I’ve been thinking a lot about time travel lately. Not in the personal sense, but as a device in stories. How to facilitate it, how to make it believable, interesting. I’ve always liked stories where a person is living in one world and somehow crosses into another. Perhaps I crave these tales of crossing over because I have never felt I belong in this world. I’ve learned its ways, to some extent. But so much of living is navigating between the inner and the outer spheres – how do we let out what we experience on the inside? Do we?
I met a woman at a campground where I stayed in southern Crete a few years ago. She was friendly, smiling, traveling alone as I was. She came from northern Greece – Thessaloniki – but she talked about how special Crete was, how the water, “Kriti water,” was good for your teeth. The campground where we both stayed was just across from a pebble beach and we would lounge there in the heat of the day, sipping orange juice or the iced coffee slushies they like in Greece. In the shade of the trees which grew along the beach, we would talk about our lives, about our interests, about traveling, about love.
“Have you heard of this story, “The Valley of the Roses?” she asked me. I told her no, I hadn’t. She told me the story in her pieced together English: a man in Switzerland in the 1920s fell into a coma-like sleep and awoke in a different body, at a different time – about 1500 years in the future. The people spoke a language he didn’t know, but they recognized his German as one of the “old languages” and soon they put together that this was someone from a different time in the body of their friend and colleague.
I googled the story, but didn’t find much on the internet. Eventually I figured out the name of the man who had this experience and documented it – Paul Dienach. While he was in the future, he could not sleep, instead staying up every night to write down his experiences and thoughts, what he learned from his conversations, what he remembered from his own time, how different the world of the future was.
Last summer when my parents visited me in Seattle, I told my mother about the story and we discovered it had been published in English. Then I got so swept up in moving to London and starting school that I forgot all about the book, until Christmas this year, when my mom brought along the copy she purchased and passed it along to me.
It is one thing to do what I am doing in my studies of archaeology and look at the past. The past already has patterns we can analyze and interpret – it has lines to read between. The future is another matter entirely, where the lines are not yet drawn and we have little to draw upon but our hopes and fears, our desires and dreams of what the future might hold.
When I read Tarot cards, I always tell people that the future cards will make a lot less sense than the cards representing the past and present, matters we are already familiar with. We can think back to the past, reflect on the present, but the future is conceptually impenetrable – opaque.
These days I can’t seem to get beyond the three of swords. Whereas 3’s are normally a lucky number of growth, the three of swords is different – it bears a red Valentine-looking heart pierced by three swords, a rainy sky in the background, viscerally representing pain, shock, surprise, love-triangles. This card has been showing up in my readings for at least the last month, if not longer. It isn’t the sort of card you want to see in a reading, least of all in the future position.
It is a card I have gotten twice when I was blissfully happy in a relationship. Both times, I was riding a high of love and sex and believed no clouds were on the horizon. And then I read the cards, and the three of swords said something was being hidden from me. Neither time did I think to ask my beloved if there was something amiss. I preferred to dismiss the meaning, obvious though it was – to hope that it could mean something else – that the cards were wrong. Both times, I soon found myself out in the cold, the blissful feeling gone, along with my beloved, and my heart. It sounds melodramatic, but I do not love lightly. Perhaps that is part of my problem.
Paul Dienach was like me, though. A person who’s soul cries out for love above all else. A romantic. A victim of longing.
Paul had loved a young woman who was forced to marry another and died in childbirth. He held onto the sadness of losing her for years, never seemingly attempting to replace his dead love, but mourning her loss in perpetuity. Now, living in the future, he finds love again. The people of that time are more true to their emotions – they do not deny them, hide them, fear them as we do. The people there were guileless, accomplished at a young age, childlike in their fascination and appreciation for nature, beauty, and deep emotions. People love and admire each other for their capacity to feel and show love. That desire to merge with another is held sacred – people do not conceive of themselves as automatons or robots, following blind desire, trampling hearts. The basic starting place of all relationships is respect and empathy.
The Greek woman who told me about the Valley of the Roses was in the throes of new love when we met. She had found a “very handsome man” several years her junior, with whom she’d fallen madly in love. She had the gleam and excitement, the magic one exudes when everything seems possible. I hope everything worked out for her.
Love seemed to be all around me then, at the camping ground. A cute couple pitched their tent near me: an American guy and a European girl, looking happy and free together, and I couldn’t help but think about the man who’d seemed to be mine just a year before. I had envisioned similar happy adventures with him. I felt jealous of that joyous couple; I imagined that in some other version of events, that might have been us.
