A few weeks ago, amidst a global pandemic, I subjected my ninth-graders to the classic nostalgia-fueled E.B. White essay “Once More to the Lake.” No one had done the assigned reading, and then a fire drill took up the first fifteen minutes of class. When we finally returned, I had the students skim the text before we talked about White’s intentions. Every year that I teach the essay, I tell the kids that I experience a bit of White’s duality because I still remember reading it for the first time in Mr. Starr’s AP Language course in eleventh grade. I don’t remember much else from that class, but the essay always lingered in the back of my mind, and White’s final, sardonically foreboding interjection on his son’s independence—“my groin felt the chill of death”—returns to haunt me anatomically and metaphysically every new school year.
When I was in high school, I never understood and possibly refused to accept the finality of White’s last line. Young and naïve, I simply saw the essay as a work of grand outdoorsy imagery. It’s a bit unnatural to consider the mortality of our parents while we’re still young, and I’m sure the younger White never imagined that his solitary excursion into the water represented some larger metaphor of parental disassociation for his father. Throughout the essay, the elder White struggles to separate himself from his son. He repeatedly wonders if it’s him or his son holding the fishing pole and experiencing the sights and smells of the lake they’ve retreated to. So when I was teaching the essay again this fall, I began to reckon with my own legacy of denial. I began to wonder if I, like White, was denying my own forward momentum. I now have three younger daughters, and, like White, I have begun to struggle with the duality of the past colliding with the present.
As I sat at my work desk pondering this struggle, I twirled my pen between my fingers while staring ahead at the blue glow of the laptop. I wondered, what stories could I share with my daughters? What shared experiences could I pass on? As I sat fidgeting with the little red button on my laptop, I realized I was holding the answer in my right hand.
Six years ago, during a fit of basement reorganization, I decided to search through the plastic drawers of an old college-era bin. I mostly found a few elementary school armaments, including a metal protractor with that sharp point and a ruler that swung out like a switchblade. But under these academic arms was a worn-down and empty blue pen I hadn’t seen since college. I momentarily gazed at the pen, picked it up, twirled it between my fingers, and let the sensation of its raised lettering bring back memories like a long-lost picture of a first girlfriend.
"There’s even a little magic and vulnerability to rediscovering writing from the past—especially writing from those formative years of emotional discovery and limitless potential.”
The pen was a blue Pilot BP-S Medium. Between fourth grade and college, I exclusively used this pen to compose, create, and annotate my way through my academic journey. After college, I somehow lost contact with the pen and eventually forgot its name. I occasionally looked longingly and wistfully in the pen aisle of Staples for that exact model, but I never stumbled serendipitously on it. I tried to have an open mind and experimented with other varieties, but something about the sheen, weight, and plastic of the others never quite recreated the tactile sensations of the BP-S Medium. Eventually, most of my work migrated to the computer and I gave up hope of ever reuniting with my old fling.
Now, as I held my rediscovered weapon of mass annotation, the memories of the past poured back in. These memories grew so strong that I excitedly carried the pen upstairs and commenced an internet search for the precise name of the pen. Presto! The pens, buried somewhere in the long-forgotten ether of Amazonian databases, appeared again, phoenix-like, in my mailbox two days later. The reunion was as satisfying as I imagined. A piece of me had been missing and now it had returned. My academic life, and maybe my whole identity, had been intertwined with this pen. Now, that life could resume.
Coincidentally, my first daughter, Sarah, arrived at roughly the same time my pens had returned to my life, strangely uniting and interweaving this tool of my past with this DNA-driven form of me in the present. For the first few years of her life, I felt it best to not pass on a pen with a detachable cap to a toddler, but on her fifth birthday—overcome with mounting English-teacher visions of symbolically uniting the past with the present—I finally gave one of these cherished pens to her. I even wrote a card for her with the pen and explained its significance. She now keeps the pen in her room and uses it to draw pictures that she’s always trying to give away to her Zoom classmates.
