Back in May, I started a summer-long project involving One Day in Your Life posts, revisiting 1976 day by day. “We may never find the secret to time travel, but perhaps the meticulous recreation of ordinary days can generate something like virtual reality,” I wrote. “[W]e’ll see how it goes, see whether we can paint each week of the summer in sufficiently interesting detail. Because I’d like to believe that done right, such a project might hit the magical combination of keystrokes and toonage that opens up the wormhole.”
I didn’t really expect to be physically sucked back through the vortex of time, transformed again into the long-haired, chubby-cheeked, vaguely ridiculous figure I was. I hoped I might be able to recapture how it felt to live in those days via the things we did, the news we read, the songs we heard, and by recounting the incidents and accidents that touched our lives on otherwise mundane and forgettable days.
I knew I would be grasping at shadows, and wisps of smoke, and gossamer milkweed seeds of memory blown on the wind. And I probably should have known what I realize now: that’s not enough to build on. Shadows, smoke, and gossamer don’t add up to a narrative, a novel we can turn back in to refresh our recollection of the story. At best, they might yield a fragment of flickering film, something that’s there and gone before we’ve fully recognized what it is.
TV producer David Milch has said that all storytelling involves the weight of the past on the present. But the weight is all we have. We cannot be there again, on the softball field or on the tractor, or in whatever other memory we might choose, cherished or otherwise. We can only glimpse ourselves there through the haze of years, with the eyes we have now. How it felt to us then, what it was really, really like in the moment—we can guess, but we can’t know.
Two years ago, I wrote about my 1976 daybook, and I found that it didn’t reveal the reason for the weight the summer of 1976 impresses on me at such great distance. Neither did this summer’s project. Back there, in never-ending 1976, the days unspool, mundane events come and go, the radio plays, but what’s really going on—what makes that summer into That Summer—happens somewhere else, beyond the sunsets and the softball scores and the family vacations, in a place unrecorded in the 16-year-old heart, and inaccessible to a much older one.
“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?”
“The saints and poets maybe . . . maybe some.”
But not me.