When I was a child I was fascinated by what then was called the “miracle” of time lapse photography. It’s been rendered a little quaint now, overtaken by more dazzling computer-generated visual effects. There was something that transfixed me about watching a skyscraper that took years to build materialize in a matter of seconds, or seeing cumulus clouds morph on a summer afternoon into towering thunderheads and then become benign again after the passage of a violent storm. Now that I’ve passed my 60th birthday I understand that life itself has a way of mimicking this phenomenon. What we think of as real time, our minutes, hours and days, seems to pass slowly and yet somehow the years speed by in a blur of images and memories that jostle for space in the mind and pile up as they overtake each other. “The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once,” X.J. Kennedy entitled one of her poems, but there are times when it hardly feels that way.
I thought about all this last week as I gazed out the window of a conference room in a suburban office building in my home town. Before we began our business, I remarked to the lawyer seated across the table that the building’s parking lot stands on what used to be the rocky playing field where my friends and I spent autumn weekend afternoons collecting bruises and grass stains in pickup football games. It reminded me that when I walk a few blocks from my office for lunch I see a Hilton Hotel that’s been erected on the site of the theater where my Russian immigrant grandfather traveled on a city bus with me to my first movie at age five, to see Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in Melville’s American classic. And on my drive home from work I pass the land on which the cramped, scruffy public golf course where I learned the game once stood. Now a highway slices through it, abutting the office of a limousine service and scattered Post Office maintenance buildings. In these places, and others, it’s easy for me to look past the physical structures that occupy the sites—what once were palaces of memory and imagination transformed into nondescript outposts of ordinary commerce—to the ghostly images that shimmer around them. In those moments time doesn’t lapse, it races, unspooling backwards in a headlong rush. The inevitable erasure that’s occurred is progress of a sort, to be sure. But somehow I can’t escape these encounters without Joni Mitchell’s wistful voice echoing in my head, and I understand, more than I did when I first heard the words, that she’d captured something approaching an eternal truth in her lament: “They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot.”
- Harvey Freedenberg
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