(watch from 1:30 if you wanna go straight to the song, “Happy Birthday” by Auktyon)
Birthdays are a natural place in the year to be thinking about time, and especially about time compared to the length of a human lifespan. And so, I want to retell a story my mom told me when she called me on my birthday.
Thirty or so years ago, mom was on a 20 day-long trekking expedition in the Urals. One of the other people on the expedition was a girl named M. Now 20 days is a long time to be trekking. Mom left her toothbrush case to make her load lighter – M. brought a guitar. M. played at night by the campfires. Mountaineering songs, “не обещайте деве юной любови вечной на земле” (‘Don’t promise to the young maiden/love eternal on the earth’), that kind of stuff. Now, midway through the trip, the group were supposed to be resupplied with food etc. by a local guide. The guide came on his routine drop-off, saw M., eyes dark, singing by the fire, and didn’t leave until the end of the trip. He was in love, and soon she was, too. M. and the guide decided to get married. M. went back home to Moscow and told her mother. Her mother said M. was crazy and would have none of it. The guide was clearly a bad match, but M. was adamant, even vowing that, if needed, she’d move to Syktyvkar. But, even though M. wrote him, but the guide did not write back. M. spent months worrying and crying, feeling betrayed and heartbroken. All she ever got was some sort of official notice months later that the guide was in some trouble for missing work when he decided to join up with the trekking expedition. And that was it. Later, M. became an art student and last mom saw her was when she led Mom and Dad on a tour of her favourite things in the Hermitage. M. got married and had a daughter. M.’s daughter went on a trip to Paris, and met a Parisian kid. She came back to Moscow and told M. that she was going to get married. M. was against it – the kid was clearly a terrible match. But, what can you do? It was love, and M.’s daughter married and moved to Paris.
M.’s mother then asked M.: – but why didn’t you stop her?
– But how could I? It’s up to her in the end, isn’t it?
– Well, I stopped you, didn’t I?
– No, what did you do to stop me? It’s just that he didn’t write.
– But of course he wrote!
M. was shocked, of course. But her mother then asked whether, having lived those thirty or so years, M. thinks her mother did the wrong thing. And, after reflection, M. said that on balance, no, she didn’t.
This is a particularly good story for birthday thoughts, because it is all about the timescales of human thinking. People often subdivide things into “short-term” and “long-term” – short-term M. suffered, but long-term it turned out for the best – but it’s actually not that simple. I feel kind of dirty speculating about the life of a private person about whom I know nothing, so let’s talk in the abstract. What privileges a person’s later viewpoint over an earlier one? And at what point does a later viewpoint get the gravity of the long term? Something that seems horrible short-term, turns out to be good long-term, say for your job prospects. But even longer-term, it turns out that your job prospects at that point were totally irrelevant to your later life. At this point, how do you value the short-term suffering against the longer period of reassurance, against the latest realization that both seem equally unrelated to yourt current life and prospects? In general, my viewpoint is that people, and I personally, do too much medium-term thinking. I just read “Possession” – which, by the way, is very gripping, totally unexpected in a book that is like the perfect intersection of things I’m not even slightly interested in: Victorian England and modern lit-crit – and that is a book that does a good job of tackling this question of different layers of “the long-term”. Something to think about on those days of the year when we think about time.
By the way, I only put this here because I am pretty sure neither M. nor the guide are reading this. To have your love story retold and cheapened by some idiot you don’t even know is probably the worst fate in the world, like in “The Admiralty Spire”. I am sorry if you are reading this. Let me know and I will immediately take this post down.