Thursday, June 18, 2015

Time Traveling Through My Past

For the past couple of weeks, Sarah and I have been on holiday in Denmark. Denmark is where I was born and raised; where I mostly lived till I took a trip across the "pond" in 1981 to go to University in the US, and ended up staying there.

The summerhouse; the thatched roof was newly replaced this spring
We have been staying at my family's summerhouse; a quaint "fairy tale cottage" in the woods north of Copenhagen. The house has been in the family since 1939, and now serves as a sort of "family timeshare" for several generations of great- and great-great-grandchildren of the people who originally built the place... as a summer retreat in the country where people could come to relax and forget about their troubles.

Yesterday, we had lunch with my cousin... and as we talked, we got into sharing respective memories of what this place-- the house named "Tofte"-- represented in our lives. Later in the day, I continued to think about the pieces of life we carry around with us... in the form of memories... pieces of the past we either embrace or long for, or desperately try to forget and/or run away from.

For the past couple of weeks, I have experienced the rare luxury of being able to "forget" about my daily life and not live in a state where every waking moment is filled with the eternal demands and obligations of modern life in the US of A. Instead, I have been able to spend hours and days, doing little more than "contemplating" and thinking about life and "things."

As I kept wandering around these 12 acres of woodland and garden, attempting to connect with the land and nature around me, I realized that a large part of what brings me back here is a subtle desire to "time travel;" to re-experience how "something felt" in some distant part of my past. A search for "lost innocence?" No, not really... although there are elements of remembering life before it felt exhausting and filled with demands and complexity. That said, my yearning feels more like a search for something "solid;" a touchstone with a measure of permanence in a life otherwise shaped mostly by movement, instability and uncertainty. But, as the days passed, I had this growing sense that certain things didn't feel quite "right." After a while, I realized I was wrestling with the way things change... and yet they don't; and how things can be both the same, and yet never the same again.

In the broadest sense, this "place" I return to is exactly as it has always been. As I had determined, it is one of the few places on this planet I can return to as a "touchpoint" that somehow connects me to all times in my life. No matter how screwed up my reality otherwise was, this place simply "existed;" it had a permanence that was otherwise lacking.

The dining table on which my laptop now sits is the same table where I would eat salami sandwiches when I was five years old. Even the smell in the room is the same. The brown wooden wall clock is still on the wall-- and even though it no longer runs-- I can still hear its ticking in my mind's eye, as my 8-year old self would stand at one of the half-doors looking outside at a sunny day.

And yet? Even though this "place" is still here, part of it is "missing" because much of its character was shaped by my Aunt Ulla, who lived here every summer as the house's only "permanent" resident until her death in 1997. The "place" remains the same, but what is here now feels like a strangely "sanitized" version of what it used to be; or an "image" the same way a photograph of an event is never going to bring to life the event, itself. It is here, but parts of it have drifted away on the mists of time...

The lawn outside is beautiful and mowed... but the "old" lawn, filled with random bumps and weeds and occasional mole hills... ending in a meadow filled with wildflowers, butterflies and grasshoppers... no longer exists. Old garden furniture in varied stages of age and repair has given way to uniform modern replacements. Storms have taken down many of the trees I remember; others have grown up in their place. Many colorful flowerbeds have given way to grass, in the interest of easy maintenance... because, after all, nobody lives here permanently anymore. And there is absolutely nothing "wrong" with that... aside from the fact that it doesn't "match" my memories of a time that has been and gone and never will return.

These small differences notwithstanding, the "place" hasn't really changed... as much as I have.

A butterfly in the woods... just like 50 years ago
So I started contemplating what it really is I try to "time travel" here to find. The other day, I remarked to Sarah-- and later to my cousin-- that it feels more like I come here to visit memories of summers in the Denmark of my past, rather than the Denmark that exists in the present. In a sense, when I "go to Denmark," I am not really going to Denmark... I am visiting my own past... or at least trying to.

There is something mildly ironic about that, because my past-- that is, my childhood, in general-- was really not that much of a great or happy place that it should warrant retrieval and reliving. So what is the "allure" of this place?

When I was a child, visiting this summerhouse was a strange dichotomy, in and of itself.

I grew up in a very old-fashioned family, with very old-fashioned and often narrow-minded views on the world and how "one" were to conduct oneself in the world. In a sense, my cousin was exactly right yesterday when she remarked that "the family" would have been perfectly OK if it had been the year 1900 when we grew up... problem was, they were trying to live an early 1900's life with early 1900's values... in the 1960's and 1970's.

