What it means to go back in time

When I go back to my hometown, I go back in time. That’s the thing I realized three days ago when I unzipped my suitcase and stacked my shirts in the closet shelves to settle in for my visit to Ohio, the place of my youth.

Last summer, when here on a visit, I watched the film, “About Time,” It’s a dance across the movie screen of blue water, an old house filled with light by the sea as well as filled with teatimes, biscuits, lots of love. But the most important storyline was not so much of Rachel McAdams and falling in love, which is what the trailer promoted (or at least what I remember it promoted) but instead it was about family, about holding on, growing up, and letting go. 

I watched the movie with my mother and sister, not my father. (He was mowing the lawn, as he always does, and pruning trees with his chainsaw, which he likes to bring out because “it’s faster.”) At any rate, I had returned to my hometown to see my parents and to sleep again in my old bedroom, as if I were a teenager and not in the middle of my life. This was my vacation, which is why I was watching a movie on a weekday afternoon, lounging around as if on a school break.

And now, a year later, back in my hometown, I’ve been thinking about that movie and what it means to go back in time. 

Two days ago, I was driving on I-70, which is a straight interstate highway on a flat stretch of Ohio, nothing to look at but fields, barns, the occasional antique warehouse or gas station. It would mean nothing to you, but I can tell you that the road means everything to me of what used to be. My college is just off this highway, and driving on it reminds me of that time just before graduation and after, when I thought I could look to the future and see everything that would happen. I was so sure of what would fall into place. 

This one highway, for me, represents the passage from college to the rest of life, which ended up very unlike my imagination. Throughout my 20s, I moved back and forth from my hometown to other towns and cities, in search of career and love, in search of my self, but always I returned. But that last time I moved away, when I was 29, was different than all the other times. Before then, I was single and I could turn in notices and leave jobs, pack up my little apartment, pack up my car or buy a one-way plane ticket home if I wanted.

At 29, though, life was more complicated, and I was making decisions I thought I should make. It was the first time that leaving my hometown and home state broke something in me. In the years that followed, I wanted to move back, but I stopped myself from doing so, for reasons I can only now see the edges of.

In the movie, the father confides to the son (both of whom are time travelers) that the biggest secret to living life is not going back in time, but appreciating life as it unfolds. 

And it’s true, I would never trade my life as it is now to go back in time. But there were times in between then and now—years and years—when I would have chucked it all and said yes, absolutely, let me go back, if not to 22, then 29, the last time that I moved away. I’ll give up the lessons learned and who I’ve become, I’ll give up all of it if I can just go back.

Instead, in those years, I kept moving forward, and I did the only thing I thought I could do: I returned to my hometown for visits, as often as I could.

It’s only now that I am beginning to understand that my home in Ohio—the house, my parents still in it, the town itself—has stayed virtually the same all these years until I could catch up to where I needed to be in life, when I could finally just appreciate life as it unfolded. For so long, my home in Ohio was the place I went when I sought comfort and solace, when the rest of my life felt out of control and veering in directions I did not want to take but felt compelled to. All those years—when I wanted to go back in time but could not, when I wanted to pack up my things and return permanently—this place waited here for me, for my visits. It let me find my old self, even for a few days—the person I had once been, the one who trusted and believed. 

This morning, as I took a walk on my hometown streets, I saw a man running—I’ve seen him run for decades. He is slender and muscular, and he has a wild head of hair and beard, and in the summer he runs bare-chested and barefooted on the grassy land near the public pool. This morning, I saw him from a distance. He was sprinting, arms pumping as they always did, and I thought happily of how some things stay the same. There he was, still running bare-chested after all these years.

But as I got closer, I saw that he was someone else, a young man with short hair, clean-shaven, with shoes. I saw this, but I let myself, for just a few more moments, pretend he was the other—that it was ten years earlier, or twenty, that he was the person I remembered. 

And for those moments, so was I.