Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Past on $5 a Day

The condition comes to us almost like a late allergy, appearing somewhere in early pre-teens or during the midst of the invasion of the hormones called adolescence. It is on us before we recognize it, returning, returning to the point where we take it in like a distant relative, somehow connected to us.

By the time we become aware of it, we've probably read of it in one form or another. For boys, it was probably The Odyssey, allowing us to luxuriate in the adventures "he" had along the way, being told by one librarian that some day I'd come to understand when I asked why it was "he" could fool around all he wanted on the way home, but Penelope had to, you know, keep the home fires burning and keep Telemachus away from Indian casinos. For girls, it was a tougher road, requiring someone such as Cleopatra or Elinore of Aquitaine before it got worked out for such fictional sorts as Jane Eyre and Dorothy Gale. The point is, we've had traveling and return woven into our cultural psyche, and now, as writers' we're always off on some journey to the point where we are on permanent standby.

There have been some splendid destinations, as set forth by the likes of Madeline L'Engle and Philip Pullman, making us recognize how all our imagination is a passport to an alternate universe, somewhat like this one, but in some wonderful, remarkable ways, different. But the most emblematic of the human journey and return cycle is the one F. Scott Fitzgerald spoke of through his intermediary, Nick Carraway, in The Great Gatsby, where we are "borne ceaselessly back into the past."

"The past," L.P. Hartley wrote in The Go-Between, "is a foreign country. They do things differently there." And we, like restless adults who have found a treasure map cached away in an old book, return with our frequent-flier miles to dig for the treasure on the map, endlessly questing events that have stuck in our awareness like bad breath, tantalizing us with the lure of what we might have done wrong, how we might have done better, and an endless succession of What ifs.

We can be lured back by the merest prompt. A restaurant I sometimes visit with one of my oldest and dearest friends, El Taco Grande in an otherwise undistinguished strip mall on the outer reaches of Carpinteria, seems to attract an admirable working class clientele wherein we are in the distinct ethnic minority, and yet it is a rare visit that does not send me skittering back into the past because of some association with a person who looks like someone from the past or a particular place, which in this case would be Guadalajara, which I adore, and Tlaquepaque which I tolerate, these places coming to play because the Senora makes a point of stopping by our table to remind us, "No te rajes Jalisco," more or less don't mess with Jalisco, the state from whence she and her husband came.

There was a solitary diner today who reminded me of a long-time undergraduate chum whom I invited to stay at my Hollywood Hills apartment while he studied for the bar exam, having run afoul of the poverty tinted life of the wannabe writer and deciding instead to represent writers. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

There are important boundaries to observe when visiting the past, particularly if the visit has been made numerous times before, boundaries that speak forth by demanding our attention to the immediate present. Lest we forget the present. It is a comfort to revisit individuals who have in one way or another moved under our radar, leaving us with an unsatisfactory sense of circularity or completion. It is comforting to run a parallel check on some individuals, seeing them as they once were and as they are now, taking in all the joys of their being the same and the reality of them being different.

Easy as it is to be drawn back, it is important to take good notes here, mark all the details, soak as much of it in as possible. We can not always achieve closure with the past but we can find comfort, a thing like a misplaces wallet or reading glasses or car keys that we tear up the landscape for. Comfort. No small thing.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps eventually (sooner or later?) I'll run out of pictures and moments to revisit with witnesses.

So, if I've taken a few new people in my life back in time with me--or at least I fancy that I have--what happens when I stop going back? No small thing, I think.

Kate Lord Brown said...

You've sent me skittering back into a forgotten episode Shelly - we stopped in Carpinteria for the night before visiting Beatrice Wood's studio in Ojai years ago. I had forgotten the Birds of Paradise growing outside our room, the hummingbirds by the lake. Your advice to cherish the moment is spot on - especially for writers whose grasp of past/present/future is fluid and malleable at the best of times.

Rowena said...

Time is a strange bird. Sometimes I can't believe that today is real and it's not still ten years ago. Sometimes I am confronted with how far we have come. And how ten years is really not that long ago!

I definitely have a strange relationship to time, now. I was thinking about your comment about the naptime POV, and it's effect on my story. I don't know if I will really be able to understand until I get the off at elementary school POV and have a little more time to be reflective.

And there is so much in your posts, that it is really hard to capture it all in my naptime POV. A little frustrating, but I'm sure I will find my own rewards.