Some thoughts on time and “Our Town”

Every now and then my parents would mention someone they had known before I was born, usually from high school, and there’d be a tinge of sadness. One had died in Vietnam, another from an overdose, or there’d been a falling out and that person was someone “other” that had been familiar. It unsettled me, brought up several strong and poignant emotions and perceptions. Most strongly, a glimpse of them without me, and conversely a time when there would be a me who was their baffling adult age, when the things that occupied my time and thoughts would be so different, and ultimately there would be a time of me without them.

I don’t know if it’s because I was so familiar with death already or if it’s a common thing for people that young, but from the time I was six (possibly earlier) I’ve had this multi-layered sense of time; or more specifically of people occupying time.

With my friends I would occasionally catch a glimpse of how they’d be as an adult; ten or twenty years in the future. Of course these weren’t extra-sensory things, just impressions. The way that we as adults can occasionally glimpse what someone must have been like as a toddler. But it would be vivid and specific and accompanied by a melancholy foreshadow of nostalgia and the inevitability of change.

I was at the beach one day with a friend, we were probably thirteen. He and I could talk about things that the rest of our friends didn’t seem to be interested in. I think we had crushes on each other, but would never have mistaken it for more than that. He dated one of my best friends, our worlds were so different, and there was something about him that made me wary. There was some drama in the group and we took a walk to distance ourselves and essentially so I could explain the workings of thirteen year old girl’s minds to him, so he could fix whatever stupid thing he’d done to upset his girlfriend. I remember he picked up a rock and threw it into the waves. I was overwhelmed by the weight of years to come that I felt he’d have to struggle with. He was so smart, but really insecure about his mind and his place in the world. And I imagined a decade on, a young man on a precipice. I wanted for him to be a doctor or something with family and love. But I couldn’t see it. We lost track of each other after junior high and our worlds completely diverged. I found out years later that he committed suicide in his twenties. It broke my heart. I also hadn’t realized how much I’d been holding onto that hope that he’d make it over the precipice safely.

One of the things I find kind of fascinating about social media is how connections are regained with people from one’s distant past. Not always good, but for the most part it is. There is something strong and undeniable about knowing someone when you were both forming who you would become while figuring out who you were. My heart swells a little bit when I see posts from or think about how many people from my youth I am still connected to in some way; drifting closer and farther away, mostly in the realm of acquaintance, but still interested and engaged. Even when I think, “wow, really you turned into *that* dude?”, I’m also aware of the journey and the context in a way that you just can’t be with new acquaintances.

Another time-folding (for lack of another term) moment I remember clearly was riding on the bus with a friend. He was talking to a little kid who’d asked him something and I could easily see him, wiry and greying in his sixties. I saw a lot of life, but peace. The common belief at the time was that he would never settle down: friends would tease him that he’d be a bachelor all his life. I always felt like he’d probably be late settling, but would. I was happy to learn he’d had a child. I got a flash of his weathering face echoing forward from 28 years ago to twenty years from now and hold that hope for his peace.

I used to get in heated debates with another friend about the nature of time. We’d argue the metaphysics, the theological, the psychological. We did not experience or see it the same way. He described linearity and cause and effect. I described liquid forward motion with spatial relationships, but no defined shape; like scattering marbles across a long table.

When I’m with people I am at times overtaken by the presence of then and now. I’m somewhat convinced this is just another aspect of my self-defenses. If I can imagine people leaving, then I won’t be surprised when they go. If I give them a context larger than the moments I know them, then I won’t be lulled into believing it won’t change. We all cope on a million different levels. This is one of mine.

So yes, at any given time, I may be imagining you at three, sixteen, twenty four, forty, eighty. I may be populating your future with all the nuance of good and bad we survive, create, and experience. I may be imagining your possible successes, failures, or tedium. It may make me sad or joyful. It may be a flicker of dispassionate cataloging. I may chose to ignore it like an irritating tick or explore it more deeply. But I will probably do it at least once after we meet. I realize it’s unnerving, I can’t control it really. All of it usually happens within the span of milliseconds.

Some of my friends permanently occupy a shifting range of time frames. What else when you’ve known someone for thirty years and have no plans to not know them for thirty more? They giggle and you hear their ten year old self giggle even as you notice the gray hair at the temples and the crows feet, while they tell you about their jujitsu or marathon and their child pulls their focus.

I remember being desolate the first time I read “Our Town”. The last scene with Emily was unbearable. Here the playwright, the character, the script, was manifesting the exact melancholy I sensed in my parents, that I felt when I acknowledged their impermanence. Despite seeing several productions, it still resonates each time. But I recently saw the Shotgun Player’s production and was surprised after so many years that it now also felt reassuring and hopeful.

It was a sustained experience of being in multiple times at once. I was at Shotgun. I was enjoying the performances of friends and aware of them, pleasantly, as well as occupying the town and the characters. I was fully absorbed in the story. I was remembering my dad and the debates with friends about “if I could go back…” I wondered if I’d be able to get my sixty eight year old mother into the theatre. I was sitting next to one of my dear, but newer friends and aware of a time when she’ll be a long time friend. At the other end of the aisle happened to be one of my closest friends from high school. We’d done a production of “Our Town” in school. She had been on stage, I’d been off stage. Neither of us could remember what character she’d played. So I was also awash in memories of the theatre at James Lick and rehearsals and performances. I was aware of all those confused and angsty hormone driven experiences from that time: the boy I’d been in love with and the embarrassing attempts at occupying space near him, the day they announced a beloved former student had died in a car crash, the sudden unlocking of memories about a friend who had died when I was six. The crushing sense of the world and the future; hope and the unknown.

It was all there at once in the Shotgun theatre wrapped up in the production’s tremendous sense of wonder and awe. It was powerful and beautiful. I wouldn’t have traded it for a star.

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