I am a traveler from a strange world, strange even to us born there, its textures fogged behind mundane daily mysteries.
I remember the first time I heard someone say, “she’s going to have a boy,” and asking, how can she know?
I remember puzzling over how foods were made, digging through the old cookbook binder, pages marked with hand-written recipes, and wrestling through alternatives, improvisations from my lone imagination.
I remember going to the drugstore with the little plastic canister of film, to see “what came out” from the pictures I took weeks before. Someone at home would tell me, “you got a call, your photos are ready.” I’d take my bike to the Eckerd’s and pay for the sealed envelope, not knowing what it contains. I remember that feeling, standing off to the side, opening the envelope to see, and that kind of vague, almost-embarrassed surprise, the very bad pictures, but also the very good pictures, and a second copy to share — who should get it? Someone who was there? Someone who was not?
Do you remember going to the bathroom during the commercial, and coming back to find you’d missed part of the show, and then having to figure out the story? Which was not hard, because the shows were all written simple, because they knew that people would come and go. Remember how the commercials got louder? Remember the strange buzz summoned when the screen showed the 1-800 number? Remember when they started adding websites, “blah-blah-dot-com” and how we asked, what’s that about? We didn’t have a computer. I think I knew two kids from school who did.
I remember the first time I called someone and she didn’t say “hello?”; she said, “Hi Amy,” and I said, “how did you know it was me?” And she laughed and did not tell me. Remember making phone calls? Or trying? Busy signals, the three-tone arpeggio followed by a woman’s voice: “…sorry, but the number you are trying to reach…”
Remember making long-distance calls, knowing every minute was costing? It meant the call was important, and yet we never said much that was “important,” even tho we knew that the phone bill could end up a monster. The “important” thing was that you were calling.
I remember that strange, distant, alien world. I remember that back then, I was not made anxious by phone calls, not in the way most people, including me, are now. Even tho once, back then, I picked up the heavy receiver of the ringing phone and someone called me a mean name and hung up.
Click-click… dial tone.
Now, maybe because they’re free, maybe because “no one’s home” has become “straight to voicemail” (a choice, rather than a happenstance), even long-distance phone calls feel less like a gesture of love and more like an imposition that must be justified through “content” which is “important.” Our insecurities best us. Surely no one cares that much about my love?
Back-ago, in that other country, the phone had the heft of a child’s bowling ball, and was as likely to walk out with you as your refrigerator. They sold very long cords so you could wander around. There were cordless phones, but they were terrible. And who cares? We didn’t think about them all the time like people do in this here and now. All phones did back in that strange old world was make and receive calls, and you were out doing things, maybe with friends, or maybe just out in the world. You could think, or sing to yourself, or recall a conversation, re-laugh at a good joke. Maybe you found something printed to read wherever you are, at the store or the laundry or the thrift shop — a newspaper, a flyer, a little religious propaganda booklet with cute cartoons about going to Hell.
Looking back at that other world, it appears we lived on a high wire over splashing sharks, no net. I’d go out walking at night with a friend. We’d hang out in the hot tub of an apartment complex we didn’t belong to, and just talk. Once, when I was walking alone, a strange man chased me. I ran very fast, and got away. Later, I traveled to England, Ireland, France, hitchhiked with my cousin across Belgium, everywhere I went, utterly enmeshed in the time and place — in other words, no phone.
It would have felt strange to have one! We were people in the world, we didn’t expect to be connected to our connections all the time. As people in the world our connection was to the world, and to the strangers around us. We touched the walls we passed, examined curbside oddities for the sake of seeing them — no taking pics for sharing. We heard the music of cars and birds, we made eye contact with squirrels, we spotted wandering dogs and found their owners. We talked to strangers, and told stories of our lives. We listened, as only those who live in mystification can, when the fog surrounds and there is only you, and you, and you, and me, and this place we are bumping through, and the bus driver, he’s listening too. In this place, memory matters, and facts disputed go unsettled: we agree to agree to the contingent facts of the speaker’s perspective, not just for the duration of the story, but every time we remember it, a kind of humanity, a kind of humility — a groundedness in one’s place in the universe. And then (unless lightning struck a tremendous spark and we traded phone numbers), we’d part, expecting never to see each other again. We could not form passive ties, “follow” one another. Instead, we’d go on living, moving through the spaces and times of the world, existing to one another as figures in stories, recount our remembered minor morality plays between the office and the bus stop, the confession at the service counter, the disjointed bit of poetry in the waiting room, the art of the unreadable smile, the birdsong that sounded like the Notre Dame fight song.
Kind of like jumping around the internet, but with smells.
This sounds like nostalgia, but I wouldn’t go back to that world for anything, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I love my life, every turn of it, and if the past is like another country, it’s a country that along with its charming customs and astonishing vistas is often meaner, with less opportunity, and a less open heart.
So not nostalgia. Maybe, just, documentation. The view from here includes memories of the view from there. Being so connected still dazzles us; we can forget the independence we once took for granted, and the strength of self we attained because we exercised it so regularly.
A fly lands on a web.
What is this wondrous construction?
And look, says the fly, my every move makes it change! I am the center of something marvelous! Each leg touches another thread, and behold my power! I can affect the other flies who have stumbled upon this world with my whims of movement!
My wings do not beat, yet still I do not fall! I am suspended in air — effortless!
We know how this story ends.
I’m 46, and I had a great birthday-day. One good friend who happens to be 45-and-a-half declared me “over the hill,” and I can’t argue. But cresting the hill has opened my view to a marvelous and unexpected world around me. I think about my abilities, how they can stay strong, grow stronger. What an incredible journey this has been. My hands are in the soil, my eyes watch smoke fill the sky. Behold the wrath of Air, Land, and Sea. Our shared challenges will be divided and conquered by our shared humanity.
Let your human-ness adventure, free and dreaming, across this Earth. When we meet, we will share a time and place, and I will listen to your stories as though the fog of that other country has embraced us, blotting out all else, making what you say real. Because it is.