Goodbye marks the arrival of a memory
Alternatively: Phantom Space
“I came to see myself as growing out of the earth like the other native animals and plants. I saw my body and my daily motions as brief coherences and articulations of the energy of the place, which would fall back into it like leaves in the autumn.” - Wendell Berry, (A Native Hill)
A farewell leaves a trace. Afterimages. Like staring at the sun for too long and it imprints across your vision. Sometimes you can recreate that sensation when you squeeze your eyes shut, but these are fragmented and scattered.
There’s a special moment when we enter the room, meet someone new and our eyes first lock. Though categorized as a beginning this also marks the end of a moment. These instances become a seed planted where we reside which take root and grow over the course of our time in a place.
I lived in the same 40 mile radius for over 20 years. In that time what grew into existence was a whole population… possibly the size of a major city where memories existed alongside one another; you could imagine them projected into our reality from another dimension.
Moving 3,000 miles away for the first time marked the end of this coexistence with these traces. Would the memories crumble into the dust like some long forgotten ruin once I left? What used to be a ritual of passing these parallels now became one last farewell tour. The string of final goodbyes happened while traveling in a car next to a suitcase:
The high school. The old building’s phantom forms flickering as you pass by. The translucent apparitions of the 16-year old versions of classmates wave. Some have grown up, living elsewhere… their changing selves documented on a phone screen. Some of them though are permanently the versions I see up on that hill, the final goodbyes etched in classrooms and hallways slowly fading. I always wondered if others see them too in their own ritual drive-bys of this place.
The sign that announces birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations.
The stop light. The McDonalds. The forest wall that hid the start of the fair grounds.
The street you used to turn off on to visit an old friend. Goodbye to the versions of myself that still take that exit. I watch them, the layers of memories driving in that old car.
The carpool lot, the last traces of the hometown.
Eventually it is the city I loved. The memories seem to drift off the exit, winding up the ramp to the apartment I once lived in. Counting many goodbyes to the multiple versions of the past remembering the other versions of themselves.
The airport. Goodbye to the evergreens, the mountains…
What will happen to all of these traces? How do you ever get to see them again once you leave a place? Do they simply evaporate?
The plane seemed to struggle to lift as the final partings were made, weighed down by the traces of all the past farewells that clung to the wings, desperately determined to bring it down. They seemed to trail off like a silver slinky tumbling 10,000 feet to the ground. The engines struggled, the metal shell tipped backwards but momentum and sheer will tugged the machine free and it continued to hurtle into the atmosphere.
Hours passed before landing in a void.
Seemingly hungover from this new place that lacked any familiarity.
Mind blank, map empty.
Maybe like the start of the universe there was a sudden flash as an unknown landscape unfolded out.
This place, a hostile environment at first where roots refused to take hold, finally shifted over a year later while walking along the new city’s sidewalk. It was that familiar phantom sensation which turned the gaze slowly to the restaurant across the street where a translucent memory stood gazing back and waving. The random appearance was startling at first before a sense of comfort settled and finally I (remembering my manners) ventured a hesitant wave back before yelling,
The first root takes to the soil. Then it all seemed to happen again like before. The start of another city:
The stoop to the apartment. The orange cat in the window. The walk to school. The windows down into the bar where over time the memories congest and blur until it seems to spill out onto the street causing the lamppost to flicker.
The looming concrete building. The hallways… a busy thoroughfare of bustling memories nodding and waving as they pass.
Back to the stoop again and again. The memories of passing, stopping, chatting and listening cluster together on the six stone steps up to the door. As you leave the front door there peeks through the fence a backyard that often you notice the blaze of the long gone fire pit… where countless traces of memories congregate, forever enjoying a party I can never return to but will always see as I walk by.
Just as this new city of memory forms, soon it too will embark on its own farewell tour.
Returning to old phantom spaces when you no longer have roots attached is difficult but not impossible. It becomes more like a distant radio signal that appears randomly in out-of-place moments. Fuzzy and full of inaccuracies. 3,000 miles is a long way for a signal to travel.
Sometimes we can be welcomed into another’s memory space. Sitting around a table sharing stories which seem to float above our heads, a projecting film for a group to enjoy. Often two people can be in the same room but form two separate traces. Recounting this moment together can alter and mend. Sharing memory space can be where you learn why sometimes houses can be haunted or certain smells or colors bring a smile to another’s face.
Eventually you must depart from these places. They don’t necessarily evaporate… maybe they fade like the cover of a book sitting in the sun too long. These memories continue living on wherever you go until at some point in an unknown time the final catalyst marks the end. When we are no longer around to remember and those who remain eventually forget. Traces of you and I buried beneath the ground. Though who knows when it will occur or what will happen after that.