Escape from Manhattan (How to Have a Good Weekend)

The thing about working “on the Internet” is that it becomes almost impossible to ever STOP working. Signing on to write on this blog entry, I find myself drifting to the social accounts I manage for work – it’s muscle memory at this point to visit the homepage, shift to Facebook, to Twitter, to analytics software – to the same behemoths of data that dominate my paid hours. Before I had even begun to pen this post, I was an hour into working on things for my other job, and I hadn’t even shifted from my position on my bed.

Of course, the alternate side to this is that when you end up in a location that lacks any Internet connection it becomes virtually impossible to do your job. This is the situation I found myself in over the weekend. Faced with a rare four consecutive days off (in honor of Independence day), myself and the cadre of college friends with whom I share New York City packed our bags and headed east. I traded Proust for Fitzgerald this weekend, opting for the Anglo American savoir faire of the Hamptons (which, for the uninitiated, is the bastion of East Coast wealth upon which The Great Gatsby is based).

New York City is remarkable for many reasons, but one of them is that it takes so little time and such insignificant geographic distance to move from its unique urban sprawl to a different universe. Two hours north of the city you can find the sleepy towns of the Hudson. Two hours northwest is an impoverished town in the foothill of the Catskill mountains. And two hours east lie gorgeous beaches peppered with landing pads for private jets. So after a brief drive (made even shorter by our shared excitement to be away from our jobs and from the humidity of New York in July), my four friends and I were at our destination. Proust has a choice phrase about the behavior of time in different settings:

“The time which we have at our disposal every day is elastic; the passions that we feel expand it, those that we inspire contract it; and habit fills up what remains.”

We found a cheap motel outside of Southampton (made cheaper by our lie to the owners that we were a party of three, not five) and loaded up the trunk of my friend’s car with the sugary kind of alcohol that should not be consumed away from a beach. We ate out for dinner and I swallowed my panic as my bank account balance shrank every day. I lay in the sun upon the sand for the first time in what I realized was two years – but not before I had paid the price for my forgetfulness with a sunburn that debilitated me for 24 hours of the trip.

It was the shock of my sunburn that jolted me towards the realization that these four days were the first vacation I’d had in months. The last time I had gone this long without working was my family reunion in Vermont, almost exactly a year before. That trip was potent with nostalgia, with the strange sense of deja vu that permeates familial reactions, the awkward comfort of seeing your nose resting on a near-stranger’s face. This trip was in many ways a mirror image of that last urban exodus: a journey east of New York instead of north of Washington; a beach made of sand, not rocks; days spent with the family I’ve found, not the one I was born with.

The trip was not without nostalgia: for past summers at the beach with childhood friends; for the drives at college where my roommate and I wound through cow pastures on our way to nowhere, discussing our anxieties over upcoming tests and the ways in which our hearts had broken and mended. But memories follow us wherever we go (as Proust would be the first to point out). This trip didn’t feel like a visit to the past, rather, it was a serene four days where I truly disconnected and, in taking stock of my life from afar, got the distinct impression that it was moving forward. The four days felt even longer, not from tedium, but from, as Proust puts it, the expansion of my passions that stretched the elastic fabric of time. I came back to New York with peeling skin and sand in my hair, but, upon reconnecting, find that this interlude carried a latent sense of propulsion. Maybe enough momentum to finish these damn books – and write on this blog more than once every five months.

Postscript: Rather than begin this post with my apologies for the long delay in my posting, I decided to begin with a normal Proust Book Club post. I will say here: if you’re still reading, thank you. Thank you Maeve for your gentle reminders and for keeping this domain warm while I sorted out my life and felt overwhelmed by the prospect of being alone with my emotions and my words. Once I have resumed the swing of things, I will explain my absence… or perhaps I’ll just use Proust’s words instead of my own, as they once again seem more apt:

“Had I been less firmly resolved upon settling down definitively to work, I should perhaps have made an effort to begin at once.”

It’s not a wheel; it’s a carousel

And… finished with Book One! This past week, I escaped to Vermont with my father’s family for the first family reunion of my lifetime (organized, funnily enough, by my mother). I actually wrote a post concerning my hiatus, but I tried to post it from the DC metro while on my way out of town and, surprise surprise, it didn’t work.

