I had been considered a lot of things in my life but for the first time in my 100 years, I was a time traveler. I walked out on the moonlit deck behind the house with an envelope nearly as old as I was. It was still crisp and white thanks to the plastic sleeve it had been kept in all these years. I took a seat on a chair beneath a brilliant expanse of stars that seemed to always be there and then smiled, laughing at the fact that they were hundreds of light years away and probably hadn't even been there at all, not as I saw them my entire life.
Everyone always imagines time traveling to take some sort of machine or vehicle, but that night I had bridged the great divide of 72 years of space-time more gracefully than the Tesseract, using just the contents of just that envelope to have a conversation that had been waiting for nearly a century. I ran my fingers over its corners and edges. I had known how to time travel for years but was waiting for this moment. I had written a letter to myself for my 100th birthday and now that the family had left, the cake had been divided and devoured, and my sweet wife of 82 years was fast asleep, I was ready to finish what I had started.
I took a deep breath and broke the glue seal on the envelope and pulled out a single sheet of paper. I marveled at how the sheet was so neatly folded and tried to recall how I felt the day I folded it, but I couldn't get a clear picture. I knew the catalyst was still inside, the magic of the words would transport me back in time.
Upon opening it, the first thing I saw was the date: April 21, 2018. Now, some might imagine the feeling of time traveling to be gradual or spontaneous, that it may feel like every atom is ripping apart or perhaps completely painless and instantaneous, but that's not how it feels at all. Instead, it feels effortless and gradual, just as the water flowing from the small fountain in the middle of the deck.
We spend our whole lives trying to be something and somebody that we miss who we've been the whole time.
My eyes scrolled to the now full open sheet and the memory of the past completely saturated the space between my ears. What would you write to your 100-year-old self? Would you fill every inch of the page with thoughts and questions or memories you may have forgotten? I didn't. I simply wrote three questions:
Inside the envelope I also included a photograph of me standing with my pregnant wife and five children. I was smart for as young as I was, I knew that I didn't need to fill the envelop with pages and pages of endless reminders or questions that at the time couldn't be answered or replied to. I knew that by just asking those three questions and including that picture that I would be able to bring myself back. Everything I ever knew or existed as a memory in my mind, and no sooner had I taken my eyes off the picture, I saw my younger self sitting in the chair across from me with the softly flowing fountain between us.
“I look great for a hundred,” he said. It made me laugh because people had always told me how great I looked for my age and that I must have found the fountain of youth. I guess it was because he said “I” instead of “you.”
I just smiled and replied, “Thank you.”
At my age, I imagined I would be like the wise teacher before the young rambunctious student. I had often thought about this day and how different I would be from my former self; how he would be young and restless and cocky and wrong about so much. I had learned so much in an entire lifetime; surely, I would finally know everything and be able to answers the questions of the past. This is why I was surprised at the feeling I had as my eyes grazed over the first question.
“Did you live your dreams?” he asked.
I looked at him and he looked the same as I had so many years ago. I smiled and said the first thing that came to mind. “I think so. I've married the woman of my dreams, had a bunch of kids and grand-kids, I've written books and I've defeated the struggle for survival.”
He just stared at me.
“But I'm surprised,” I continued, “that now at 100, my desire hasn't gone away but now there's nothing in particular I want.”
He smiled, “Remember what Hafiz said: 'Once all of your desires are distilled you will have but two choices: to love more and be happy.'”
I smiled knowing that he was right. “That's exactly it. We live our whole lives chasing dreams. We want to do so many things, have so many things and be so many things. We don't realize until a lot of time passes that often the anticipation of whatever we were chasing is better than the thing itself. We spend so much time trying to be somebody that we overlook who we even are.”
“So, you've lived your dreams then?” he asked again.
“I would say I have, and I am choosing to not only love more, but also be happy.”
We sat for a couple of minutes in silence, the only sound between us was the relaxing lapping of the fountain. I assumed that since he was a projection of my mind that he knew everything I knew and saw what I saw, so he would be asking the questions on the page without any provocation from me. He just stared at the fountain. It was a simple fountain that consisted of three large rocks stacked in the center of a big bowl which caught the water and recycled it back through tubing up through the center of the rocks to endlessly flow, never to run out and never to stop.
“So, do you think you've loved enough?” he finally said.
“You know, I remember writing that question down all those years ago, but to be honest I never really thought about it.” I sat for a minute thinking about what to say. “I've loved the best I could,” I finally said.
