Revisiting the Past

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Untitled

Have you ever wished that you could go back to a particular moment and make changes? I’d still like to alter the outcome of a confrontation with an eighth grade teacher, a nun who grimly asserted that my soul’s destination was hell. I have more resources now, better counterarguments. I wish that I could take back a change up I threw that same year. The batter expected the pitch, cranked his bat, and hit a walk-off home run. If only I could return to the mound and throw a fastball up and in. Also wish I hadn’t engaged in quite a few pointless arguments with my wife. I understand, now, finally, that many disagreements meant nothing in the long run.

I’m not sure whether things would improve if I could interfere with my past, however. Unexpected consequences multiply in most time travel stories. Change one crucial decision, and a life suffers radical transformations.

I’ve recently come down with an older artist’s malady: the need to revise paintings once considered finished. I used to let flawed paintings go seeing them as stepping stones to better work. A growing accumulation of stepping stones fills up two racks in my studio, however. I’ve begun to paint over the weakest and to revise near misses. Why make new pieces when old ones still cry out for help?

Albert Pinkham Ryder, an American painter active in the late 19th and early 20th century, reworked his paintings obsessively near the end of his career. He stopped his beginnings and relentlessly edited the past. But Albert used suspect materials and improper techniques. He worked in numerous thick layers, and paid no attention to how well a prior layer had dried before applying varnish and fresh paint. His canvases began to grow lumps,, cracks, blots and fuzzy patches soon after he died. The current state of his work barely resembles photos taken in 1920. As years go on, his oeuvre self-erases.

Perhaps the trick lies in knowing when to swim with the tide and when to fight the current. Sometimes it’s best to flow forward with time. Sometimes reparations for past mistakes must be offered. My standard is to try to make things better when I can, and to let the irrecoverable go.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Macbeth and the Witches