Have images of someplace you have never been, or of a time or situation you have never lived, ever appeared in your mind as a memory?
Years ago, my parents lived in Atlantic City, New Jersey. One night we were driving on Atlantic Avenue, the main street of the city that runs parallel to and often just a block or so away from the ocean. It was raining and the yellow lights reflected off the wet street. The houses on a long section of the avenue are large, expensive dwellings, some old and going back to the 1930s or before. And suddenly I felt we were back in the 1930s during prohibition when some of the homes were owned by mobsters. The whole mood had changed into a feeling different from any other I have ever felt. This happened two or three times.
My great aunt Fanny, sister of my maternal grandmother, died when I was in my thirties. When I think of her apartment, I get something closer to a dream than a memory, and just pieces, not the whole. And those pieces are not from the second half of the twentieth century. They are from sometime earlier⎼ with dark hallways, a bedroom with a wall of ornate glass doors which she didn’t have, a window that looked out not onto modern streets but gray mists, people in dark clothes in a village of wood homes, in the “old country” of Eastern Europe from where my relatives emigrated.
And from where do our interests come? Why do some subjects, seemingly from before we were born, excite or shake us up, turn us off or get no response at all? I love the art of Japan, Tibet, Indigenous North America, Central Africa, Ancient Greece, and the Middle East, but other places less so or not at all.
Twenty years ago, I was on sabbatical from teaching, and my wife and I went to Greece. I taught philosophy to high school students and looked forward to visiting the birthplace of Western European philosophy.
We were on the island of Crete, not far from the city of Chania, driving through the mountains after visiting the ancient city of Aptera. The city had come to an end possibly in 1400 CE due to an earthquake. We stopped at the ruins of a Minoan palace, and Roman and Byzantine structures. My wife saw a herd of sheep grazing on the side of the road and asked me to stop. The sheep were not fenced in but moving freely about.
We stopped, got out of the car, and walked over to the sheep. I happened to look down, and there, partly exposed, were ancient bricks, Roman, maybe 2000 years old. An archaeological site was close by unearthing a Roman villa from that time, with sculptures, lintels and other artifacts just lying on the ground. We continued our walk and found the ruins of a Roman cistern. Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, we saw a German bunker from World War II, and later, an Ottoman fortress.
What is it like to live in a place where you literally step on thousands of years of human history?
There are so many “sides” to all of us, almost infinite ways we can be touched. And the depths⎼ sometimes I feel I am only skin deep. But other times, it’s like my toes reach into ancient soils and unknown histories, like I felt on Crete.
Do the images of other times and places come from what I’ve heard or read, suggestions picked up from other people? Or are they playful details of a waking dream or an imaginative exercise, a “what if?”
Are they from some sort of psychic album that connects us to our families? Or do they point to something larger, maybe to Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, a repository of humanity’s collective memories or knowledge? Or maybe they point to some usually imperceivable dimension of imagination, time, and space, a personal Twilight Zone?
Do the images obfuscate as much they reveal? Are they unveiling details hidden in another layer of reality? Or disclosing that the images we cling to are creations of the mind and the reality is something else? Are we solely our memories, learned patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behavior? Or is our mind larger, infinitely larger than we have been led to believe, and everything we think, perceive, and remember, everything we know or don’t know, is woven together from too many sources to count in a timeless present?
There is this classic meditation we can practice. Take a deep breath or two, get comfortable in a chair or sofa, and see yourself in your room or someplace you feel safe.
Then imagine, if it feels right, getting up and going out the door of your room, out the door of your house. Step out and look one way up your rural road or city street, then another way. Who do you see there? Simply watch one person, what they are wearing, the expression on their face, the way they walk. Then another. And another. Let the street fill with as many people as you know might fit there.
Then go higher up, so you can see where the street sits in the entire community. See the different homes and people moving about. Then take in the whole area that the community sits in. Then go higher, seeing part of the nation. Then the whole nation. Then the world. Be out in space seeing the whole world.
How does it feel to view the whole world? To view the house your room sits in, the road or street that houses your home? The town or city that incorporates your street? The nation that includes your town? The world that that supports your nation? The universe that includes everything? Sit with that for a moment.
We often go out into the world as if we live in a room with walls of skin only as old as our personal birthdate, carrying with us all our memories and dreams, joys, and fears. But the house, the street, the nation, the world, even the words that our room of skin, heart, and mind rests in is unbelievably, unfathomably large. We live in history thousands, millions of years old. Knowing, recognizing that history deepens us, makes our steps both more humble and powerful.
Will we choose to live in, or think we live in, only one room? Or will we, can we, grasp that no matter what we think, we live in a universe, not a room?
This post is republished on Medium.
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