrannical father disowned her – the family was fabulously wealthy from Jamaican rum and slaveholdings, and he thought Robert was a gold digger. The Brownings had a son in 1848.
Elizabeth died in 1861 after a brilliant literary career that, for a time, eclipsed her husband’s – she was considered for the post of England’s poet laureate after the death of William Wordsworth. Robert died in 1889.
“Rabbi Ben Ezra” was published in the collection of poems Dramatis Personae in 1864. Very briefly, it says that, whatever has come before in our lives is but a prelude to what our lives are, and will be.
How many of us have had some event in our histories that we can point to as a crossroad, such as that the Brownings experienced? For most of us, it is hard to think of our past as merely leading us to something even more important. And yet, there is a germ of truth here, whatever our experiences.
For me, I have reason to find some contentment in what I assess are my accomplishments after a life spanning eight decades. And yet, and yet … I know that the things I cherish as worthwhile are known best only by me. There are no plaques or monuments, no citations, few remembrances of my name. The physical evidence of my passage lies in the offspring I contributed to bringing into being. They, every one of them, are self-made, the products of the sum total of their individual efforts to which I can make only a small claim.
Truly, for most of us still around to gaze at life’s battlefield, all we have is what we can make of the day that lies ahead. We can take pleasure in the comfort of a leisurely day in the sun. We can intervene in the life of someone near and dear, or even a stranger, and try to help. We can become active on an issue of public import that we have in the past supported in our minds alone. Given our life experience at any moment in time, we have appreciations and understandings we never could have had before that time, even though our past is what led us to where and who we are.
Like Robert Browning, I do have a momentous event in my life to announce from the rooftops. And I take full credit for being an important party to the life-changing event. Truly, for me, it was “the last for which the first was made.”
For most of us, the lives we arrange do not turn out as we hoped. For example, we all seek relationships in which we can love and be loved in return. Regardless of the positive outcomes that come from pursuing these relationships in good faith, our aspirations are not always fully met.
I was entranced by a creature of the opposite sex in my teenage years, but a lack of self-confidence and courage prevented me from advancing my offering. We both passed on to other partners, and I did not seriously develop a plan of action until I reached widowerhood at the age of 70, some 55 years later. Knowing my intended was also unattached, after planning my approach, almost a year later, I strongly pressed my case. It was my good fortune that I was accepted as a marriage partner.
One does not make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear without a good deal of re-engineering. We have now been together for more than 12 years, a period of learning by both parties.
What’s happening at your house?
Max Roytenberg is a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.