There is a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom, which almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and haunt, ghostlike, the spot where some great and marked event has given the color to their lifetime, and still the more irresistibly, the darker the tinge that saddens it.
~Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
What is it in some of us that habitually seeks out the defining, heavyweight geographical places where childhood was engulfed by the world’s fallen realities and, we’re almost positive, irrevocably altered? By temperamental default, a lot of writers live inside this tendency to romanticize the power of past events—and the places they happened—whether those events were of the horror genre or the Disney.
I am admittedly driven more by the ruminative bent than the pragmatic one; something beyond intellect, yet hopefully not completely unreasonable, drives me to trudge again and again (as much as God will let me get away with it) past the demarcating tangibles of the formative years: the firehouse on the way home from my grade school where the flag rippled at half-mast the day President Kennedy was shot; the thresholds (the very doorknobs, if you can believe it) of former school buildings that still elicit apprehension about unfinished science projects; the swimming pool where a dark, balding teacher shattered innocence; and that spot on the sloping lawn of the high school where I still crazily believe if I sit long enough, I’ll spy a miniature Rosetta Stone half buried among the grass tufts, the key to finally understanding the puzzling intricacies of an ancient romance that still hangs morbidly in the air of that place.
This sort of nostalgic pilgrimage along old paths is one way my soul attempts to make sense of this broken world, a world for which the human soul was not created. The Greek roots of the word nostalgia mean "return of pain." If by returning to the places of the past our wounded psychic tissues might find some measure of redemption, what of it? Yet in those movies in which characters find themselves hurled backward in time to their teenage days, they usually discover that even with the wisdom of many added years to their credit, they are still unable on the second round to alter life-changing events. The deaths we died and the blood we shed at the end of childhood were carnage for a reason, and in God’s providence are forever woven into the soul fabric of the people we are today.
And though our brains may not have processed reality in completely rational ways in those long-ago days that still haunt us, our true inner lives, deaths, and resurrections were as vast and complicated as younger people as they are within our well-ensconced adult selves. The still-developing prefrontal cortex that sits just behind the waxy-smooth forehead of a pubescent child, that vital compaction of nerve tissue that modulates mood, judgment, and impulse control, is not the defining measure of the child’s soul. The heart is an ageless thing, and eternal, wrote the Christian ascetic St. Macarius centuries ago:
Within the heart is an unfathomable depth . . . a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there . . . rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There also is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.
It is in the spirit of St. Macarius that I struggle to allow God to sanctify my “great and marked events.” And more importantly, Christ offers in real time a redemption more fathomless than analysis of any tangled past, by reducing himself routinely to humble mystery, in a cup we call golden.
Jean Hoefling's creative nonfiction piece "Remission" will appear in issue 5.2 of Relief.