Every morning I take the dogs for their walk through our neighborhood in Irvine, California. It’s the most peaceful hour of my day, as I stroll through the tree lined streets, birds chirping, tranquil blue skies overhead punctuated with an occasional fluffy white cloud. Sunshine filters gently through the leaves as my goldens take in the bouquet of scents, tails wagging in their eagerness to experience the sights and sounds and smells of a new day.
As we pass a house on the corner, I am overwhelmed by the memories triggered by the smells from their kitchen. It’s freshly made dal, with hing and garlic fried in ghee, the pungent aroma an unmistakable throwback to my childhood in Marredpally. I stand still, taking in deep lungfuls of memory, transported to a blissful time when life was carefree. The mere smell of dal is all it takes to propel me through time and space, no fancy technology needed. It takes a moment for me to break free and continue my walk and as I do I wonder about the power of memory.
So many wise men tell us to live in the moment and not to dwell either on the past or the future. But what is so wrong about dwelling on pleasant memories? The dal doesn’t cause me grief or suffering, it merely reminds me of my country, my childhood, my culture and my family. What’s so bad about that? I can see my grandmother’s smiling face as she serves us lunch, I am back in the sunny afternoons on Road No. 7, surrounded by family and comfort and pleasure.
But that I realize, is exactly the problem. I can’t be two places at once. If I am back in that time and place, then I am no longer in the present. I can no longer appreciate the soft air on my skin, the leaves glistening in the sunshine, the joyful rolling of my fur babies on the lush green lawn. I am no longer gratefully taking in the blessings of the moment, imprisoned instead in a distant time that is long gone.
It occurs to me that even when I really was in that past, I was a teenager with my head in the clouds, constantly dreaming of a future where all my wishes would come true. While I do remember some of the sensory details of food and smiles and colors, I was not fully present even then. If I were, perhaps I would have spoken more kindly to my grandmother, listened more attentively to the stories she told me. Perhaps I would have noticed the occasional sadness in her eyes and done more to cheer her up when she felt the pains and isolation of old age. Now she is gone and it is too late.
If I were fully present, I would have been grateful for my youth and my boundless energy and for the blessings of caring parents, a beautiful home, the opportunity to receive an education, and siblings with whom I could share my joys and sorrows. Instead, I spent those years longing for a future where I would be happy, free, in love, with a dream husband who would fulfill all my wishes, and a home of my own.
While age and experience have taught me to appreciate the here and now, I still catch myself as I did today drifting off into a past made rosy by time and distance, or an ephemeral future that holds the key to perfect peace and happiness. I see now why that is discouraged by the wise. Memory is a prison that holds us captive, unable to be fully in the present moment, which is all we have, all we have ever really had. We can live our entire lives engrossed in the past or gazing into the future and all our present moments will have been lost to us, moments when we can actually live our best lives, helping, loving and caring for each other and for the world around us.
I come home and call my mother, eager to let her know I am thinking of her. I text my son to wish him a happy day at work. The avocado toast I make for lunch after my walk is far superior to the ghost dal of my childhood, simply because it is here in front of me, and I have the sense to appreciate every creamy, crunchy mouthful. I see the green of the avocado and the white of the alfalfa sprouts, I taste the tang of the lemon and feel the crunch of the hemp seeds. I realize the present is a delicious gift and we need to savor its freedom in every bite.