The Age Of Miracles Is Past

England is cold and rainy and damp. I'd remembered the cold and the rain, but the damp is a surprise, a cruel curveball I'd managed to block out since the last time I was here in winter. It's a bitter damp, unrelenting, and it seeps insidiously under your careful layers and into your bones, and you find yourself pressing up against radiators—ineffectually, mind you—and then suddenly there you are, fourteen again, sitting in the history classroom before the lesson starts, legs stretched out in front of you in pilled navy tights, your back against the radiator, just trying to get warm. 

This is how I remember things about England. In layers, like I'm peeling an onion. Pull back the skin, there's another one. Keep peeling. There are more.

*******

We arrive at Heathrow just before four, and the sky is already growing dark. By the time we leave the terminal, it's night-black outside and the clock in the rental car shows a little after five. It's rush hour on the M25, long strands of stilted brake lights glowing like rubies, far prettier than they actually are. We miss the exit we're supposed to take, and I navigate us back haltingly, operating purely on muscle memory. There's the cathedral, keep it on your left. A right here, I think, oh there's that pub that never asked us for IDs. This is a one-way street, so you're going to want to go straight on. Hey, that fish and chip shop is a Starbucks now. Turn here, I think. Yes, I remember, turn here.

*******

We walk into the flat and it smells like the past. "It smells like my A-levels in here," I say to Sean, which means nothing to him because he didn't sit there with me at that rickety old desk, conjugating être in the subjunctive and memorizing Chaucer until my eyes crossed, until I started dreaming in French, waiting for my friend Caroline to pick me up in her Hawaiian blue Beetle with the hole in the floor and drive us to school to face the firing squad. Girls, five minutes left. Girls, put down your pens. In the garage, boxes of my old essays are stacked against boxes of my old textbooks. Files and folders, reams of notes. All that knowledge just sitting there, forgotten. Oh god, all that work.

*******

It's raining and we're nearby, so we take a detour past my old school. PLEASE TAKE OFF MUDDY BOOTS BEFORE ENTERING THE DINING ROOM, the signs say. PLEASE DO NOT DRIVE THROUGH THE ARCHES. NO WALKING ON THE GRASS. Everywhere you look, they're petitioning you not to do something, or at least not to do it the way you want to do it. I'm free of all that! I think, gleefully—have been free of it, in fact, for fifteen years—and I have a sudden urge to drive through the arches and walk on the grass. The dining room is locked, the school closed for the winter. Maybe I'd have walked in wearing my muddy boots.

*******

Driving back in the drizzle, I point things out to Sean. To me, these are fascinating things, imbued with memory and meaning—there's the phone booth where I used to call my parents; oh, we got caught in that pub once in the middle of the day; look, there's the house where that boy Caroline was in love with lived and we used to drive past it really slowly in case he came out—but I am aware, as I'm sharing them, that these are my landmarks, not his.

"You have made the mistake," the writer Anne Lammott was once told by an editor, "of thinking that everything that has happened to you is interesting." Sean nods politely—ah, great phone booth, really top notch—but this, all of this, belongs to my life without him, and while there's less of that now than there is of my life with him, it's still a way-off part of a dusty past, and it is momentous only to me.

The drizzle turns to rain as we inch through the traffic lights, and the damp seeps in. "There's the cathedral, keep it on your left," I say. Memory by memory, I get us home.

Filed Under:
1
AC
Dec 28, 2012

Beautiful post! Please write this kind of post more often.

2
Jessica
Dec 28, 2012

Is it possible to feel nostalgia for something you haven't experienced? (Surely the Germans have a word for it?) Because that's what this post did for me. Really hauntingly beautiful.

3
Ashley
Dec 28, 2012

I love and adore when you do posts like this. They touch my heart in a special way.

4
Bopril
Dec 28, 2012

The sort of post that I'll bookmark and come back to when I need a good think or when I'm giving in to nostalgia of my own. Thank you for sharing.

5
Kristen
Dec 28, 2012

Oh, I loved this. I've heard that our age (I believe you and I are both coming up on 33, right?) is a fairly typical age of transition, where we look even more closely at parts of our past and how they fit with our present and our future. I've been sharing a lot of these sorts of things with my husband lately -- I guess because of the holidays -- and I can only imagine how much more of it would come pouring out if I were to actually go anywhere near home ...