When I was younger, I used to draw elaborate, action-packed stories and offer them to my neighbor. Years later, after he passed away, his wife handed me an envelope with all my drawings he kept. “He loved the stories,” she said. “He thought you’d become a builder or an engineer like your father.” Dazed and a bit surprised, I accepted the envelope. What else had he seen in my stories, and what other fragments of my past would be uncovered as if they were embers of old stories, covertly waiting to reignite the next fire?
The pen’s return seemed to spark that fire. Each time I picked it up, memories tried to bleed from my past to the page, but the problem was that I hadn’t written much by hand in years because, let’s be honest, it’s hard not to be a computer man these days. Typically I take impersonal notes on my phone, but every so often I find myself buying a sturdy notebook and writing down a few story ideas before letting it gather dust under my nightstand. There’s a tranquility, a permanence, and a personalization to handwriting that the sterile text of a computer can never replace. There’s even a little magic and vulnerability to rediscovering writing from the past—especially writing from those formative years of emotional discovery and limitless potential.
When I was younger, I used to write poems on roughly coded Geocities websites. Later, I anonymously blogged emo-like LiveJournal entries for no one in particular. But at one point, in a frantic realization of the infinite nature of the internet, I hastily deleted it all. I’m sure they exist in some Russian data locker, but otherwise they’re gone and will never return. Life is fleeting, and writing, which captures life, should slowly evaporate like an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture giving itself back to the world that created it. Writing is a letting go with no promise of return. It can be like death, but it can also be like life, growing the way a seed scattered by the wind sprouts at an unbeknown location.
So with this whimsically romantic ideal in mind, I was helping my students improve their writing recently when a brain-burst suddenly came over me, and I felt the pull of blue pen to notebook paper. I wrote a few neat sentences of resilience, ending: “Our past does not dictate our future!”
"Writing is a letting go with no promise of return. It can be like death, but it can also be like life, growing the way a seed scattered by the wind sprouts at an unbeknown location.”
I had planned to convey this to the cross-country team that I coach before their next race, but I forgot the notebook at school. We eventually finished in sixth place, and now that I think about it, maybe our past does dictate our future. In class, I ask my students to reflect on Gatsby's failure to climb a metaphysical and social ladder he did not create. We can try to deny the past, but none of us can remove ourselves from it. My runners will need to embrace who they are now to race up the ski hill of death they’ll face twice at our final meet, and later, metaphorically, in life. Walt Whitman, who once admired a long-distance runner from afar, would revel in the idea of sinewy boys channeling his calls to focus on the now as they climbed, clinging to the present.
As a young runner and a Whitman neophyte, I started to log my running exploits. I still have the fluorescent-green spiral notebook with daily entries written in blue ink. Today, no one keeps that kind of log because their watches and phones automatically do it for them. I often worry about my runners’ ability to look back and measure these times, so I encourage them to use the app Strava to socially document their runs. At least once a week the orange GPS line indicates they’ve spent less time running and more time jumping into the local creek. Sometimes they post pictures of themselves during a photogenic moment of the run. I can see my friends doing the same goofy pose, except we didn’t have phones back then so those moments only exist in my mind, but really they are the same moments relived time and time again, ever repeating and circling back, ceaselessly, like the tides.
The first time I took Sarah for a run she sprinted the first fifty meters and then made it another hundred feet before we had to walk. I attempted to explain the concept of pacing to her and eventually we got going again until she gleefully sprinted down the final hill back to our house. Someday she’ll find my now-digital running log and come across this first moment of breathless exhilaration and remember that this was really her first entry as well. Maybe she will remember that everyone we passed on that summer run gave a cheerful wave or made a wry comment about me having to keep up. But will she remember the recognition in their eyes? I’ve come to recognize this expression when I walk past people in our neighborhood. When I was younger, I was oblivious to this coded nod, but now I see the look everywhere. It’s one of remembrance and nostalgia for a shared and fleeting experience that time carries away. “It goes by so fast,” I’ve heard hundreds of times. How soon until I give my first nod of recognition to the next father and daughter that will pass me?
