May 20, 2011


Yesterday, I wrote about doppelgangers, shadows of our potential other selves, the theme from Henry James’ short story, “The Jolly Corner” (blog: 5/18/2011). After my experience today, I wonder if there is a word for meeting one’s past as a perfect stranger. “De je vous” doesn’t seem to fit as I’m not talking about reliving my life but looking at how circumstances might have been if I’d never existed.  George Bailey had a similar experience in the story, “The Greatest Gift” (aka “It’s a Wonderful Life”).   

The question arose when I was to attend a ceremony honoring a friend — an employee of the county where, twenty-two years earlier, I’d served as a commissioner. Naturally, after so long an interval, I was unsure of my direction and upon entering the building, I approached the guard at the information desk. The woman in her mid-forties with brown curls playing across her forehead looked at me as though I’d spoken in a foreign tongue. Seeing my gray hair, she called me “sweetie” and in that simpering manner reserved for children and dotty old people she told me I’d arrived a day early. Confused, I asked if she’d confirm that information with the Clerk of the Board and mentioned the woman’s name. Again the guard gave me a conciliatory glance. “I’m afraid she hasn’t worked here for years, dear.”

Fearful that I too might evaporate, I left the premises. During the walk home, I reflected on my earlier life as a politician. In those days, no one would have called me “dear” or “sweetie.” Did the passage of time and grey hair make so much difference?

(Salvador Dali: “The Persistence of Memory”)

As I mulled the question another overpowered me: Had I left the county behind or had the county rushed headlong into the future, abandoning me like a rock in mid- stream? I could think of no word to express the eerie feeling that either I had never existed or if I’d had, I’d been of no consequence. Like Hawking in his universe, I’d found a black hole in mine. The English language needs a word for that feeling.