Anyway, beautifully written. Thanks so much for sharing.

6
Cec
Dec 28, 2012

Ah, such a lovely post.

I know what you mean about trying to share the excitement of these old memories with someone and watching them try and fail to feel what you're feeling. I took my husband to an open house at my childhood home when it went up for sale. He tried to be excited for me too, but I knew I couldn't make him understand how exciting a familiar light fixture or bookcase was for me.

Hopefully Sean will read your post here as you evoke a strong sense of the experience here.

7
Julie
Dec 28, 2012

Holly, this is really gorgeous. I think it's really wonderful that you have the facility to switch between funny, pop-culture-voice posts and these sweet, essay-like pieces. Definitely aspire to this myself.

8
Karin Maier
Dec 28, 2012

We all have little snippets of time that are brought back to us by a smell, a sight or a daydream. Memories are mostly fun, but are sometimes a bit happy-sad too. Lovely post.

9
lor
Dec 28, 2012

Lovely post - very Lamott-ish. :)

10
Kate
Dec 28, 2012

Lovely read, I went to a Kent boarding school (Benenden) and feel the same nostalgia whenever I return (increasingly less so nowadays) but still have such fond memories...lacrosse in the freezing cold in kilts and navy wov(en)s, pulling the threads out our ties, running back to 'house' at breaktime to check post, Tonbridge dances, dormy feasts, speech day, calling my folks abroad watching phone cards rapidly deplete, homesickness. Interestingly, the very best of friends have stuck from those days and these are the friends I can still count on most.

11
Saucepan Man
Dec 28, 2012

Lovely. Write more.

12
Melissa
Dec 28, 2012

Beautifully written! I love it when you write these posts...wishing I was more eloquent.

13
Amy
Dec 28, 2012

This is beautiful, Holly!

14
Tragic Sandwich
Dec 28, 2012

What a lovely post! I was barely into it and I didn't want it to end.

15
Sara
Dec 29, 2012

This! This is the stuff! Well done, Holly. Beautifully written.

16
Alexa
Dec 29, 2012

A beautiful post.

(Also, I wince every single time I read that Anne Lamott quote, because I suspect I am guilty of the very same thing. However, I console myself with the fact that I DO find pretty much every detail of other people's lives fascinating. You can take me on a phone booth tour ANY TIME.)

17
Louise
Dec 29, 2012

"It smells like my A-levels" I am completely moved when a scent or song takes me back in time. Thank you for this gorgeous post. Past and present meeting and the recognition of all that it brings to the surface. So lovely.

oh I love this post! all of your trips down memory lane, nostalgia, etc. ring so true with me as well. every time my husband and I visit NYC or Hong Kong or Thailand it's the same - I point out all the normally mundane landmarks and buildings and street corners that continue to be rife with stories and meaning and memories. He tries to be supportive but like your quote from Anne Lammott, it's just the ordinary to him.

19
Celia
Dec 29, 2012

A lovely post!

20
Leigh
Dec 29, 2012

I love it when you write posts like this... beautiful.

21
Rachael Rifkin
Dec 29, 2012

I've been on both sides of this, and I have to say I prefer imagining what his childhood was like versus being disappointed that he doesn't understand why we have to eat at the mediocre restaurant that my friends and I would frequent after zero period government class.

It's even worse for him when my high school friends and I get together and start reminiscing. You should see his eyes glaze over as my friends and I discuss teachers we had and boys we liked. I mean, come on, how can he not like this stuff?! It's part of my history, geez!

22
Ayesha
Dec 30, 2012

Beautifully written, Holly, thanks for sharing. It's England for sure. I miss it.

23
Ginny
Dec 30, 2012

So beautiful. I always love your writing, but posts like this are especially wonderful. !

24
Colleen
Dec 31, 2012

This is great. A perfect piece for a Monday morning!

25
Shannon
Dec 31, 2012

I mentally walk through my grandparents old house, which has long since sold and been rebuilt. But remembering the time we spent there as kids and then just barely as adults, the sound the doorbell made, the train running the tracks behind the yard, the cicadas in the summer, the smoky haze from too many packages of cigarettes, slanted ceilings and so many memories rolled into one house....your beautiful post brought tears to my eyes as it made me think of all those years. Well done.

