After a week in Boston, I miss Boston terribly. I miss it even while I’m here because the Boston I long for doesn’t exist anymore. There are echoes of the past – but I have to walk far and search hard to find them. Whatever happened to the mixed income housing at Dartmouth and Columbus, the progressive design that was supposed to encourage community building across economic lines? Guild Drugs, which used to sit at the corner of Boylston and Exeter and featured dildos in their window display – it’s been replaced by The Tannery. Ugh. My own alma mater Emmanuel College, once a proud women’s college, has long since gone co-ed – it faced the choice to adapt or die.
Much of what I find here this week is neither distinctive nor unique – it’s corporate chain restaurants, retail stores I could easily find at home, gifts and books I could easily buy online. Lots of things have improved, don’t get me wrong – I love that the BPL is air-conditioned; clean T stops are a delight. But the real Filene’s basement is gone, the rickety wooden early model escalator steps that used to carry me –lurching and jolting — up to street level at South Station, gone. I can’t find much in my old neighborhood that’s hardscrapple or authentic, not a dive in sight.
In Writing a Woman’s Life, Carolyn Heilbrun remarks that nostalgia often serves as a mask for anger. I get that now, though probably not in the way that Heilbrun meant. I’m angry about what’s been lost in my city, about the loss of authenticity, the loss of individuality. I’m angry that I can’t go back; I see now that what I miss is not a place at all.
But of course I’m not writing so much about Boston as about myself.
In my memoir workshop, I’m learning the same lesson – there’s no going back. There’s no authentic way of reliving the past; it can’t be recreated, can’t be revised. If the city I miss is gone forever, the person I used to be is gone too. But they can be captured, they can be examined – if I abandon the urge to recreate the past, I can find a more authentic future. The wisdom of my present self can understand the past, can make sense of it, make meaning, only when I stand firmly in the present, looking clearly towards the future.
Hemingway knows this. “There is nothing you can do,” he writes, “except try to write it the way that it was. So you must write each day better than you possibly can and use the sorrow that you have now to make you know how the early sorrow came. And you must always remember the things you believed because if you know them they will be there in the writing and you won’t betray them. The writing is the only progress you make.”