Against Retrospection and Change

I am often nostalgic in wintertime. I’m not sure if this is because winter is inherently suited for reflection, or because I have so many memories associated with the season, or because it happens to be wintertime now. But I would think that it’s probably a mixture of all three.

Or because I’ve taken several long drives this winter.

Because for me, driving long distances is also a vehicle of my mind to the past. It happened again this weekend as I drove back to my parents’ place.

When I drove out of the city, and emerged into the country, memories themselves seemed to appear as landscape. Forests and farms lined the highway, and I watched the muted browns and greens of bare and needled trees flash past, and then the wide expanse of white fields, dotted with occasional farmhouses and silos.

But I saw in my mind’s eye, too. I saw the pond behind my childhood home that I had skated on with my siblings, the reeds frozen into the ice that we had to work hard not to trip over. I recalled the winter we “invented” downhill skating in our backyard — the year of the great “ice storm,” of freezing rain for days — when the snow on our entire property had frozen over, layered with thick sheets of ice.

I remember how my dad each year would create a huge snow pile in the backyard with the snowblower, starting by making a huge circle, then spiraling inward, all the while spewing the snow into the heaping middle. We’d slide down it with our toboggans, and carve out a door which faced the kitchen window where our mom could see us as she washed the dishes. The braver of us (not me!) would sleep all night in the snow cave, keeping warm with body heat and sleeping bags.

As I drove to my parents’ this weekend, there was an aching joy (not metaphorical, but strangely literal) that appeared in my heart as I recalled these memories, some so distant that they appeared only as blue trees on the horizon.

“In writing memoir,” writes Phillip Lopate in “Reflection and Retrospection,” an essay, “the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived . . . , while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self. This second perspective, the author’s retrospective employment of a more mature intelligence to interpret the past, is not merely an obligation but a privilege, an opportunity.”

I do not know how to apply the “sophisticated wisdom of [my] current self” to these memories; at least, I find even the thought of this incredibly difficult. I do, however, find great joy in reading retrospection in other people’s writing. But I have my own set of memories, and I allow my mind to flit over them, to wander at will and enjoy living them a second time, like I do when I re-read L.M. Montgomery books and other childhood favourites. I’m not thinking critically.

Sometimes – ofttimes – I feel like I lack the interpretive tools to think meaningfully about my own experiences. And though I usually write from the perspective of where I am currently (like the writerly perspective of driving this past weekend), I look back on these older experiences just as memories, devoid of a current, updated perspective.

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped outside by my childhood home (the one with the pond  and skating and annual snow pile). I was driving back from another long road trip, and I turned off the highway to take the rare chance to see the place again, at least from the outside.

My husband asked me if I even knew my way anymore and I indeed doubted myself as I drove and the unfamiliar threatened to overtake the familiar. But as the landmarks eventually turned true to my memory, I found my way to the country road, the house.

I was startled to see how the trees had grown up: not only the huge spruce in the middle of the lawn, or even the row of maples in the front that my dad had planted and I had almost killed when I ran over one with the riding lawnmower one day in the rain, but also the firs at the side of the house, which we’d first dug up elsewhere and planted ourselves – they were now all taller than the house.

But the biggest surprise – the most unexpected encounter – was the looming forest of jack pines behind the house. When we moved away, they were barely over my head. Now they towered above the house, a raised bungalow, even in the background, and created an uncannily dark backdrop. They made the lawn look much smaller than I remember it. The whole place felt enclosed in a way that seemed to go against every memory that my childhood had of the openness of it.

“In any autobiographical narrative, whether memoir or personal essay, the heart of the matter often shines through those passages where the writer analyzes the meaning of his or her experience,” writes Lopate.

I do not know the meaning of my childhood memories or my return to the house. I just know that they happened, that I think of them in seeming randomness and loose associations. But I will try.

In a way, I regret that I returned to the house – perhaps I had subconsciously wanted the trees to stay as they had been, small, and vulnerable, like me. With all of them towering over the house now, it was the change in the trees that was most difficult to see. Perhaps it’s because they marked growth: they were a witness that the place had not been stagnant for these past 20 years that I had been away. Yes, I could kid myself that the “new” shed in the back had only been added recently. But trees grow slowly, over time. They indicated that things indeed had changed in reality, however fixed they might be in my mind.