26
newgyptian
Dec 31, 2012

I am always doing this to my husband - taking him on these walks down memory lane that mean little to him. Or so I assume. But - and maybe this is just because my personality is oriented this way - I loved loved loved when he took me around his boarding school in England (Oundle). When he pointed out the bakery from which his gran would order a cake for him to pick up whenever she felt he needed a pick-me-up. And the statue in the courtyard which was erected in memory of his favorite art teacher. So...who knows. Maybe it means more to our partners than we think?

In any case, happy new year from a rainy, gloomy Cambridge!

27
Jenny
Dec 31, 2012

gorgeous!

28
NothingButBonfires
Dec 31, 2012

Thank you all so much for these kind words! I really, really appreciate your compliments. So lovely to have such kind and insightful (and I'm sure very, very, very attractive) readers. Thank you again!

29
Pretzel Thief
Jan 01, 2013

So beautiful. So very, very beautiful. Like most of the readers have said, please, more of these pieces of writing. Just...ahh.

Also?

The fact that in the past I've written about a certain type of cold that "insidiously [creeps] into your bones" freaks me out and makes me think we're totally BFF kindred spirits. Bwah!

30
Charlotte
Jan 01, 2013

Lovely post, Holly. I found myself sitting with my back pressed up the radiator last time I went home to England from Oklahoma - and it was July. July! Although I obviously did not attend your school, or live in your town, so many of these memories echo my own, even down to the navy tights. (Navy or black, NOT skin coloured, and tan was most definitely not allowed.) You write nostalgia so well, thank you for sharing.

31
sarah k
Jan 01, 2013

Beautifully written and evocative.

32
Camels & Chocolate
Jan 01, 2013

You are at your absolute best when you write about your past. I love these glimpses of Young(er) Holly.

33
Lora
Jan 02, 2013

Have you read Simon Van Booy, particularly his short stories? This post reminds me a little of his style, and he seems like the type of author you'd appreciate. I discovered him just a few weeks ago and have been marveling over his literary oeuvre since.

34
Analus
Jan 02, 2013

Beautifully written, Holly, thanks for sharing. It's England for sure. I miss it.

35
Jennifer Gilbert
Jan 03, 2013

Oh, I don't know, these things sound pretty interesting to me. Excellent post.

36
edj
Jan 03, 2013

Loved this post.

37
Maggie
Jan 04, 2013

Wow. Beautiful. Thank you.

38
Marcheline
Jan 05, 2013

I wrote a comment to this post but it got eaten by your extremely erratic spam filter. Trying again.

My husband and I have a game we play regarding unshared memories. If we're driving someplace and he says "That corner there is where I handled a six car accident" I wave madly and yell "HELLO CORNER WHERE BEAR HANDLED A SIX CAR ACCIDENT!" If I point at a cafe and say "I once made a phone call from that cafe because I had a flat tire", he will wave madly at it and yell "HELLO CAFE WHERE MARCHELINE ONCE MADE A PHONE CALL BECAUSE SHE HAD A FLAT TIRE!"

This both makes something funny of and ameliorates the strangeness of unshared memories.

39
Marcheline
Jan 05, 2013

This is my third attempt to comment on this post. Your spam filter definitely needs tweaking. Ahem.

My husband and I have a game we play that sort of deals with the "unshared memories" situation. If we're in the car together and my husband points out a location where he once played the bagpipes for a funeral, I will wave madly at the spot as we drive past, and say in a very excited voice "Hello, spot where Bear once played the bagpipes at a funeral!" And if I point at a parking lot of a diner and tell him that once I had a flat tire there, he will wave madly and say in a very excited voice "Hello, parking lot where Marcheline once had a flat tire!"

This makes a funny moment out of unshared memories while validating them at the same time.

40
Amanda
Jan 07, 2013

You are a beautiful writer, Holly. If those boxes of essays had anything to do with your talent, I'd say all that work was worth it.

41
Lisa Wadsworth
Jan 15, 2013

I absolutely loved reading every word of that.

42
Lorrie
Apr 01, 2013

That was beautifully written and touched a nerve..I remember touring my childhood home and wanting to shake Roger, just a bit, saying, "PART OF ME IS IN THESE WALS."

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