Saturday, April 11, 2009
I was talking to a friend and we got onto the subject of time travel, and the question of whether we would, if we could, go back and change pivotal moments in our lives. My own life, though having many chapters, is in the broadest sense, a two-volume affair. Volume one starts with my birth and my youth growing up in Philadelphia. Volume two starts when I left home at the age of seventeen in the summer of 1971 for the small town of Clarion, PA.
If I suddenly found that I could go back, my first thought was to go back to the early 70s. There were some things I would do very differently. There are some things I said, many more things I didn’t say. Regrets I’ve carried, like too much luggage through a crowded airport, for decades; that sort of thing.
But as I thought about that, I realized that so much of it was tethered to the things that happened to me back in high school. I went to an all male, all white, urban Catholic high school at what may have been the single worst moment in the last five hundred years to do so: 1967-1971.
So much of what happened to me there had to do with fear: fear of confrontation, fear of women, fear of intimacy, fear of failing, fear of authority. But – and, if you’d like to make a drinking game out of this post, take a drink every time the word “but” shows up – I think if I wanted to really change all that, I’d be better off returning to the origins of those basic fears, and head back to elementary school.
Now the time machine dials are set to 1959, Saint Matthew’s elementary school at Cottman and Hawthorne in Northeast Philadelphia. That I am typing this in a room in a house on Hawthorne Lane in Indianapolis, fifty years later, is only mildly disturbing.
And if I go back there, the whole outcome of my youth changes. I would have played more sports, I would have bought the guitar I fantasized about and joined a band, I would have paid more attention in algebra and Latin. The new me, fearless and confident, would have more likely gone on to the University of Pennsylvania or another east coast school after high school, rather than the small state teacher’s college in the middle of nowhere that gave me a conditional acceptance.
And not going to Clarion in 1971 changes everything that followed. I don’t take that job in West Virginia, I don’t go to Ohio University, I don’t move to Indiana, I don’t make that record, I don't start that small business….
And so, the time travel story isn’t really a story about going back and fixing all the mistakes, changing the bad decisions, moving there rather than here. It is a story about living another life; completely different and – this is the thing – another life that is like all lives; complete with its own set of missteps, its own errors in judgment, its own failures, successes, and its own regrets.
No one gets to live a life free of those things because a life, any life, every life is woven from out of all those things.
One of the fundamental questions about the nature of time itself is why does it only run in one direction. I don’t have the knowledge of mathematics necessary to understand how that even gets to be a question, but as far as I know we seem to be pretty much stuck with it. Take that away – let us live our time like Groundhog Day – and we lose all continuity, which is another way of saying that in trying to “fix” our lives, we lose them.
Enjoy the present. No re-gifting.