Looking Backward, Looking Forward

If you like water, sun, and Thai food, I have a genius solution for you: go to Thailand. If you also like peace and quiet, go to Khao Lak, north of (translation: well out of) Phuket. That’s where you can take a cooking class from Ann, who picked us up at our hotel, asked what kinds of things we wanted to eat, then took us to the local market to shop for our ingredients.

2015-04-20 10.10.29

Khao Lak Market

2015-04-20 10.50.45

Ann elegantly slicing onion

Ann was the first person outside the hotel we were really able to ask about the tsunami of December 26, 2004–what the damage was, how far the water had gotten. Over 8,000 people died in Thailand that day, and Khao Lak is in the heart of the area affected. We were there in 2015, surrounded by palm trees and sunshine, fruit and flowers, with no apparent sign of the utter devastation that had been the scene ten years before.

To answer, she whipped the car around and drove us inland to a small clearing where a police boat sat in the grass. The boat had been moored one nautical mile offshore when the tsunami struck, was carried nearly 2 kilometers inland and uphill, and now sits where the water left it. There was a small sign identifying the boat and explaining why it was there. A little parking apron and turnaround.

Tsunami Police Boat Memmorial, Khao Lak, Thailand

Tsunami Police Boat Memorial, Khao Lak, Thailand

And that’s it. No memorial etching the names of the lost. No visitor’s center. No re-enactment. No statue of grief or heroism.

When we commented on it, Ann said, “Thai people just like to be happy. We don’t like to look back.”

As I write, it’s the morning of September 11, 2018. The American president has already tweeted this morning’s grievance. *Ahem* Dude—did you not notice it’s 9/11 in America? Good time to lay low?

Yup, the morning blurt was inappropriate, as it always is. And more so on a day treated with such national reverence. And while I abhor careless disregard of the day, I’ve come to think that Ann and the Thai people are onto something. What is it, exactly, that we hope to accomplish by spending the day looking backward, thinking about where we were, how awful it was, trying to remember exactly what we saw and re-create exactly what we felt?

The automatic response is to say that of course we want to remember the people we lost. We need to believe that their lives had sufficient meaning to merit attention, that we won’t just let them slip beneath the surface of our consciousness and disappear. That somehow we owe it to those who died to lock arms around the past and pull it with us into the present.

But…time doesn’t work like that, does it? In all of eternity forward and backward, the present moment is the only one that actually exists. Everything else is a purely mental creation, so if we’re going to create something we should do it with intent, take time to ask what kind of thing we’re creating.

Do we imagine a future that’s abundant and generous? Or one that’s anxious and fearful? Either one is a figment, so…which is more helpful to the present? And when it comes to the past, are we creating images from which we draw strength and love, or voyeuristically dwelling on ones that stoke our grievances and shore up our tribal identity, unify us against enemies, make us feel justified in suspicion and hate? Which is more helpful to the eternal present in which we’re actually living?

When my mother-in-law died earlier this year, I was at her bedside during her last hours. She was 93. I’m glad I was able to be there and hold her hand, but when I think about her now, I don’t find value in dwelling on those moments. I think about how funny she was. I think of her blowing bubbles with my children. I think of Rockies baseball and pure faith and the array of friends she attracted of every age from every place. It’s her life that enriches mine, not the manner of her death.


Yes, Thai people just want to be happy. I’m going to assume Ann was right because everyone we met sure seemed that way, and frankly, most people everywhere just want to be happy. Most people want the people they love to be happy. So today, I’m staying off TV and social media, trying to create a little beauty and love just the way the spectacular, ordinary, open-armed people I have lost did. For my grandparents. My great-aunt. My aunt and uncle. My in-laws. Every precious friend, gone too soon for my taste. Then tonight I’m going to chorale rehearsal and bringing them all with me. I’ll be singing my memorial. I think it’ll make us all happy.

6 thoughts on “Looking Backward, Looking Forward

  1. dukesela says:

    Sigh. I wish I could write like Margo Catts! You have such an ability to spin words into gold.
    I really appreciate this post. Because when I remember 9/11, I remember being at the St. Louis airport. I remember a terminal full of dazed, confused, and stranded travelers coming together as one. I watched people comforting one another. I saw genuine patience, courtesy, and kindness. I heard people calling out, “I’m heading to Boston and can take 3 passengers in my rental car,” and “I have room for 10 in my van if you need to get to Atlanta.” It’s difficult to fully describe, but it was honestly one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed.


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