By Pan Pan, Photos by Bill Kurtz
I like revisiting old places. Part of it stems from a childhood fear I had of losing memories. When I was young, I used to think of all the memories I would lose through forgetfulness, one little moment after another, slipping away with each year.
It was a long time ago that I was on the beaches of Connecticut, near Milford, the summer cold and wet. It was a long time ago, then, that I was collecting sea shells out on that beach with my friend, putting the little yellow and white pieces in an old plastic bag and taking them home with me to be relocated into my bathroom as decoration. I wrote in my diary after the cold beach day that afternoon, “Today, I collected sea shells on the beach.”
Two days later, I looked at that date. Two days have passed.
A week later, the same.
Now, fourteen years later, I still remember the day I went to Milford and the beach and walked along the wet sand when the sun was hiding behind clouds while I found sea shells.
What is it about old places that stir new memories, memories that were lodged, forgotten, hidden? I am sometimes scared of old time, the things that were meant to be forgotten relived and revived.
* * * * *
For a long time after, I was scared of passing time. I was scared of the directionality of it, the irreversibility. But as I slowly come to understand time more, the more years I log on in this wonderful little life, the more I realize that time is an old friend. Yes, it’s with time that painful episodes of my life can be forgotten, released, forgiven. It’s with time that things which were unclear come into focus. And so those lost memories which I desperately tried to salvage in every possible way, I took a breath, I let go.
* * * * *
I returned to my hometown in Connecticut after London before planning my next move back to London and the subsequent nebulous steps. Before returning to this small, suburban town, I had lived in two of the world’s largest and most developed cities – inhaled the exhaust and smoke from the dirtied streets, stayed up at night fighting the throbbing beats of the taxi cabs waiting on the streets, listened to plenty night activities commencing outside my window while I tried to sleep in preparation for a morning ride as the sun came up (the only silent time during the days in the city).
I left Connecticut being told that I was to make something of myself. But it was after leaving the ivory towers of education that I slowly began a different type of education, an education that required more silence than speaking, that was more inward that outward, that reversed the very values I had worked on for over twenty years. It was, as if – I would like to say – my entire internal axis were slowly tilting to something different. And in this spirit of irony, it is in returning to my small town in Cheshire, Connecticut that I solidify these beliefs, which took four countries and three large cities to reveal. It’s with this that I invoke T.S. Eliot’s words (roughly) that I’ve “returned to where I started and recognized the place for the first time”.
* * * * *
I’d like to share a few of my favorite lessons from my short return to home:
Lesson Number 1: Ride your bike with old and new friends along known roads.
Lesson Number 2: Eat your vegetables, and thank your mom.
Lesson Number 3: Reread your old diary, and try not to hate your old self too much, especially when you write things like, “My life is over. I got a 95% on the exam and not 100%, and I didn’t win my mile race in track.”
Lesson Number 4: Look at old photos of old heartbreaks, and point, and then laugh. Laugh very hard. Harder. Then say a prayer to whatever religion you worship, “Thank you [insert deity] for saving me from that [choose one (or two): dimwit/numchuck/jdflaksdjfa/horror]”.
Lesson Number 5: Look at your old bookshelf and wonder why it was ever useful to take a class entitled, “Man and Nature in Ming Dynasty Poetry”. Alternatively, wonder why the class, “Europe in the Age of Total War 1914-1945” shows up on your transcript while you have no memory of it. Then look through your old photos of first semester senior year and realize that a few nights a week that semester, you felt it was appropriate to go to a local night club called, “Toads Place”.
Lesson Number 6: Remember your old aspirations and dreams (“I’m going to be a theoretical physicist and discover the 7th dimension!”), and smile, realizing that the best things in your life were in front of you all along. Then go and have some of mom and dad’s Edy’s extra creamy cookie ice cream in the freezer.
Lesson Number 7: Recognize fully (and make anthropological and psychological notes as well as New Year’s Resolutions and self-improvement techniques) on how you relapse into your fifteen year-old self within a matter of weeks. Look through your old closet and wonder why you ever bothered to try that hard because the older you get, the more you realize, “You just gotta do you, baby”.
* * * * *
Reprise, Lesson Number 1: Ride your bike with old and new friends along known roads.