So I end up characterizing my visits to this summerhouse-- as a child-- as dichotomous, because on one hand these visits were lovely and filled with the "freedom" to be a kid and run around in the woods, climb trees and be outside... and get away from school, and the normal strict family life. On the other hand, this same "freedom" came wrapped in a very tightly defined "box" where I knew everything that was expected of me, when it was expected, how it was expected... which offered me a great sense of comfort from the perspective that it allowed me to completely "disconnect" from any kind of thinking... my existence was completely "mapped out" and no thinking of my own was required... let alone allowed. At home, this same kind of restrictiveness felt stifling, repressive and depressing-- yet here, it felt like "freedom."

The dichotomous feeling remains, but it has a different "flavor," in 2015.

In my 1970's experience of my family, children were not "allowed" to have any kinds of thoughts or opinions of their own, let alone any kind of "identity" (aside from coming when their name was called)... but now I come back to this place and experience it through the filter of 35+ intervening years of being "elsewhere;" of "becoming someone," in the sense of truly knowing myself rather than just needing to comply with someone else's perception of "what a young boy should be."

I left here with no "identity;" I went into the world and found one... and now I have returned.

And the effect is strange: Although I came here as "me," version 2015, I feel an odd "tug" at the corners of my being... pulling me back towards that place and time where I was "without identity;" where the desired state (and the state that would earn praise from the adults) was essentially that of "blending into the woodwork" as much as possible.

Although few of the people originally associated with this house are still alive and none of them would tell me "who to be,"... I still experience little pieces of myself; of my adult self-identity, "fading," like a reverse version of one of those old Polaroid photos where the image would slowly appear with exposure to light... I observe the arising of a subtle sense of needing to preface anything I say with an apology for "daring" to have an opinion or feeling about something... just like I did, all those years ago.

On this rainy morning, I sit here in this vault of memories and consider the strange allure of the past in all of our lives... and how it can "trap" us; keep us locked in stagnant places we seem unable to grow beyond. It's not an "evil" trap... but it holds us, nonetheless. The past can exert great power over us-- in many and strange ways-- yet we are powerless to "do anything" to change that past or to go back to it. And the naked truth is that there is no going back. It doesn't matter whether our pasts were joyful or traumatic... they are "back there," around a corner we can never get to, and no matter what we may do or want, those pasts can never be "here." Yet... we often give the past outrageous amounts of power and influence over our present choices and actions, typically to our detriment... because of the way it interferes with our ability to experience the present with our eyes as they are... in this moment.

And so-- two weeks into this journey to a past from which I am not even 100% sure what I was seeking-- I decide to leave the past where it belongs, in the past... and try to look at this place with my "Present Eyes:" A house in the woods where I once came to visit; a place that-- objectively speaking-- represented a feeling of "not AS distressed" in a world where I generally felt lost and disconnected. But this house? It is just here, as it has always been. The memories of the past are not... those only live inside my head.

A tiny blue butterfly from a distant past...
It was a sunny day and I walked across the bottom half of the lawn in front of the house, where the meadow used to be. I was looking for something familiar, although I was not sure what... but it had something to do with finding a "sign of the past;" of the past I was looking for but since came to realize no longer exists.

The meadow that no-longer-is used to have a wealth of butterflies, grasshoppers and other small creatures-- including lots and lots of tiny blue butterflies. Now... that acre  is nothing but neatly mowed lawn.

Then I saw a small blue speck flutter across the expanse of green and-- just for the briefest of moments-- settle on a single yellow flower that had somehow escaped the mower's blades. By some miracle, I was carrying my camera and was able to snap a picture before the little guy moved on.

And I realized that much of the allure of this place lies not so much in triggering the traces of personal memories I have been chasing, as in its ability to make all of outside existence fade into the background, allowing me (and anyone else who visits) to truly BE with themselves and their memories, and the sounds of birds singing and wind in the trees... and the sight of small blue butterflies fluttering across a flowery meadow of yesteryear. In some ways, this place feels as ancient and timeless as the land itself and the breeze in the leaves softly shares whispered memories from endless summer evenings of my distant past.

And that's as it should be. They are memories; they are not "now." And I'm OK with that...

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