When Sarah was younger, she struggled with the abstract concept of time. Clocks were meaningless to her, and she often appeared, like an illusionist, in front of me and my wife in the early hours of the morning. I’ve learned that time is inconsequential for kids. They’re young and life probably seems infinite, so why bother measuring? Yet as we age, time is constantly moving us forward while we reverently look back toward the past and try to recapture those fleeting hours and minutes.
Sometimes, when I stand peacefully post-run on my driveway, the surrounding silence and open farmland facing my front yard brings me suddenly back to my past. I fondly remember fleeing my house during the summer and exploring the ever-eroding countryside. If I rode my bike far enough, I could escape the suburban monster gobbling up the surrounding forest and farms and the wood-framed carcasses it was leaving behind. Free of parental concern and cell phone triangulation, my friends and I would build dams and play in the water beneath an old railroad bridge. Summer after summer we stood in that water, unaware of the changes happening around us and to us. We even wrote our names on the bridge’s stone wall and boldly declared this Eden to be our own forever. But as time ebbed forward, our escapes were paved over, and the playful reverie of youth was replaced by the more settled adult dreams of scenic mountain cabins and urban cityscapes.
Sarah has recently started to express her dreams. She wants a house in the country and a barn with horses and more horses. Occasionally she draws pictures of these dreams with the BP-S Medium, and sometimes hands me the pen and asks me to spell important words for her. It’s exhausting at times as she recounts her plans in rapid-fire fashion at the dinner table, but it’s also exhilarating to hear her dream such intricate visions for her future. Did I have these dreams when I was younger? Has she surreptitiously watched me and absorbed that sense of mysticism through quiet observation? Maybe she’s discovered my old musings buried like treasure on page fifty-seven of a Google search for my name. Or maybe these dreams are etched into our DNA somewhere and they simply replicate over time. How deep does our connection to the past run? Maybe all our dreams are connected to the molecules of that first splitting atom.
This past fall we made the pilgrimage to a cabin in the Catskills in upstate New York. While my wife, Susan, set up the bedrooms and opened all the windows to disperse any remnants of the plague, I took my kids outside to explore the expansive yard that overlooked the lower valley. We circumnavigated the house as I took in the silence and solitude of the place, but no one else was too impressed until we found a large boulder planted firmly near the edge of the property. With Susan distracted, I told my kids they could jump off the rock if they didn’t tell their mom. They spent about a half hour climbing, jumping, and learning how to land. There’s nothing better than a good jumping rock when you’re young, and they promptly told Susan about it when we went inside. How many others had jumped off that sturdy reminder of the past, itself made from those same ancient elements that make up our dreams, our bodies, and the fabric that weaves the universe together?
Whitman opens “Song of Myself” with similar wonder and affirmation. He seems to understand this unity when he proclaims, “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” It’s a fitting line; I gave my copy of Leaves of Grass to a student who has failed to return it. I like to imagine she is studying it quietly in her room, hand on cheek, occasionally adding to my annotations with her own pen. Every so often, she might take a picture of an inspiring section that will then travel across the electric pulses of internet packets of data and maybe coalesce with my own lost webpages of poetry and quotes that are drifting endlessly on the tides of digital ocean foam. I like to imagine Sarah finding my old books someday and adding her own annotations to them. Will hers match my own private introspections or will they grow to be independent and unique to her? Am I holding the pen or is she?
Moments like these remind me that the transposition that White experiences in “Once More to the Lake” has increasingly grown in my own life, too. I wasn’t a father when I started teaching, so each year I’ve taught the essay is a demarcation of growth in my life; my blue annotations have become like markings on the wall of an old house. I tell my attentive freshman honor students that I feel a bit confused, like the way White does in his essay. I try to explain that I feel young inside, and that I think everyone else who gets old must feel the same. We’ve spent the majority of our lives experiencing the world through a younger version of ourselves, so our only understanding of the world is through that younger self. It’s hard to see the change that has occurred. We don’t typically interpret the world in the moment, so I explain to my now half-following-me-still students that they only see me at age thirty-five, so they, like White’s son (and now my daughters), only know me in the moment. Am I the student still trying to decode the essay, or am I the teacher unraveling its coded imagery? A few students type this observation down in their notes.
