I wrote the following essay that was published in the My Turn section of Newsweek in 1993, but the subject is as relevant today as it was then and bears repeating. You can still read this essay on The Daily Beast online here
Not All Bridges Can Be Burned
By Judy White Edelson | NEWSWEEK
I THOUGHT MY PAST didn’t mean anything. I thought things left undone, things said in haste, niceties ignored, birthdays forgotten weren’t important. I was a good person. Forgetful, over-committed, but not nasty or intentionally mean-spirited. just self-involved and excusable. I thought time flowed over these things and covered them up so they no longer existed. They were just, as the song says, “Long time passing.”
I used to laugh about my mother telling me, “That Will go on your permanent record.” I thought I had no permanent record. I was young and had a long, full lifetime in which to make mistakes and explore endless possibilities.
I meandered around for a while with drugs. Played the hippie. (I won’t tell you how many times I’ve been married, but it is more than the prerequisite American number of two.) Never was there a moment’s concern about the possibility of these events coming back to haunt me because there was no later. just now.
One day I looked around and I was 40. The next day I looked and I was 45. I look ahead and I can see 50.
Today I have a daughter of my own. I find myself weary of telling her about the dangers of foolish living based upon my personal experience. Sometimes I hold my breath when I have to put down a name on a reference list, worrying what that person may know about me. May think about me. May say about me. That comes from foolish living. I used to have the attitude that I didn’t care what other people thought about me–it was my life and I was going to live it. No one and no thing was going to dictate what I should be doing or saying, or how I ought to conduct myself.
Life wasn’t precious; it was a commodity, a vehicle, a thoughtless roaming.
I would like to add some upbeat comment, full of wisdom that says, “Oh, well, it was all worth it.” But you know what? It wasn’t all worth it. I have so much waste in my past that it almost washes away my future, making it difficult for me to use my past to go forward. It’s like reaching your hand into a big bag knowing there are gems in it but that there’s also a lot of slimy stuff you would really rather not touch.
I’m not giving advice on how to transform a rended past into a mended future, though that is possible. It has been done by many of us Mamas and Papas who now tell our beloved children the same thing our parents told their beloved children: “That will go on your permanent record.”
There is a permanent record. It lives on in the memories of all the people you have come in contact with. It lives on in your own perception of yourself, coloring and flavoring who you become, what you expect to be able to accomplish and how you live your life. Every decision you make determines your tomorrow. Your future is in your past. Or said in another way, your past is the engine that drives your future.
And if one day You decide you no longer want to be the person you have become, or live the life you are living, it is no easy task to stop all that accumulated momentum. You won’t go to bed tonight and get up tomorrow a new person. You don’t have the same option little babies have, learning to walk and talk and think for the first time; you have to learn to walk and talk and think in a new way. That accomplished, there is the pesky little problem of all those people who know you as the person you were, not the person you want to be; who through no perverse unkindness, but through expectation, keep pulling you back into the old mold.
You could, of course, just ditch all those old friends and relatives–who needs loved ones, anyway, right? You could even change your name. I know one man who changed his name three times. It must have been very confusing for him, though, because he eventually went back to the first one. Frankly, I’m still confused–every time I see him now, I can’t remember what to call him.
Let’s say you make the change, then you have what is almost an insurmountable problem: Life History. That’s the thing that keeps coming up in polite conversation, job applications and “Mommy, what did you do in the war?” Which is what my precious angel asked me one day. I honestly replied, “Oh, honey, I got stoned and missed the war.” Then I had to explain to her horrified expression that I didn’t mean people threw rocks at me until I passed out, but that I lived my life in a slow stupor, wore sandals and see-through shirts; and talked at great length, with utter conviction, about things of which I knew absolutely nothing.
The conversation took far longer than it should have and was a lot less fun, since it was then necessary to explain why getting stoned, walking around half-naked and passing judgment on things you don’t know anything about is a bad idea. You can bet from now on I’ll choose my answers more carefully.
That’s another consequence of foolish living–having to choose my words carefully. Being cautious not to reveal embarrassing elements of my past. Conversations about my college years are restricted to courses of study. Exhusbands have been transformed into “a friend I used to have” or an “old boyfriend of mine,” because I don’t want my daughter to think getting married and divorced is no big deal. I don’t want her to make the same mistakes and experience the heartache that accompanies an off-the-cuff lifestyle.
So your life history is your permanent record. You can’t shake it. You may be able to redeem it with great effort, but given my druthers, I would rather have written my permanent record with forethought and careful planning, and skipped the would’uvs, could’uvs, should’uvs.
You really can’t burn your bridges; they are there even if you change your name and move to a new address. Even if you claim you never knew you.
EDELSON, a computer consultant, lives in Miami.
© Judith White Edelson,1993