I first met Teju Cole years ago when he was someone else, and he can say the same thing about me. Teju was at Boston College for the Lowell Humanities Series last week, so just as J and I walked a mile along the ocean to see Teju when he accepted the PEN/Hemingway Award in April, 2012, on Thursday night, J and I walked a mile through sleepy Newton to see Teju deliver his lecture, “The Senses of the City,” on a campus where in a previous lifetime, I was once a fresh-faced graduate student.
One of my favorite definitions of friendship comes from the film Smoke Signals, where one character says of another, “We kept each other’s secrets.” One of the things that makes old friends golden is the way they keep both your secrets and your history, remembering who you used to be when your life was significantly different.
I didn’t know Teju when I was a fresh-faced graduate student at Boston College, but it seems like more than a few lifetimes ago when I and a few blog-buddies converged on his New York apartment in 2005, intent on seeing The Gates, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s temporary installation in Central Park. Looking back, it seems crazy that a few blog-buddies and I would travel to New York to sleep on the floor of a friend we knew only virtually: who was I when I acted so boldly? I might not fully understand or recognize the Previous Self that first met Teju in the flesh in 2005, but since then we’ve crossed paths in various cities, with each encounter adding a layer of meaning and resonance to our friendship.
In Thursday’s talk, Teju talked about how cities are receptacles of memory. On any given street corner, what else has happened in that precise spot at some other moment: who has died, fallen in love, or had a sudden epiphany? I agree that cities, like friendships, are seasoned with experience, each life and lifetime layering over the previous one. I’ve previously written about the ways that places become haunted with memory, remembered landscapes that hold both our ghosts and our secrets. Cities are particularly rife with this kind of ghostly presence, given the sheer number of souls that live and travel through them, but any human habitation can become haunted with the presence of the past and passed.
In his lecture, Teju used the familiar metaphor of a palimpsest, with each generation erasing and writing over the stories of their forebears. Sometimes, such erasure is incomplete, and the stories of the past bleed through like the ghostly images of a pentimento: one image painted atop another. On our walk home from campus on Thursday night, J compared Teju’s remarks to our own bit of accumulated history: Sylvia Fish, the once-beloved pet whose decades’ old grave marker we found in our backyard. Human history–both its stories and secrets–accrues in an archaeological fashion, with the detritus of time literally burying the past, sedimentary layer upon layer. Sometimes, if you dig (or even look) deeply enough, the past unearths itself, as undeniable as uncovered stone.
After Teju’s talk, many of his fans waited in line to have him sign their copies of Open City, but I had no need for Teju’s signature, as he had signed my book at the Brattleboro Literary Festival way back in October, 2011. Teju and I share a long history, and the town of Brattleboro, Vermont, although not a “city” in any true sense of the word, has a long history of its own. Originally it belonged to the Abenaki, then it was the site of an 18th century fort, a hydropathic resort, and any of a number of mills. Who knows what forgotten stories and significant stones lie buried beneath its backyards.
For me personally, both Brattleboro and Boston College are haunted with memories of my former selves, so it makes sense that I’d meet up with Teju in both places. As I approached Brattleboro on that October day several years ago, I felt my muscles tighten as I recognized one forgotten landmark after another: Fort Dummer State Park, where my then-husband and I once hiked; Elliot Street, home of the apartment where he lived in the immediate aftermath of our separation; and Main Street, site of the now-closed stationery shop where I photocopied our divorce paperwork. It had been years since I’d been to Brattleboro, a town I used to visit regularly, so my visceral recognition of landmarks I hadn’t consciously remembered was discomfiting. The experience called to mind the nameless narrator of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who startles when he visits the college town where his former self once lived and taught: “He was here.”
Thursday night’s approach to Boston College was far less startling, mainly because my history there is paradoxically so distant and so recent. It’s been nearly twenty years–two decades!–since I was a graduate student at Boston College, so most of the ghosts from that period of my life–a time when I was young, naive, and perpetually hungry–have expired, replaced with new stories and secrets.
When I attended Boston College, I spent relatively little time on campus, traveling by T to take or teach classes, then returning to either an ant-infested apartment in Malden or a subterranean garden flat in Beacon Hill. Now that I live above ground in lush and leafy Newton, Boston College is a place within walking distance where J and I go to basketball, hockey, or football games; a place where we attend art exhibits; and a place where I walk a labyrinth with a friend. Unlike Brattleboro, Boston College has been both reclaimed and purified, those long-distant days of hunger being overwritten by more recent days of plenty.
When I look at the pictures I took of downtown Brattleboro when my ex-husband first moved there as well as the ones I took when he subsequently moved away, I’m struck at how similar the town looked in 2011, and how it probably looks today: it is I who have changed, not this place I’d somehow forgotten I’d remembered. The Hotel Pharmacy is still in its proper spot, as is the Hotel Brooks; an advertising mural for Carter’s Little Liver Pills still looms over one of Brattleboro’s several used book stores. Harmony Place is still a funky little alley leading to a parking lot, and the shop where I once bought belly-dancing supplies is still in business, albeit in a site around the corner from where it used to be.
Like the town of Brattleboro and the campus of Boston College, Open City is also about forgotten selves and remembered places. The novel’s protagonist, Julius, is a psychiatrist–a professional keeper of secrets–who walks the streets of New York City during his off-hours, observing the city’s inhabitants and contemplating their stories. Any meditation on a place that is necessarily calls to mind the place that was, and Julius has the eyes of a historian or archaeologist, stripping away the surfaces he sees to plumb hidden and forgotten depths.
I didn’t walk with a camera when I was a fresh-faced graduate student at Boston College all those years ago, but I have plenty of pictures of Brattleboro, and even more recent pictures of BC. Over time, I’ve constructed my own image of each place, stitched together from photos taken over time. In his lecture, Teju showed his own photographs, taken in cities around the world, and he explained how he sometimes uses slow shutter speeds to capture the ghostly presence of passersby in the act of passing. Everything that passes will one day be past, and that is something I’m mindful of in my own photography, the act of snapping shots being another way (along with writing) of keeping time.
I don’t know where, whether, or when my and Teju’s paths will cross again, but I hope they do…and who knows who either one of us might be or become by then. Life is, of course, more like a maze than a labyrinth: you never know whether you’ll pass this way again, or again, or again. All I know about Teju Cole is that our paths have crossed in the past, we’ve shared a stash of secrets, and we’ve accrued a storehouse of memories. The past can be found in accumulated photographs hoarded as history, but an image of an envisioned future is far more elusive.
Click here for an excellent account of Teju Cole’s BC lecture, “The Senses of the City.” I illustrated today’s post with photos I took at Thursday’s talk as well as photos I took in Brattleboro, Vermont in October, 2011, when Teju read at the Brattleboro Literary Festival. Enjoy!