Saturday, August 28, 2010

Your One Wild and Precious Life

Last night my younger daughter asked me at dinner, Could you talk to us about something interesting? Like what? I asked. Time travel, she said.

Now this, like the macabre, is a topic of interest in our house, mostly fueled by my once mentioning the book Time and Again by Jack Finney, which I read I think in high school. I'm not sure it's a great book, but the premise of it has captured my interest for years and years. Basically a guy is involved in this secret government project that involves sending people back into the past. Due to a kind of unrelated mystery the guy asks to be sent back to New York City in 1882. In the present, the guy rents an apartment in the Dakota, an apartment that was apparently empty back in 1882. He will be traveling back in time, but staying in the same space. At this point, I need to point out two things. The Dakota was not completed until 1884, but apparently Jack Finney really wanted the Dakota to feature in his book. The other thing is the ease with which the guy was able to rent an apartment in the Dakota. The book was published in 1970, which, as many may recall, was not a fine time for New York City. Back then, you really could, as I know one couple that did, even buy an apartment in the Dakota for cheap. Anyway.

The part of the story that captured my imagination the most is the fact that every time this guy goes into the past and then returns to the present he is questioned for hours to see if any of his activities in the past changed anything in the present. The idea of this is fascinating. Just the smallest thing, simply asking a stranger for the time, say, could literally change history. Which ends up happening at the end of the book, if you'll forgive me for revealing it. And my girls and I have spent lots of time talking about small, seemingly minor incidents that happened in our lives that if changed would have had enormous consequences. Which has always been my way of telling them to pay attention to things. As Mary Oliver says in her perfect poem "The Summer Day": "I don't know exactly what a prayer is./I do know how to pay attention."

And so, our time travel discussion.

I think I'd want to go back into the past, I said. Maybe like Max's Kansas City in the early 1970s, I suggested, to which my husband nodded appreciatively. Then seeing the look on my girls' faces I said, Or how about visiting Laura Ingalls as a little girl? But not in the winter, of course, I added hastily. (To find out why, all you need to do is read her book The Long Winter. Note: it's all in the title.) The summer would be much better! Oh, I wouldn't want to be there in the summer, said my older daughter. Because they had to wear all those petticoats and it would be so hot! We agreed that the fall or spring would probably be the best time to go. But not the spring where they're still having blizzards, you know, I pointed out. Maybe like June.

But thinking about it now, I don't think we'd even be able to talk to Laura if we saw her because what if something we said caused her never to write those books we are all crazy about? It seems to me that even time travel would have to be about simply paying attention, kind of the way I am doing now on this summer day.

1 comment:

SZ said...

Another excellent post. While I am curious about time travel, I have one rather silly fear: that everyone and everything would smell bad. Even the Ingalls. And forget about, say, Elizabethan England.