Using White’s essay as a guide, I even took my family camping this summer. Like most of my grand ideas, I planned this excursion at the last moment, and my wife, trusting my camping judgement, allowed me to book a site. I promptly booked the last, tiniest, and closest site to the bathhouse, and assured my wife we’d all fit comfortably into our old tent.
A year earlier I had taken Sarah camping in the fall. We booked a site at the local KOA and spent some quality father-daughter time together. We wandered the grounds, played on the playground, took a hay ride, and ended the night with some ice cream and a bottle of Yoohoo chocolate milk that proved ill-advised a few hours later. I had to give her my sleeping bag, hang hers to dry by the fire, and locate my thin ground sheet from my car. I figured I would be warm enough if I wore my sweatshirt. It went down to thirty degrees that night and I shivered on my slowly deflating air mattress while she slept soundly beside me. Now she always asks about going camping again.
So this time, I came prepared with extra sleeping bags and apparatuses. When we arrived at our tiny parking space of a site, I promptly unpacked the screaming children, food, and eventually the tent. While bending one of the two support poles to the tent’s contours, it promptly snapped in half and I figured that the broken pole meant we were doomed to head home, but we resolutely jerry-rigged the pole. I unfolded my newly purchased cot, filled up some air mattresses, stuffed them all into the tent, and tried to find room for my children and wife.
"But as time ebbed forward, our escapes were paved over, and the playful reverie of youth was replaced by the more settled adult dreams of scenic mountain cabins and urban cityscapes.”
No one slept that night, nor the next. The only redeeming moment of the trip was our time at the camp lake. My kids swam happily in the same blue water I often stood in as a college student after my long runs in the park. My teammates and I would try to numb our legs post-run in the water, hoping for a rush of healing blood upon exit. But this time the water wasn’t quite as cold, and, thankfully, there was no riotous thunderstorm like the one in White’s essay. I also didn’t experience any “chill of death” like White had. (Maybe if we had come in October, I would have felt it.) My daughters did love splashing and being dragged through the water as they pretended to swim. My wife and I stood close by, hip deep, and helped them turn and stay afloat as they doggy-paddled around, occasionally accidentally submerging their heads before we pulled them back up, now forever transformed by their baptism in the waters of my past.
While watching his recently finished sculpture getting covered by the tide, Andy Goldsworthy once opined that the ocean was changing his sculpture in a way he never could’ve imagined. Yet he still felt close to the structure as if his hands were still warm with the connection to the stones he built it with. Was the lake having the same impact on my daughters? Was this submersion a baptism? A welcoming into the kingdom of nature and the memories of my past? These thoughts swirled in my head later as I tried not to burn the sole pack of hotdogs I was cooking for dinner over the fire.
By the final night, I felt discouraged. My own younger memories of camping were clouded by the actual adult experience of sleep-deprived children, and someone’s wife yelling to her husband at 3:30 AM to remember to take his towel to the bathhouse. I remember those younger days so fondly. The lambent stars, the chill at night, the warm fires, and the pleasant smell of woody smoke in the distance. Those were holy and magical nights, and they still burn romantically in my mind. Now, as I pondered my decision to take my wife and three kids under five tent-camping in the middle of a global pandemic, I feel mostly as though the trip was a disaster, and I went home more tired than when I left. It had been silly of me to try to recreate the past, I thought.
A month later, I was teaching class on the first day of school when my wife sent me a text message. Sarah, attending virtual kindergarten on her iPad, had been asked by her teacher to fill out a worksheet that asked what her favorite moment of the summer was. As I glanced at the picture, I figured it would be our earlier and much more successful trip to Cape Cod with its beautiful beaches that reached longingly out toward the ocean. But no, it was our camping trip she wrote in blue ink with her Pilot BP-S Medium on a piece of paper she then submitted as a picture, via her iPad, to the ether and infiniteness of the digital universe.
It was then I felt the icy chill of space and time colliding. ◘