In this summer travel season, when many of us return to places filled with personal history, here’s a meditation on the space-time continuum. The whole topic of revisiting is saturated with regret – witness E.B. White’s classic essay, “Once More to the Lake,” worth rereading in spite of his melancholy theme that returning to the lake of his youth is shadowed by loss. The adult E.B. White observes his son pulling on icy swimtrunks for a dip in the lake, just as he had done as a child. White concludes his essay bleakly, “…suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.” Aaaaannnd: Happy summer to you, too, Mr. White!
Perhaps because I’m an optimist, I don’t adhere to the “Time in a Bottle” school of regret over time’s passing. As I age, I find that I wring more out of revisiting places, not less, with my more expansive life experience as a lens. Like Faulkner, but perhaps without his dark view, I also believe that “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” But I’m less haunted than fascinated by the ways our memories hang in the air in the spaces we’ve been before.
Here’s an example: I first visited Chicago in 1984, on a snowy semester break from my undergrad program in Iowa. My punked-out self was gob-smacked by the soaring curves of the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, and then Chicago blew what was left of my mind when I was allowed to peek into my friend’s older sister’s apartment – in one of the distinctive corncob Marina City buildings. Now, every time I catch sight of those honeycombed Chicago towers, I can summon my adolescent awe of that grown-up apartment, carelessly filled with silk blouses and lawyer’s suits, and whimsically shaped like a slice of pie. My first raw love of the city is layered, now, with thirty years of revisiting, so that when I walk the lakeshore or enter a museum, I feel my toddlers’ damp hands in my own (though our daughters are now young adults), and recall snippets of past conversations hovering as if in thought balloons over my head, about potty-training, funerals, recipes, and early career anxiety. Years of reading about Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair brings another layer of past to the present, and now I see what’s left of that record-breaking “White City” architecture through the lens of that history, too -- my view of the Museum of Science and Industry filtered as if through a stereopticon, past and present superimposed. (This summer and fall, there’s an interactive tour on the 1893 World’s Fair – check out the Science and Industry museum’s website.)
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to revisit New York City, a place that anchored my graduate-school years in the early 90s. I had a bit of that stereopticon experience while wandering those familiar sidewalks, lingering by the ornate Frick museum, with its dark Rembrandt self-portraits, each one looking so much like my spouse’s Uncle Al that I could still hear our surprised laughter from our last visit twenty years ago, when flickers of low-grade labor pains had just started to signal our firstborn’s dramatic arrival on the full moon the following night.
The conference I was attending in New York was for professors who teach with a method called “Reacting to the Past,” which steeps students in controversy-rich historical moments and gives them a chance to role-play cultural debates. Playing games is part of the conference, and I signed up for one set in 1913 Greenwich Village (I was the Lefty editor, Max Eastman). As when I teach these primary materials, I felt the past pressing hard on the present in those debates about women’s self-determination, access to reproductive health care, the power of the ballot, and the hopes for labor-organizing. During a free afternoon, a group of us game-players took the subway down to Greenwich Village to stand in the spaces where these debates had unfolded. We gathered in silence at the plaqued corner that marked the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist fire, where 146 workers – mostly women – died in 1911, galvanizing the labor movement. Maps in hand, we found the MacDougal Street site of Polly’s Restaurant, its cozily dark brick interior the place where conversation sparked between Emma Goldman, John Reed, and bohemian artists and social reformers in those optimistic years before the first World War. The silence was crowded – my hushed voice just one note in a rich historical chorus.
As my family plans our own summer travel, I keep thinking of the Spirograph set lots of us used as kids, driving our multicolored ballpoint pens into interlocking plastic wheels to create elaborate patterns based on circling and returning. The patterns we make in space and time are more complex with every return; we are the same and different, ever more ourselves, woven into an historical design whose authorship is only partly our own.