On November 22, 2013, I rolled into the same parking space I had been sitting in fifty years ago when an announcer crackled and hissed through an eight-year old car radio that the president was dead.
I sat in my car and looked across the campus where I had attended school decades before. The school had changed radically: the campus was bare, not only because of the tundra-like landscape, but also because no one was there—no students, no teachers, only a single groundskeeper. But the "place in itself"—the locus—remained the same: The air was as cold as it had been, global warming, notwithstanding; the odor of early winter was still in the air, the ground frigid but not frozen; the sky was overcast. I could smell November—the end of the year, but not quite.
That sense of place is not so much a combination of memories and retrofitted significance as it is a sensibility, a re-creation of a moment that carries odor and temperature, texture, and a light peculiar to that place, regardless of what might have happened there. Sometimes, these sensory flashbacks come to us uninvited; sometimes, as I did last month, we can encourage them. But we have little control over what they do with us.
I have had my grandmother follow me around, long after she was no longer on this planet, while I walked past a bakery in Prague; my mother was at my shoulder when I sat by a wood fire in New Hampshire and caught a whiff of reheated coffee rooms away; damp straw almost always takes me back to the Orient. A mouthful of that salty, mono textured foodstuff we consumed in our high school cafeteria takes me to my algebra class and Mr. Whateverhiznamewuz. And the boy whose name I’ll never forget who sat close by, reeking of Jade East and failing the course.
Sometimes, the sting of those tiny, icy snowflakes typical of New England winters remind me that I’m old and tired and send me back into the house; but sometimes they invite me back into my childhood, and for a few moments, depending on half a dozen other impressions, I have all the energy in the world. On that day in November last month, I admit that I thought little of the president or Dallas, or The Bay of Pigs; on that day in November last month, I was sixteen.
This is what a writer must open herself to—to that immediate moment that speaks for itself, that place whose concrete information opens a trap door into that messy accumulation of sensory memories that make up who we are.
That “end of the year, but not quite” moment took me to that time when I could anticipate new beginnings and the possibilities of assessing the immediate future in a new way, including the possibility of cutting English class. That November 22 fifty years ago was a sad and confusing time. But the significance of the date had less to say to me than the significance of that place.
As you move into this holiday season, allow those trap doors to open and be wiling to take a free-fall. Spend some time writing about where those combinations of senses take you and less time trying to recall your best holiday or ski trip or visit to the city: Starting with an idea is going about your writing project backwards.