I’ve spent so much of my life mourning for the past. Holding onto sorrow because it was as close as I could get to love. Instead, on that trip, I was dogged by men who tried to get close to me, at least in the physical sense. They came on in fast sequence: first, the father of my friends (someone at least twice my age), then the restaurant manager in Santorini, next an English backpacker in Bodrum, and then a Turkish tourist guide in Ephesus. I was mostly left alone in Lesvos, then there was the personal trainer at Delphi, and finally a musician in Istanbul. Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.
It all added to the feeling I had that something had gone wrong somewhere. Somehow the magic had left my life and I wasn’t sure if it would ever return. I remember the feeling as I looked out over the harbor below Delphi, the twinkling lights of a distant village, the sky heavy with stars above us, and there I was with some stranger I’d met on the street, who’d invited me to dinner and driven me to this romantic lookout spot on his motorcycle. It was clear he wanted to kiss me next to that ancient sparkling abyss, but all I felt was the deep feeling of loss.
In the two and a half years since I was in Greece and Turkey, I have released a lot of that old sadness. It took time and work and a fair amount of distraction and self-love. Moving to Seattle seemed to help me to leave behind some of the pain of what had happened. New York had become a city of broken dreams and any new place was a respite from those old memories.
Now I’ve returned to London, where once things felt so right. But my presence here hasn’t meant a rebirth of that old love, though it looked like that was a possibility, for a brief moment. On the contrary, it seems to be a sort of final coda, tacked on to the end of an old song.
To return to the idea of time travel, I recently watched a series called The Outlander, in which an English woman is transported from Scotland in the 1940s to the 1740s. She is unable to go back to her own time for long enough to fall in love with a handsome Highlander, and then she doesn’t want to return, preferring to stay with him, in his time, than to return to her life and husband in the 1940s. When the two of them are unable to prevent a battle which they know, historically, led to the death of nearly all Scottish fighters, her husband tells her she must return to her time, and keep the child she is carrying safe. So she does, and twenty years pass, during which she assumes her true love died in that battle and mourns him, raising their daughter with the man she had been married to before her travels. When her child is grown, she learns from some old documents that he survived, after all, and she decides to return to the past, to look for him.
In The Outlander, the time travel is a device to tell a wonderful love story about two people brought together across hundreds of years and the cultural divide that comes with it, but it is what makes the story satisfying for a love junkie such as myself. Even when the two are separated by (apparent) death and time, they don’t let one another go. They can’t. I know it’s just a story, but it resonates with me, because that is the sort of connection I seek.
Of course, the world is full of people, but I don’t enjoy the hunt. I’m too single-minded for the games of love people play. I’ve had my fill of flakes and phonies, philanderers and fairweather folks. I’m fortunate to have found great friends in my life – women and men I will love as long as I am able. All I seek now is that pinnacle friend, a fellow follower of the one true faith: love. For too long I’ve felt myself a stranger in a foreign land, far from home, even in the place of my birth. I’d hoped by now to have found my fate.
Finally, I seem to have cycled back through all the false starts I’ve made up till now. I’ve learned much about my own faults and fears, grown through my mistakes and felt the depth of my ancient pain. I’m ready to find my own family and to release the failures of my past.
I haven’t learned the secrets of time travel and the future is still a mystery to me, but at least I’ve made peace with the past. The task before me now is simply to feel my freedom in this present moment, and to move forward without fear.
I see in my own family the example of what not to do: in January, my aunt Elisabeth died alone in the shell of a life she might have left long ago for greener pastures. Love for her was found and lost in Miami, and she lived with its ghost for the rest of her life, forsaking other paths and embracing a past full of empty boxes, far from family, focused on her pain and what she’d lost.
After her mother died, she had no one but her brothers, far away and preoccupied with their own lives and families. My sister, Erika, was always the best at staying in touch with her. In the last few years before Erika died, I think she managed to forge a real bond with our lonely aunt. To make her feel loved and treasured. I tried to live up to her example, though I know I wasn’t as good at it as she had been. Dear Aunt Elisabeth, wherever you are, I’m sorry I can’t go back in time and be kinder, more loving, more present for you.
Love is really the only thing that conquers time. It is what binds us together through changes and years, through progress and fears.Wherever my aunt is, I hope her husband is with her; I like picturing her sitting down to a home-cooked meal made by her mother, my Omi, with Erika pouring everyone a delicious vintage. After dinner, they’d have dessert and play gin rummy and maybe even smoke a cigarette like they used to do.
Recently I encountered a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Without love, there is no reason to know anyone, for love will in the end connect us to our neighbors, our children and our hearts.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Love and miss,