The Art of Dwelling on the Past

There’s a stretch of Interstate 26, just south of Asheville, NC, when you can feel the car kick into a higher gear as you start the incline up the mountains. The air smells of moss and mold and the sky drops down to surround you. I found myself back on this familiar stretch of road a few weeks ago, as I traveled to a conference center for a speaking engagement. I would never have returned to this region by choice, but as I felt my engine rev up that same slope of asphalt, my gut told me I’d been brought back to this place for a reason.

When I tell people that I used to live in Asheville, they usually comment on how lovely it must have been to live there. I nod in agreement while cringing internally, because despite the city’s majestic beauty, that’s not how it’s been filed in my memory. My family’s brief chapter in Asheville was written on dark pages with black ink and my eyes have often strained to understand it. Though I’ve gone back to reread the chapter, to try to make sense of the difficult circumstances that unfolded on its pages, I’ve had no desire to physically revisit the place, or any mountain town, for that matter.

God has this outrageous sense of humor, which sometimes makes me laugh and usually pisses me off. As I was leaving the retreat center to head home, I was unaware that Siri was navigating my route directly past the old turnoff to my brother’s school. As I drove past the landmark, I suddenly got my bearings and realized where I was. The past came into present focus and I had to pull to the side of the road to take a breath. I decided to turn off the navigation on my phone and let my intuition guide me.

I passed the little Greek restaurant where my boyfriend had taken me on Valentine’s Day. I passed the stretch of road where I ran out of gas while The Smashing Pumpkins played on the radio. I passed the gas station where my best friend puked in the back seat of my brother’s car, after chugging a bottle of Glen Ellen Chardonnay. I passed the weird Presbyterian church we attended a few times. I drove by my old house. The yard was still overgrown. I drove by my old high school, which was smaller than I remembered.

There’s this unspoken fear that the past will devour us if we get too close to it. A friend of mine likens it to the game “Hungry Hippo,” where we are the little marbles, rolling around like vulnerable prey to the ravenous jaws of the past. All attention must be geared towards avoiding this place and the emotional pain that still festers there. But what if something else is true?


What if the old story you’ve been telling yourself isn’t true anymore?

There’s an artfully crafted video that describes the experience of revisiting our past. The narrator, John Koenig, says, “The ink never really dries on any of our experiences. They can change their meaning the longer you look at them. There are ways of thinking about the past that aren’t just nostalgia or regret, a kind of questioning that enriches an experience after the fact. To dwell on the past is to allow fresh context to trickle in over the years and fill out the picture.”

As I drove back through the town that housed some pretty bad memories of my high school years, I was surprised to find that it was strangely gratifying. It’s taken over twenty years for me to be able to revisit this space, but I am realizing that now, as an adult, I have the capacity to reframe those memories in a new context, one that fits into a much bigger picture than I was able to perceive at the time the story was happening.

In my mind, the past has been a place where the ink is dry and the walls are closing in, but now I know that it’s much more fluid and expansive if we allow it to be. Maybe, as poet Mark Nepo says, when we unravel the story we’ve been telling ourselves, we discover the story we are actually in.

It feels good to loosen your grip. The road we never planned on traveling is usually the most beautiful. As I drove out of town, back towards the Virginia coastline, I rolled down the windows and blasted the music. The foretaste of fall was ripening in the leaves at the edge of the highway. I lit a cigarette for old times’ sake, the embers and ash flying through the air, hitting the old road behind me.

Libby Kurz holds a BS in Nursing and an MFA in Creative Writing. Her work has been published in The Poet’s Billow, Relief Journal, Driftwood Press, and Literary Mama. A veteran of the US Air Force Nurse Corps, she now resides on the coast of Virginia with her family. When she’s not reading, writing, and keeping tabs on her three kids, she works as registered nurse and teaches poetry workshops. She is passionate about a good cup of coffee, bumming on the beach, and finding meaning in the ordinary moments of life. You can find her at