Note the changes. Some roads have been repaved and some forests cleared, and in the place of elms, oaks and pines, are new homes. They’re fresh and neat. And while I have memories of what the old farms looked like, or that golf course, I realize my memory fades and tricks me. The road is longer, the hill is shorter. The winds blew in different directions, and they still do so.
I began cycling in a wonderful community in New Haven, and it was this community that embraced me when I came back after being away for over three years. I began riding with them again, some friends I had known for years (Matthew, Anna, Erica, David K., Yale Cycling) and some friends who were new (Bill, Dominique, David S., Augustine). Was it the same? Of course not. I showed up on the first group ride of my life in an old water polo jacket and sneakers, my shoe laces getting caught on the toe-cage pedals sometime around mile thirty on the fifty-five mile ride. In my mind, there were six distinct, large “climbs” on the group ride, and I had barely made it over the last three (someone’s hand was probably pushing my saddle up). When I came back this year, I was wearing a different kit (“What is ‘mum’?” was a question that I frequently got), and I realized that the “climbs” suddenly disappeared, that a hilly ride suddenly became very flat.
But my old friends were the same, and we remembered the same jokes. And I was reminded of stories that I had forgotten, memory after memory, laugh after laugh.
* * * * *
New Year’s Eve, I was approached by New Haven’s Neptune and persuaded by a group of my close cycling friends (whose photos are below) to do the “greatest” thing they could think of for New Year’s: jump into the Atlantic Ocean after a morning’s bike ride in the dead of winter in the north east of North America for an event called, “The Polar Bear Plunge”. Compared to previous New Years (which included hazy memories of bottles of wine and champagne being consumed – that’s plural, “bottles” – and one spectacular memory of running around and bopping along and jumping up and down on the 34th floor of my roommate’s office building for a New Year’s Eve party in New York City, which could not have ended well, but thank GOD for the food at the party which probably helped curb my three-day-hang-over into a two-day-hang-over, lying in bed and moaning, “Oh my god, it hurts and feels so sick and I swear if this headache goes away I will never ever ever do this to my body again or touch alcohol or ever stay up until seven in the morning oh my god, I think I’m going to vomit…again?!”), this was something new.
But there’s something strangely alluring about the thought of the absolute insane. As if it takes something you would never really consider doing on a normal day to really be able to shake yourself of all those things that bind you. In other words, I wanted to let go.
So after the early morning’s ride through the area I had first learned how to get on a bike, I rode to Lighthouse Point in New Haven and lined up with a few hundred other people who wanted to jump into the Atlantic Ocean in the dead of winter in the northeast of North America (though each for his or her own reasons). My friends lined up with me. It’s a funny thing about doing crazy things: when you’re with a few hundred other insane people doing the same thing, the act suddenly seems less obtrusive, as if obviously it made so much sense to jump into the Atlantic Ocean in the dead of winter in the northeast of North America, look, that hairy bald guy holding a beer next to me is doing it too! Standing there on the beach with my towel, I craved a glass of whiskey.
Luckily, my friends were with me, and those who came on the ride without an extra swim suit stood by the rest of us and held our towels (and our sanity). And as New Haven’s Neptune blew the siren, we all plunged into the water, like humans returning to some prehistoric self (look whales, we’re coming back!).
I will not try to pretend the water was not freezing. I will not try to pretend that I gleefully ran in further, splashing the salt water around me. I will not try to pretend I didn’t swear loudly as I stepped onto rocks and felt the ice water hitting my lungs, or that I didn’t immediately turn to my friend, scream, grab her hand and run back. Yes, I was cold. Yes, I ran back immediately and needed some help going on land again. Yes, I swore like I had a vocabulary consisting of four words they teach you not to say in grade school. But yes, I had the best New Year’s I had ever had, and more importantly, yes, I let go.
* * * * *
It was a long time ago that I was on the beaches of Connecticut, near Milford, the summer cold and wet. It was a long time ago, then, that I was collecting sea shells out on that beach with my friend, putting the little yellow and white pieces in an old plastic bag and taking them home with me to be relocated into my bathroom as decoration. It was this New Year’s that I ran into the same ocean, along beaches nearby. That was exactly one month, fourteen days ago. In another month, it will be exactly two months, fourteen days. Time will go by. Time will disappear. Time will reappear. But sad, sad time, I’ll have to let you go.