“Maps are of two kinds. Some seek to represent the location of things in space. That is the first kid — the geography of space. But others represent the location of things in time — or perhaps their progression through time. These maps tell stories, which is to say they are the geography of time… But these days I have begun to feel that stories, too, are basically concerned with spatial relationships. The proximity of bodies. Time is simply what interferes with that, yes?”
—Dylan Horrocks, Hicksville
Twelve years ago, when my wife and I bought our first house, I wrote this:
In the five years that we’ve known each other, we’ve never lived in anything bigger than a one-bedroom apartment. Now we both have offices, a washer/dryer, a two-car garage…it’s very surreal.
When you live with someone in a tiny apartment, you’re always in close proximity. You never see that person more than 10 or 20 feet away, because there isn’t 10 or 20 feet to gain between you. You get used to seeing them from a particular distance.
Meg and I often meet each other for lunch on campus. When I see her from far away, walking towards me, she looks like a different person—she looks like a stranger, or someone I just met. It’s like a visual refresh. (I wonder if this visual element isn’t part of the hidden magic of what self-help couples books tell you to do: meet for dinner, but take separate cars…)
Twelve years later, present day, my wife and I have been home with our kids for almost four weeks now, in a townhouse not too much bigger than that first house we shared, and I see them all now, only in close-up. There’s very little stepping back, getting perspective.
Before this, I would stand outside my first grader’s school, waiting, and when he would walk outside when the bell rang, for a minute, I got to see him in his own world, for a brief few steps, until he saw me and entered our shared world again. My wife and I would pull up to my pre-schooler’s school early, and see him waiting with the other kids, and it was the same thing: eavesdropping on him in his own world, before he was back to ours.
I’m keeping everyone else in the world at a distance, but the people in my house have never been closer. It’s hard to get any kind of perspective. (This is the only time in my life I’ve envied people I know with ranches and lots of property — a “spread,” as in, “Why don’t we spread out?”)
Here is my friend Alan Jacobs on why he’s reading ghost stories right now:
“Tell the truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson counseled writers; and fifty years later W.H. Auden spoke of readers like me: “When have we not preferred some going round / To going straight to where we are?” People often cry out for writing that, as we say, “speaks to our condition,” but more often than we might wish to acknowledge we are not prepared to have our condition spoken to directly. Another poet, T.S. Eliot this time: “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.”
When you’re looking at a painting in a gallery, you sometimes find that you need to step back a bit in order to see it whole, to grasp its structure and proportions. You don’t get too far away; just far enough. Perhaps that’s what these stories have been for me: A step or two back from the details of our current predicament gives me the critical distance to process what’s happening with less stress, less mind-warping anxiety.
We were at the kitchen table the other night and my first grader picked up his little binoculars, turned them the wrong way around, and looked at me. “You’re so far away!” he said.
I wish, sometimes, that I had a similar way of zooming out, and getting some more perspective on him. It’s like how one of my camera apps alerts me, when I’m trying to take a picture, “You’re too close!” I need to step back to really see.
I’m typing this now in my front office. The boys are outside with my wife, looking for the slugs and caterpillars eating her plants.
Amazingly, I can’t hear them, but I can see them in my mind.
And I miss them!