Commentary: Coming unstuck in time 

By Todd R. Nelson 


I’ve come unstuck in time. Thank goodness. Where shall I go today?  

Life in quarantine or social distancing needn’t be sedentary or limited or forlorn. Where is the romantic imagination explored by Keats and Wordsworth? Here. Now. Available. Follow.  

In psychology, mental time travel is a distinctively human skill,” writes Adam Grant. It involves rewinding to remember the past and fast-forwarding to envision the future. With practice, we can use it to find meaning in monotony, experience moments of happiness in the midst of sadness and make time feel like it’s passing faster or slower.1  

Let us go. I’d like to wander through the white pine woods I first encountered as a third grader when we moved from suburban Chicago to more rural Massachusetts. I can feel the wind moving through the massive trunks, and the peaceful perpetual dusk on the forest floor. I ran my heedless ways for the first time, given parental license or benign neglect to explore on my own, rambling old paths to streams and ponds and building redoubts with my neighborhood cohort. Hunter gatherer stuff. Playing with fire. Don’t tell mom.  

That led no doubt to my teenage years roaming the White Mountains, and then college weekends racking up high peaks in all weather conditions. Let’s go there today. I wouldn’t mind a stroll through the Presidential Range …. or how about the Cairngorms, another mountain range of my youth. Remember, there’s no bad weather only inappropriate clothing. There are no bad memories when you’re at the controls, skipping through times and places of adventure, romance. Everything is, in hindsight, antecedent of what was to come. One can edit the pain and isolate the pleasure. One can be a romantic poet.  

Like Royal Albert Hall, where I spent many an evening in choice seats for rock concerts. We are in the early 1970s now and grooving to Grand Funk Railroad, The Band, Jethro Tull, Yes and Iron Butterfly. We are in a simultaneity of personal and rock ‘n’ roll progression. We are all formative performers and listeners. I hope the aging rockers have as good a time coming unstuck as I do.  

Or just taking in the sound of diesel taxis and buses along Old Brompton Road, walking to school in Knightsbridge, picking up a jelly-filled donut on the way, perusing boutiques in Beauchamp Place, or scouting celebrities on the shortcut through Harrods. For real. Or lolling in the church park on the way home again. Here comes the sun, after a dreary London winter. The mental pictures survive intact. It’s only fantasy when it’s entirely made-up, not revisited.  

“Back to the Future” has such an outworn ring. It’s so determinative. We don’t want to go all “Terminator.” Best leave the past alone, visit from the present, and allow the future to become what we make of it. Time travel, Kurt Vonnegut might say, doesn’t mean tinkering with the results. Think simultaneity.  

Other poets knew, long before Hollywood got involved. In “Burnt Norton,” T.S. Eliot considered my point:  


Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable. 


Or am I considering his point? At any rate, I’m with T.S. Eliot. And he had lived in my neighborhood in London, 10 years before I arrived. Was he still there nonetheless? Yes, as far as I’m concerned. He was not, however, at Royal Albert Hall for Jethro Tull. They played “Thick as a Brick.” I wore my trousers rolled and my hair long. You were there. Maybe.  

There’s unfinished business too. When you’re unstuck in time you can explore a redo. Let’s go to Paris again—any time. Like the summer of 1971, Hotel Esmeralda. Then spring of 1972, Hotel des Maronniers. Summer 2007, Hotel Esmeralda again…as husband and father. London, on the Green Park bench with Maryjane in spring. Surely it’s an antecedent of sitting on the Kensington Gardens bench with Lesley in 1981. Then there was once the all-day rock concert at The Oval…The Who will come on at 10 p.m. “They’ll be digging this in Paris tonight,” the announcer said/will say, about the new sound system…Let’s do it again. Only louder. Won’t get fooled again. Yes, we will. With pleasure.  

1 To Build Resilience in Isolation, Master the Art of Time Travel,” by Adam Grant, NYT, 5.15.20 

Todd R. Nelson, a retired English teacher, inhabits present-day Penobscot. Sometimes.  

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