It seems to be impossible for me to talk about place without simultaneously talking about time. As I sit here typing these words on our back porch, the spring sun warming my bare feet, I naturally and inevitably think back to the first time I sat writing on this porch. It was September and the day was hot: one of summer’s last hurrahs. Then as now planes flew overhead; I remember feeling depressed and disconnected, a newcomer in a place where I was another anonymous face. Then in September I wrote by hand in a notebook, seeking solace in silent pages. Only later did I type and edit those words, sending them to other anonymous faces in the form of an essay that searched for the one thing we all secretly crave: connection and recognition, some indication that we indeed are not alone.
Sometimes, remarkably, the blank page talks back. A handful of readers–people I’d never met–told me they found solace and comfort in what I’d written: how could that be? When I’d written it my heart was breaking with that nondescript loneliness that marks the margins of our days, the unnamed ache that bubbles to consciousness only when we stop our hurry and look deeply into the limpid flow of time. If we’re all destined to die–and secretly we all know we are–then what is the purpose of this mundane march of time? If ultimately we face our individual fates alone, what is the purpose of human interaction? Feeling the abandonment of a motherless child, I wrote out of desperation and despair: somewhere, anywhere, is there anyone listening, be it God or man? Somewhere, anywhere, in this time or any other, is there meaning to be found in specificity, the insignificant crawl of a spider inching his forgotten way across a window screen?
Yesterday, feeling more restless than depressed, I took the dog walking along the river. The Ashuelot River runs through campus and through Keene; behind various local businesses runs a fringe of semi-abandoned riparian woods, Ashuelot River Park, that offers a quick getaway for town-worn souls. Yesterday was warm and sunny; I walked in short sleeves, shorts, and sandals. The Park was full of mothers with strollers, parents with bicycling children, kissing lovers and roaming herds of bored-eyed teenagers, all moving and congregating in a flowing swirl of human activity.
The dog and I walked alone through these anonymous faces: the dog and I nearly always walk alone. Dodging embracing lovers and wide-eyed toddlers who asked, awed, if they could pet the nice doggie, I took another photo of a lone maple tree I’d photographed last October. Then in October, this tree shimmered with neon hues of orange and yellow; yesterday, in April, it looked barren and dead, forgotten on an isolated shore.
They say you can’t step into the same river twice, but it seems that both writers and photographers continually try to use memory as a bridge between then and now. If I hold dear in my memory the image of an October maple, will it be granted a provisional immortality, burnt into nerve cell and synapse, a pattern that can be quickly and spontaneously recalled? And if I share this dearly held memory with another–with you or any other willing anonymous face–will a connection be cast across space, time, and souls, my memory becoming your memory, a bridge not only to span but to stem time’s flow?
The dog, not being burdened with the questions of human consciousness, has no thought for time. Instead, he lives in a perpetual now where the past does not exist, the future is as close as the next savored smell, and you can jump into, joyously, the same river twice, three times, four, and again. To humans aware of their own mortality, rivers are a symbol of time and its passage; to dogs attuned to their own noses and bellies, rivers are an excellent source of cold spring mud and the secretive smell of still-hibernating turtles. The dog has no memory of either September or October; the dog has no worry or care about time, no need for notebooks, photos, or scribbled pages. Neither alone nor apart, the dog has never been struck from the float; instead, he, like Whitman is forever held in solution. In springtime, while skirting rivers, my spirit watches the dog with envy and with shards of stolen, vicarious joy.