On Defying Gravity

A long time ago, in a place that now seems very far away, I was in a relationship with a single mother who had a six-year-old son. Her son was going to spend a few weeks in the summer with his father, and I went with her to the airport to see him off. The boy was very excited to be travelling on his own, so there was a kind of festive atmosphere at the gate. When the flight attendant came to escort the boy to the plane, though, his mother started to cry. As the boy walked away down the tunnel, I put my arms around her to comfort her. As I did so, one of her tears fell on my wrist. I was shocked to realize then that I had never felt another person’s tears before, and that they were warm.

Not long after that, the relationship ended. She lived just a few blocks from me, and for a long time I avoided going anywhere near her flat. Places acquire their own emotional gravity as a result of what we experience there, and every time I got near her place I felt dragged back into memories and feelings I preferred not to think about. It was the psychological equivalent of space flight: I had to burn a lot of fuel to escape the pull of that place; if I didn’t, I knew that I would crash and burn.It’s always been that way for me. To this day, there are places in the neighborhood where I grew up that fill me with depression and despair. Visits to my old university, on the other hand, are always happy occasions. Lately, I avoid travelling to the place where I used to work; the shock of redundancy is still a little too close for comfort. A few years ago, as part of my research for my history of the aphorism, I visited Walden Pond for the first time, the place where Henry David Thoreau wrote a book that changed my life when I first read it as a teenager. I had mixed feelings about going. The place existed in my mind as a kind of sacred shrine, and I was wary of being disappointed when I actually got there. As I stood on the spot where Thoreau’s cabin stood, now marked by a pile of stones brought by pilgrims like myself, I wept.

The gravitational pull of places hasn’t lessened over the years as much as my ability to keep my distance has increased. That’s a source of both sorrow and consolation. Like Benjamin Franklin wrote:

Nothing dries sooner than a tear.