You’ve been looking behind you, Martin. Try looking ahead – The Twilight Zone – Walking Distance (1959)
The Perils of Time Travel
My recent return to Australia has stirred up all manner of feelings from the muddy bottom of the river that is the inexorable and always (worryingly) accelerating current of my life.
A big part of that has been the fact I find myself back in the very same bed in the same room of the same apartment in which I spent 2010 – a year that, while maybe not the most eventful of my life – was certainly the closest I’ve had to a life that felt complete and ‘real’. Sharing my life with the most significant of my former significant others; I had a job I enjoyed and excelled at, friends, new hobbies such as rock climbing and learning Spanish, travel, spending money, and I was the healthiest I’d ever been.
That isn’t to say that life since has not been better in many ways. I’ve visited seven countries in the years since I uprooted myself from my comfortable Sydney life. I’ve lived in China where I had all manner of new experiences. I’ve dated and romanced and one-night stood (standed?) and sowed those fabled wild oats I heard so much about as a kid.
But standing in the doorway to a bedroom into which I entered in a time in my life that was happier in some ways was still a surreal experience. I found myself fondly remembering weekly journeys to The Counter for custom burgers or our fortnightly Thai Face home delivery orders.
I recalled weekend trips to go kayaking or surfing or take photography courses.
I remembered the Haunted Housewarming and the Hobo’s Ball, my Sexy Party, a 4th of July BBQ, and even a Willie Wonka themed birthday party.
I remembered friends who have long since slipped not only from memory, but even from the annals of Facebook.
Running the Manly 5k or the City 2 Surf and being stunned that I was capable of doing either…
I don’t want to give the confused impression that this feeling was in any way about missing an ex-girlfriend. While I appreciate the time I spent with the woman in question, there’s been no regret on my part about the decision to go our separate ways. This was missing a time in my life, rather than any one person – however significant.
More overwhelming than the sense of gratitude I have for these experiences was a sadness in knowing that they are far behind me now, and that the people in those memories (and indeed, the person I was in those memories) are ghosts now. As dead and lost to me as any childhood recollection.
It was knowing that, even though I’d come home, I will never really be able to truly come home.
The ‘Travel’ in Time Travel
Of course, it’s not just returning home that can stir up these mixed feelings of nostalgia, gratitude, and sadness.
I’ve long said that 2008/2009 were probably the two best years of my life.
Living in South Korea, I finally came out of my shell. I was no longer monosyllabic ‘Chris Bush’ with his nervousness and awkwardness – I was “C.W.B” – ‘that guy’ who most of Gwangju’s expats new and (I think) liked. I discovered that travel was something that made me far happier than anything I’d done before, and while there were certainly heartbreaks and low points in that time – my experience was almost overwhelmingly positive. It was transformative in the best of ways.
Late last year, I returned to South Korea for the first time since my midnight run in 2011. While it was great to eat the foods I’d loved and to re-experience the culture that introduced me to travel, it was also sobering to wander through old haunts.
The bars of Gwangju and Busan hadn’t changed much, but the people who had made them feel so warm had largely moved on. Were those the same places which had spawned so many fond memories for me? Or just vague impersonations of the Speakeasy or Thursday Party where a younger Chris had made gradual steps towards being who I am today?
Is it ever wise to return to a place where you had a fantastic time? Or does doing so only remind us that – try as we might – we’ll never be able to bottle the magic that youth and (perhaps more importantly) rosy-eyed hindsight attribute to these places?
Is it these places that have lost their magic? Or is it the fact that it is we who have changed that prevents it from being the same place it had once been for us?
You Can Never Go Home
I guess what I’m trying to get at with all of this meandering prose is that, coming home after time away or revisiting a treasured place, there’s an immense amount of pressure for it to be as amazing, entertaining, and generally life-changing as it was last time around.
Of course, it can never be that. The person you were when these new experiences wowed you no longer exists. They’re no less evanescent than the memories you keep in your head. They died in the moment immediately after the one you’re remembering, and no amount of nostalgia is going to bring them back.
In WalkingDistance,an episode of the classic Twilight Zone, the main character returns to his home town both physically and temporally. He is back in the town as he remembered it, and although he is warmed by these memories, he finds he has no place in that time anymore. Those experiences belong to the younger him, and he can’t have them for himself.
Speaking with his father, he is given the advice I quoted at the head of this article.
Martin: I thought so, Pop. I’ve been living on a dead run, and I was tired. And one day I knew I had to come back here. I had to come back and get on the merry-go-round, and eat cotton candy, and listen to a band concert. I had to stop and breathe, and close my eyes and smell, and listen.
Robert: I guess we all want that. Maybe when you go back, Martin, you’ll find that there are merry-go-rounds and band concerts where you are. Maybe you haven’t been looking in the right place. You’ve been looking behind you, Martin. Try looking ahead.
There comes a time where you have to let go of that daydream that someday things will be as good as they were. Not just because the passage of time smooths out all things and makes them seem better in hindsight, but more so because looking back stops you from truly moving forward.
There might not be any Sexy Parties or 5ks or weekend rock climbing classes in my life ever again. My days of late nights at the Speakeasy and hungover galbi meals may well be done too.
But there are merry-go-rounds and band concerts where I am. They’re trips to Tanzania and getting to know my niece and nephew. They’re new experiences with old friends and knowing that there’s nothing tragic about the passage of time. After all, if time hadn’t passed, I’d never have had 2008 or 2010. Who knows what wonderful years lay ahead of me?
Have you ever returned to a place you loved and found that it wasn’t the happy homecoming you had hoped it would be?