Friday, September 30, 2005
Around Home: Moving forward
(and backwards, and sideways)
When I was about eight years old, I asked my father why car odometers don't roll backwards when the car drives in reverse. He explained that if it were possible to make an odometer roll backwards, people who sold used cars could simply jack them up and run the engine in reverse to give the appearance of lower mileage, an answer that illuminated more about human nature and the ethics of used-car salesmanship than automotive technology.
In essence, I was simply learning the most tangible representation of an obvious fact that we all grow accustomed to, as we age: you can't turn back time.
Recently, I've felt just a little bit like the clock is turning backwards for me, or like I am living my life in reverse. To a certain extent, as I grow older, I'm moving backwards through my own childhood.
I suppose this is inevitable, given that I chose in my mid-30s to move back to my hometown. While other people my age are putting down roots in communities new to them, I'm back where I spent my first 18 years of life. I browse at the same library I did as a kid (though it's been extensively renovated and is now two stories taller), shop at the same general store (three name-changes on the sign out front, not- withstanding), and send my children to the same school I attended for nine years (and I admit, I sometimes accompany my son into his first-grade classroom for the sole reason that the smell of the Spalding hallways take me back immediately to elementary school myself, and there are days when I really need that nostalgia hit). When we first moved back, I even bought groceries at the same place where my mother always shopped in the 1970s — Crosby's in Concord or Donelan's in Acton — until my newer friends in town introduced me to previously undiscovered territory such as Westford, Billerica and Nashua. It was a revelation to me that each of these towns had quite appealing retail zones of their own. In the 1970s, no one I knew in Carlisle ever went to Billerica for groceries. Or to Lowell for movies. But I'm gradually learning to augment the Carlisle-based habits of my childhood with new possibilities.
So when the opportunity arose to write a regular column for the Mosquito, it seemed only natural to jump at the chance. For a couple of years in the early 1990s, I wrote a Mosquito column, although at the time I lived in Boston. After graduating from college, I became increasingly interested in essay-writing as a discipline and knew that there was only one newspaper likely to publish me back then: my hometown paper. After that, my career as a journalist widened a bit: I started writing feature stories for a variety of larger papers and regional magazines. So I gave up the Mosquito column. But just as my domestic life ended up circling back to Carlisle, so did my professional life eventually carry me back home.
Recently I came across a quotation by Harriet Beecher Stowe that compelled me to question my choices. Stowe says, "Home is a place not only of strong affections, but of entire unreserve; it is life's undress rehearsal, its backroom, its dressing room, from which we go forth to [be] more careful and guarded, leaving behind us much debris of cast-off and everyday clothing." Hmm. So perhaps my choice to circle home means that I'm still in the backroom of life. Yet I really like it here. In high school, it always seemed to me that backstage was where all the intrigue was: people putting on makeup and costumes, frenzied chatter about the performance about to begin or already under way, the air warm with excitement and the heat from the dressing room mirror lights. I was never an actor in high school. I always signed up for props or costumes or assisting the stage manager, eager to be near the action but not on stage. Writers are like that, I've come to realize. We don't want to be at the center of the drama, but we want to be as close to it as we can get in order to bear witness.
Socrates reportedly said "The unexamined life is not worth living." It seems that my life is meant to be examined and lived forwards and backwards, looping around and back. Do I suffer from lack of momentum? Perhaps. But so far, it feels right to have chosen this pleasantly meandering route.
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito