I am the least clairvoyant person on the face of the earth. My ability to predict the future accurately is almost nonexistant.
The world in which I live is in some ways virtually unrecognizable from the one I grew up in, and in other ways it’s virtually indistinguishable. It all depends on which angle you look from.
As a child of the 70s and 80s, I grew up half-expecting that as a grown woman I would have robots in my kitchen and fly my car to work.
Instead I cook on the very same stove my parents bought when they were married in 1962, lug around a vaccuum strikingly similar to theirs, and drive a minivan that’s not much different from their station wagon. What no science-fiction writing ever suggested was that I would have a network of friends, discussion partners, readers and Scrabble players around the world to interact with at the touch of a keyboard, not to mention a wealth of information only a google away.
Sci-fi writers and professional futurists don’t seem to have much more luck with accurately predicting the future than I do. As a species, we seem only to be able to figure out that the future will be different; we’re no good at figuring out how it will be different. I watched some old Doctor Who episodes (from the Tom Baker era) last year and laughed hysterically at the fact that the bridge of the alien starship from 30,000 years in the future looked almost exactly like the VOAR recording studio, circa 1982 when I volunteered there. We can only imagine the technology of the future, it seems, as a bigger, shinier version of what we have now — we lack the capacity to imagine something completely different, and yet somebody does imagine it, and it happens.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I imagine the future. Ten years ago tonight, I was just arriving at the Grace Hospital to be admitted to the caseroom. Intellectually I knew that if all went well, a decade later I’d find myself the mother of a ten-year-old boy, but it didn’t seem real or believable. I’ve always had this difficulty with grasping the future — I can create vivid pictures of it, but they seem no more real to me than books or movies. Nothing seems real until I’m there, until it’s happening to me. I live in the moment not because I’ve achieved a state of zen-like perfection but because I have no other choice: nothing else is real enough to live in.
Twenty years ago, when I was twenty-two, I wrote a story set twenty years in the future, about myself at forty-two. Like the sci-fi visions of the future, my story got everything wrong. The external details of the life I was living were nothing like the life I’m living now — I was single, never married with no children, successful in a career I’m not even marginally interested in now, cool and sophisticated and a bit cynical (none of which I actually am today). And I was still in love — in a nostalgic kind of way — with the person I was in love with when I was twenty-two, an idea which now seems amazing and ridiculous to me.
Of course that story wasn’t really about how I envisioned my own future — it was about writing out the issues I was facing there and then, at twenty-two, writing another possible ending to the story so I could imagine it differently. It worked. It served its purpose, which was to get me through a particular difficult time rather than to create an accurate prediction of the future. Perhaps that’s what all our stories about the future do — address our present needs, get us through the present quagmire.
I can picture possible futures; I’ve always done this. The life I’m living now would not have surprised the twenty-two-year-old me: this was always one of the possible futures. Probably the one I wanted most to come true — happily married with two beautiful children, living back home in Newfoundland, doing work I love. Maybe the one I was most afraid to hope for, because then it might not come true.
But to the degree I’ve been able to grasp the future as a real thing at all, my views of it are generally positive ones. I believe the future is a good place and I’ll be OK there, more or less. My dad likes to say that he’s an optimist and my mom’s a pessimist, and between them they raised a realist. That’s flattering to me, and I’d like to think I’m a realist, but I really am much more the optimist. As we slog through the present quagmire of my dad being diagnosed with cancer, I realize how exactly alike he and I are in the way we approach any vision of the future — sorting through the evidence to choose the pieces that will create the brightest possible outcome, and then getting quickly back to the business of living in the present because nothing else is really real, anyway. The future is out there, somewhere, but it will take its time getting here. Whereas pessimists like my mother are really the realists — they know the future will get here, that it cannot be evaded or dodged, and that it will contain dark corners and sharp edges.
Yesterday’s future is here. I’m forty-two; I’m the mother of a ten-year-old and a nearly-eight-year-old; my dad whom I adore has cancer; I’m a writer and a teacher and a wife and a daughter and I still don’t have any robots to cook and clean for me. Tomorrow a future is coming that I can imagine but not really grasp: I will be the mother of teenagers; my beloved parents will get older and sicker and someday die and leave me; I will let my hair grow grey and write more books and learn to ride a motorcycle and use technology I can’t even picture now and cry over a lot of things that haven’t happened yet.
And here I am, with today. It’s all I got.