As I drove to my parents’ place this weekend, I heard the sweet soul of jazz on the radio, “Stormy Weather,” sung by either Ella Fitzgerald or Lena Horne, or Billie Holiday — I’m not sure which — and I was brought back again to another place from my past: my third floor apartment in a 100 year old house that I’d had in my twenties.

Of all the places I’ve previously lived, my favourite by far is this one. Strangely, my memories of it are predominantly of the wintertime (strange because I lived there in all four seasons). Of being cozied up in its front room during the winter weeknights, listening to jazz on the radio on the “Crooners” program from 8-10 as I worked on my writing or just curled up on the couch with a good book.

Or going swing dancing during a snowstorm, on a Friday night, and returning to my apartment by foot, running home most of the way, pausing to help push spinning cars out of snowbanks. And then, returning, to my own little tower on the third floor, exchanging layers of wet clothing for pajamas, making peppermint tea, and looking out of the small window at the snowflakes falling in front of the streetlight. I’d been too exhilarated from the experience and the warmth of endorphins from dancing and running, to sleep.

From that house where I lived on the third floor, I would walk down to the canal, and would skate one way to get to a night class, and the other to get to church on Sundays. I recall the way the bones of my hips hurt with the effort of pushing one leg, then the other, to propel myself over the hard ice.

“To think on the page, retrospectively or otherwise, is difficult,” admits Lopate.

I tell myself that it’s hard — too hard — to try to extract meaning from these experiences, but I wonder if it’s because, at the heart of it, I don’t want to. I both did and did not want to return to the house of my childhood. The reaction was immediately, visceral when I saw those looming trees. I experienced the dread one fears that’s often accompanied with the sublime, a strange mixture of terror and awe.

Nostalgia too, is not just sweet: it’s a strange mixture of pleasant memories mixed with undertones of loss, perhaps because these are inaccessible, gone, or too distant. Blue trees on the horizon. Looming trees over a house.

The aching joy I experienced on the drive here, I realize now, was not connected with the memories of playing outside my childhood home, but rather, are directly associated with ones in my third floor apartment. The aching joy of both memory and loss all at once.

I’ve never returned to that third floor apartment, not inside anyways, though I have looked up to the tiny window as I’ve driven past when in the part of the city. I dreaded to see it dark, but it pained me more to unexpectedly see a light on — it was no longer my own, mine. How could life keep being lived on up there, without me? Because in my mind, it was somehow still unchanged from when I last lived in it. I wanted to keep it that way.

Perhaps that’s my real resistance to thinking more deeply about what these memories mean: I think I intuited that in looking back at them with a current perspective and understanding, it somehow would change the memories themselves. Now, the most vivid image of my childhood home is of those dark trees looming over it – things which have grown since I was there, which were not apart of my actual memories while living there.

Similarly, I think I am scared that if I look at the places from my past from my current perspective, I will replace some of those memories with updated versions that reflect more on my growth since than what was true at the time.

Yes, I realize, even as I type these very words. This may even very well be the point.

“But the writer’s struggle to master that which initially may appear too hard to do,” continues Lopate, “that which only the dead and the great seem to have pulled off with ease, is moving in itself, and well worth undertaking.”

Here, at my parents’ place this weekend – another house in the country, I went to the back creek. The ice was soft but still sturdy, and my family and I took turns pulling and in turn were pulled over the ice on sleds, running! running! running! only to stop suddenly, and to swing or be swung around, three generations each giving and receiving their turn – the squeals of little ones, the half-genuine shrieks of terror and thrill by me.

My parents’ current home has changed gradually over the years, but this does not bother me. Perhaps it has more to do with the fact that I spent none of my childhood here, and only a short time before I moved out and went on my own. I’m not as connected with this place as others. I can allow it to change.

As I finish this post, I’ve delayed my drive back to my home, my current one in the city.  In a few minutes, I’ll get in my car, and head the opposite direction on that split highway, the road leading back to my current life. I’ve felt the need to finish before I leave. Why is this? Maybe to have a souvenir of what it’s like to be in and write in a place, without nostalgia, without thinking backwards or forward.

I wrote earlier that winter is the season for reflection.

But I wonder if it’s more accurate to say that, for me, winter is more about remembering. Reflecting, after all, is hard work: the work of skating, the work of pulling a heavy toboggan over ice.

It’s much easier to sit and read or write in one’s cozy third floor apartment, safe with the knowledge that it’s howling fiercely outside but, at least for this unchanged moment, it can never get you.

Question: How do you go about reflecting meaningfully on past experiences?