Ciara Kenny

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Leaving the past behind

Growing older is like emigrating in a way – we leave our past behind us, writes Patrick McKenna

Tue, Mar 4, 2014, 11:20


Patrick McKenna

In the summer of 2000 I turned 50, and clocked up my first quarter century in Canada. I also completed a master’s degree in education at the University of Montreal. What a change for the better that experience was from my first masters in analytical chemistry, completed in 1972 in Belfast.

One of the adult learning techniques I really enjoyed was “life and learning history”, which involves identifying key life events – good and not so good – and what you have learned from them. I went back to when I was 16, and wrote about the emergence of the Troubles, my university years, first job, emigration, life in Ontario and in Montreal. Looking back, it was this project that started me diarising.

My masters in education also helped me hang onto my career until January 2009, when the software company where I’d worked for 18 months suddenly closed its doors. At six months from my 60th birthday I was effectively decareered. The upside of this setback was having much more “me time”, some of which I applied to keeping my diary up to date.

From 2009 to 2011, I was a prolific diarist. Then in 2012, I began to slow and last year, diary entries became a real challenge. I struggled to make one per week; some weeks, I made none.

I never stopped altogether. I faithfully recorded dreams – of my parents, now deceased, my siblings or of conversations with famous people, such as, president Bill Clinton, Queen Elizabeth, or Carla Conor from Coronation Street. When I shared my dreams of famous people with my significant other, she laughed.

I diarised my everyday glimpses of the natural world: hoar frost on the trees in Park Lafontaine in winter; three separate sightings of eagles circling outside my high rise in the summer; multiple arrivals and departures of wild geese in spring and fall; a spectacular rainbow in October; and large flocks of starlings in November.

I recorded the books I read (in 2009 I went back to reading novels, something I abandoned when I chose science over English at the tender age of 16). In 2013, in the summer, I discovered Wexford-born John Banville and read most of his novels one after the other. That fall, I read Colm McCarthy’s The Road – a very dark, post-apocalyptic novel that contains a touching story of a father’s love for his son. I also diarised interesting quotes from novels, books, or the New Yorker.

That might seem like a lot of diarising, but I don’t waken from a noteworthy dream every morning, nor do I see an unusual natural phenomenon or read a book every day. What’s more, if I did see eagles, hoar frost, or rainbows every day would I still be sufficiently impressed to diarise them? And as for books, the more I read the more I raise the bar for literary noteworthiness. Habituation is the mortal enemy of diarising, and of much else. As that highly forgettable song from the late 60s puts it, “Kicks just keep getting harder to find”.

This year, to make up the word count in my diary, I may have to record more of my inner life. I am, after all, getting on. I’m a matter of months from my 65th – where does the time go? When I arrived in Canada at 25, I would have laughed at the idea that at 65 I’d still be here. The very notion of age 65 seemed a bit unreal, something that happens to others, not to me.

In just 15 years – which I consider as quite a short period – I will be 80 (assuming I survive, which is never a given). I have all sorts of questions for my diary: Will I be alone? Will I be healthy? Will I still possess my cognitive faculties?

Although the future’s not mine to see, in the here and now, things like career, money, sex, and my roots increasingly resemble countries I have left, or am in the process of leaving. Where once I thought of myself as an emigrant from my native place, I am increasingly an emigrant from that country I call the past.

The upside of this process of existentially moving on is that I know I will be a “model emigrant”. I feel not the slightest trace of homesickness for my past. Diarising, I am sure, has helped steer me away from the nets of nostalgia. That benefit alone is, I think, well worth the effort of keeping on with my diary.

Patrick McKenna is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read his previous articles about feeling lonely at Christmas time, becoming ‘at home’ in Montreal, letting go of his ‘Irish’ identity, getting ‘that call’ when abroad, living with homesickness for 34 years, and 10 things to consider when moving abroad.