The Past is a Place

I’ve been meaning to pick up Michael Chabon’s new nonfiction collection Manhood for Amateurs since I read the titular essay last year. But with one thing or another, I haven’t got around to it yet. Then this morning, Andrew Wheeler posted the following quote from the book (specifically from the essay “Normal Time”), and it stopped me in my tracks.

“I am forty-five years old. By even the most conservative estimate, it has been nearly a quarter of a century since I climbed eagerly aboard this one-way rocket to Death in Adulthood and left the planet of my childhood forever in my starry wake. I know this. My grandparents, my boyhood bedroom furniture, a miniature schnauzer of admirable character named Fritz, the dazed and goofy splendor of bicentennial America: I will never see any of these or a million other things again. And yet always lurking somewhere in the back of my mind is the unshakable, even foundational knowledge — for which certainty is too conscious a term — that at some unspecified future date, by unspecified means, I will return to those people and to those locales. That I am going back.

No, that’s false. The delusion is not really that I believe or trust that I will be returning one day to the planet of childhood; it’s that the world I left behind so long ago is still there, somewhere, to be returned to; that it continues to exist, sideburns, Evel Kneivel, Spiro T. Agnew, and all, like some alternate-time-line Krypton that never exploded, just on the other side of the phantom-zone barrier that any determined superman would know how to pierce. When I watch a film or a television show from the period and see again the workingmen wearing short-sleeved shirts with neckties, or the great wide slabs of Detroit automobiles, or the blue mailboxes with the red tops, or when I happen to hear from some random radio the DeFranco Family singing “Heartbeat (It’s a Love Beat),” I do not think merely, Oh, that’s right, I remember that or the more pathetic I wish I could go back there again. What I feel is something more like gratitude, a sense of relief, the way you feel when you wake from a dream in which your beloved has died, and the world is grief and winter, and then you find her warm and snoring in the bed beside you.”

I know precisely what Chabon is talking about here. For me, this sense that the past is a place that still exists often manifests when I think about places I haven’t visited since I was a kid. There’s some part of my brain that thinks that, if I were to go back to Central Elementary School in Duncanville, the inside of which I haven’t seen since the year Reagan took office, that it wouldn’t have changed. Or at least, that it might have changed but not in unrecognizable ways. The books I remember would still be on the shelves of the school library, the same motivational posters would be hanging on the walls of the hallways. Heck, even though the Gibson’s store in Duncanville has been out of business since before Reagan took office, the building is still standing, and there’s a nagging thought in the back of my head that if I were to walk in the building, there would still be racks of 8-inch Mego action figures on display.

Maybe we feel this way because, in one sense at least, the past isn’t gone. If Einstein was right, and space and time are both functions of the same thing, then somewhere in spacetime the past is still there. We just can’t get there from here…

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