Those of you who have been reading this blog assiduously since the early days (mom!) might remember that in November of 2011, I travelled back to Providence, RI, to revisit the scene of my undergraduate days. You might remember that I woke up at 7am and ran straight to my old dorm and wept in front of one of the janitors, bemoaning the fact that time had passed. You might also remember that I nearly broke down in the Blue Room — my old favorite cafe on campus — because their chocolate chip cookie recipe hadn’t changed since I graduated in 1997 and just the smell of it brought back my youth in technicolor. The trip was made all the more strange because my beloved husband categorically refused to partake in my nostalgia-rituals, and I had to confront the passage of time and my own propensity toward mythologizing my past all alone. And so I sat there on the steps of Sayles Hall, reliving as much as I could about the four years I spent at Brown, and feeling very much like Masha in The Three Sisters, who says, “I’m in mourning for my life.”
I undertook a similar trip this past November, only this time I was wise and left Mr. Birds and Words at home. He had little interest in revisiting Princeton with me, and I didn’t really want to inflict another nostalgia-overdose on anybody. So off I went, this time for US Thanksgiving, to see my dear friends in Hopewell, NJ. I spent an afternoon on campus, not at all shocked that Princeton had gotten over my departure in 2004, but I must admit that I was stunned at how well everybody had coped without me! College campuses are a funny thing: they are basically an idyll that lives according to its own time-space continuum. Nothing there ever changes. And yet here I was, 14 years older, still the same, but not. I took a minute to sit in the East Pyne courtyard, and realized that the last time I had sat there was the morning of my dissertation defence in September 2004.
I saw a great show at the art museum — about nature and the nation — and wondered why I hadn’t spent more time in that museum as a graduate student. I stood planted in front of an enormous Diebenkorn painting and thought that such a view might have been the answer to so many of my graduate school woes.
I could make a career out of inhabiting nostalgia. I could teach workshops on the art thereof. My imaginative capacities for reliving long-gone moments are extraordinary. Would that one could market such a skill.
And then, before things got entirely out of hand, we left campus and drove back to Hopewell, where everything was sufficiently new that didn’t have anything to relive and had to just enjoy the present moment. But what really cured my nostalgia was going birding the next day with Rick Wright. I’ve known Rick’s wife for years — we met in grad school — but this was my first time meeting Rick himself. We drove out to Sandy Hook, NJ, and immediately upon arriving, I saw a trifecta of scoters in large numbers: White-winged, my favorite Surf, and Black Scoter. And though I’d seen all three already, it takes a considerable amount of work to get all three in the same binocular view in Southern Ontario, so this was a thrill. And then I turned around and saw an even stranger sight: across the water was Coney Island with its rollercoasters and ferris wheels, and not far from that was Sheepshead Bay and Avenue Z in Brooklyn, where my grandfather had once lived, and where I had spent a few nights in 1985, when he gave me a silver glass-holder that I still have. This was as close as I’d ever get to Coney Island, at least for the foreseeable future. The day also included a lifer for me: a Northern Goshawk perched on a brach. I originally misidentified it as a Red-tailed Hawk, but the intensely barred breast gave it away.
On my way back to Toronto, I wondered why I hadn’t crumbled the way I had seven years ago, when revisiting Rhode Island, and realized — it must have been the birds. With binoculars in my hand, I was suddenly seeing a different New Jersey, an entirely new and fascinating place I hadn’t even imagined existed. And after a few hours staring at the birds, I found myself happy to be exactly where I am. In this place.