His brow furrowed. “So you don't think you could have done better? You definitely haven't been perfect, and you've hurt plenty of people over your life...made mistakes—
“Well of course I did. We all do! Everyone makes mistakes. I mean sure, there are things I wish I could have done differently but that doesn't matter now because I can't go back and change them.”
“But you're a time traveler now,” he laughed.
“Sure, we all are. Time traveling is nothing more than remembering the past or imagining the future. We can change things in our minds, even convince ourselves things never happened. But we can't do a thing about the people involved. Everything we've been through was real, but no one can remember it as it really was because we all have our own interpretations of what happened. We all see things through our own filters.”
“We share and fashion moments together,” he said.
“Yes. Do you want to know if I have any regrets? I have things I wish I could have done differently, but to me a regret is something that weighs you down, holds you back. I can't spend my life living like that—I don't have that kind of time.”
“No one does,” he smiled.
“That's right. I believe we are all doing the best we can at any moment. If we could do better, we would.”
He leaned forward. “You don't think that's true, do you? Surely, we could always do better, we just don't choose to?”
I smiled and said, “Nobody chooses pain on purpose—nobody sane anyways. So, I think we all like to think we are sane and if you hurt someone or make a mistake, it was the best you could do because no one who knows better would hurt themselves or anyone else on purpose. I like to believe that if we could have really done better, we would have.”
“Unless they're insane,” he added.
“Right, and if you were insane it wouldn't matter one way or the other would it?”
We both sat in the dark listening to the fountain. It continued to flow, and I thought about how my wife hated the sound of running water. I thought it would be nice to have a fountain in the house, but she politely informed me it would be better outside, to create a peaceful atmosphere at the back of the house. I know that she knew it made me happy but didn't want to tell me no, and we effortlessly compromised. As effortlessly as the water flows.
“Do you know why you bought this fountain?” he asked suddenly.
“What?” He had caught me off guard. “Because I like it, I guess.”
He leaned back in the chair and smiled. “It's because you aren't able to answer the last question.”
I thought about all I had been and been through in my life: a young stupid kid, a slave in the factories, a writer, a father, a husband and friend. “I've been a great many things,” I told him, “but suffice it to say I am who I am, be it a great many things.”
He smiled, “Are you any closer to knowing?”
For the first time since I had started this I wondered what the purpose was. The perplexity of the question that I had spent such a great deal of my life trying to answer still eluded me, even here in my moment of grace. What seemed worse was the fact that although I am open to life playing out as it will, this whole experience hadn't turned out anything like I imagined it would. I thought that out of any situation in life that could be controlled or predicted, an imaginary conversation in my mind would be it. I was 100-years-old, wise and charismatic, and I would be teaching the immature bratty youth that was my former self the lessons of life that I had mastered.
I had it all figured out, I thought. I closed my eyes and said, “No, I'm not closer to knowing.” To amazement as I opened them, he was gone.
I sat for a while wondering what just happened. I waited for so many years to finish this silly little project I started, this living experiential time capsule of sorts, and I couldn't. My past life was also nothing like I imagined, which left me feeling in even less control. Instead, he was the wise teacher, and I was the foolish student. And then there was the fountain. “It's because you aren't able to answer the last question,” he had said. He was right, but why?
So I stared at the fountain, watched the water, and thought. “What did he mean?” I said aloud. I stared for a while trying to think of some complicated reasoning or clever idea that could connect my identity crisis with the riddle of the fountain. “I wish I would have asked him what he meant,” I said to the running water. Then, an idea so simple and elegant wove its way into the tapestry of my thoughts and brought me relief.
Why had I done this in the first place? Surely, it wasn't about me asking my past-self questions, but the other way around. That's when it all came together. The water in the fountain never ran out and never overflowed. It was all about balance. The fact that I couldn't answer the question of who I am was because I didn't realize the balance of my being. I thought that at the end of my life I would have all the answers, that when we were born we were empty and at the end we were overflowing.
But the fountain never empties and never overflows because it is in an unending process of recreating. It was fresh and new, constantly changing and moving while at the same time staying the same. It is in perfect balance between the extremes of existence.
Somehow I had known this all along. I had the idea to write myself a letter, ask myself on my 100th birthday three simple but powerful questions, and along the way I managed to buy a fountain that would serve as the metaphor and reminder of the greatest truth of life. We spend our whole lives trying to be something and somebody that we miss who we've been the whole time. That truth can only be found in the balance of all things, from the mundane to the miraculous, the scientific to the spiritual, and from the personal to the universal.
I realized that I am like the fountain: never empty, and never full. But in knowing this, however, my happiness will always be overflowing.