I have always been a time traveler.
It’s the way my brain works, constantly circling back through my history. Where was I a year ago? Two years ago? How have I changed? Where was I then? Every moment measures against the one before, even so incrementally—from now to yesterday, one month, a year, five years. How did I spend Halloween as a child? What was I doing a year ago today? And more importantly, have I grown?
This manifests in an uncanny mind for dates and occasions. I remember the dates of those huge relationship moments, my first kiss, first betrayal, first moment of soul-crushing “what am I even doing right now?”. Those are compared against each other every year (spoiler: for most I prefer where I currently am on that date). But there are less monumental moments that stubbornly resist slipping away. There’s the day a friend cancelled on a concert during a season of incredible loneliness, and I can’t forget the date when I sobbed on my dorm room floor over the abandonment. There’s the perfect day of napping on blankets in the park after camping, sun and water and the freedom of summer. There’s childhood and the formation of adulthood, all housed in some wrinkle or turn of brain matter.
It gets a little chaotic living throughout time. There’s a tension between how much attention I’m giving to the present and how much of myself is mired in the remembrances of the past.
I’m not the only time traveler. It seems like there are a couple different ways to manifest this fascination with what’s come before.
One way is to let the past consume you and to drag it like a fifty-ton albatross on your back. This type of time traveler is the over-enforcer, not learning from the magic of flying through the eons, but forcing the ages to bend to a personal view of what life should be. It’s Doc Brown going to the Wild West and putting flux capacitors on trains. Yes, let’s drag along all the accoutrements of what we want and completely debilitate any lessons to be learned in the time-hopping.
I think the perfect example of this is Ted Mosby in How I Met Your Mother, particularly in the Slutty Pumpkin storyline, a.k.a. the most anti-climactic payoff of a bit throughout the show (and that’s saying something for a program that regularly introduced great concepts only to drive them into the ground). After meeting “the Slutty Pumpkin” at a rooftop Halloween party and promptly losing her number, Ted becomes obsessed with finding this girl he’s pinned hopes and dreams and impossible expectations on. For the next several years, he shows up at the same place with the same stale hanging chad costume. Dated, hopeless, and obstinately past-bent, Ted encapsulates the danger of the wistful time traveler. Sometimes the machine gets broken, the expectations get too large, and they can leave you irreparably damaged. Or at the very least, looking like a fool in a costume of outdated cultural references.
This is like obsessing over that first kiss, or setting aside August 18th as a remote date because that’s when you got your heart broken. There’s joy in bittersweet look-backs, but there’s dangerous track ahead if that wistfulness gains control.
The best version of nostalgic time-traveling comes when the moments and the weight they carry are allowed to coexist alongside each other, the sweet memories rubbing elbows with the present and making it all the better.
Richard McGuire’s comic Here shows this remarkably. Originally published as a six-page spread in 1989, then expanded into full color and 300 pages in 2014, Here breaks with linear development in favor of illustrating how time and space work with each other. Here takes place entirely in one space, showing one room (or, where one room will be/was), and illustrating its existence throughout hundreds and thousands of years. McGuire doesn’t tell a story through characters, there’s no connecting narrative thread, it’s just the space and whatever occupied it in 1963, or 1607, or hundreds of years in the future. Sometimes a single panel will possess several fractures, showing the different eras bumped up beside each other, a cut out of the 1930 surrounded by events from 2003, showing that age old tale—the more time changes, the more time stays the same.
It’s a view that could be interpreted cynically. That we as humanity are insignificant blips, that our actions don’t have repercussion, that, regardless of ambition or genius, we are all boats borne back ceaselessly against the tide of time. But there’s another, far more comforting view, the kind of lovely, hippie, metaphysical lens that indicates, hey, we’re all part of this tapestry. We’re weaving something. In the crazy quilt of life we are slight patterns contributing to a whole.
This is the time traveling I approve of, and the type I strive to do in my constant rememberings. I’m not trapped in the past. I’m whizzing past the wormhole of time, instances stacking on top of each other, connecting with my past, using the lessons in the present, and seeing them all as shades of the future. I look at the entirety and can’t help being awed.