I used the week to relax on the beach, polishing off the first volume and biting off a sizable chunk of Within The Budding Grove.Well, that was the plan, but the universe rarely works that way, and instead I mostly played with my second-cousins-thrice-removed or whatever they were. The point is, there were many children there, and they were all adorable and a riot and left little time for reading.

The staging of the reunion was Proustian in and of itself. The clan traveled to the camp my great-grandfather opened on Lake Champlain in Vermont. My father, his brother and cousin all were campers there in the 50s and 60s, and the camp has barely changed in the past half-century. For many family members, it was the first time seeing Camp; for others, their first time back in decades.

As a child, my parents took my sister and me up to Camp every summer, and they remain friends with the family who now owns the Camp. The setting is beyond idyllic — cabins sit on a bluff that descends directly into the lake where I learned to swim and first paddled out in boats. The last time I was there was almost ten years ago. Returning, everything seemed smaller and much more beautiful than I remembered it ever being.

In Search of Lost Time focuses so heavily on memory that the acts of recalling and remembering seem to consume the novel’s very plot. In attempting to describe my own nostalgia returning to Camp, I began to comprehend what could have driven Proust into the lunacy of a seven-volume epic that explored his own memory.

It wasn’t just my own memories that overwhelmed me; it was the collective consciousness of my family, the recollections that gave each generation some ache of reminiscence. I think that the narrator’s intrusion on Swann’s memories makes more sense given how communal the past becomes as it grows more distant. I realized that the inside of Cabin Five smelled the same way it always had, that the water was cold in the same way it always had been, the rocks on the beach made me trip in the same pattern, and I wondered if and how these sensations had affected my dad when he was younger than I am now, and how they were affecting him now. 

I took a lot of pictures in the past week. Images, as Proust points out, are a useful archival tool for documenting our memories, but they are a poor substitute for that emotion that emerges from the intersection of sight, sound, smell and sentiment:

The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.

In my copy, I underlined the above passage (which concludes Swann’s Way) and wrote next to it “sums up life.” Or, as Don Draper says,

Reflecting on nostalgia and one of my favorite Mad Men moments brings to mind a New Yorker article on Instagram, which ruminates on how the popular app manufactures “instant nostalgia.” Reading Proust operates in a similar way. I think that navigating Swann and Marcel’s memories makes us more aware of our own. When Proust gives up (or so it seems) on Odette, he does not let go of her, but of the memory of when she loved him, and the hope that the past will resurrect itself. Conversely, while some memories can be hard to let go of, some moments announce their importance by the lack of a memory to accompany them, such as when Swann realizes he does not desire to possess Odette but he does not know when he felt that way:

He discovered it was already too late; he would have liked to glimpse, as though it were a landscape that was about to disappear, that love from which he had departed (411)

So I leave Swann’s Way as Swann leaves behind the landscape of his love: quietly, and without really realizing at the time what was happening. In the final passage Marcel really lets his own nostalgia show–he decries the inelegance of “modern” women as compared to the refinement of Gilberte’s mother. I expect more nostalgia in the volumes to come. In the meantime, here’s an image that is succeeding in making me nostalgic for Vermont right now.

A House by the Sea

I awoke this morning to brilliant sunshine and the crash of waves against the shore. Although it was only 8 am, and the rest of the house was still sound asleep, I climbed out of bed, ran to the windows, threw up the blinds, and opened them wide to let the chilly sea air in. Then I got back into bed, pulled on my black sweater and pulled my covers up to my chin, and, watching the water out of the corner of my eye, opened Swann’s Way.

The four of us arrived on Wednesday, by train, bus, and (in my case) plane, and drove down the Cape to the ferry which we took across to the island where Kylie’s family has a summer house. Kelsey had come from Buffalo, Amanda from Long Island, and we had not seen each other in the month since we’ve graduated from Hamilton. We arrived at Kylie’s house, unpacked the cooler of fruit, sliced turkey, and gluten-free pasta, and huddled inside, drinking wine and playing an old game of Trivial Pursuit from the 1950’s, as rain battered the wooden shingles.

We had all come for a long weekend on the island, to get away from our temporary limbo and all be together before our real lives start in a few weeks. I had been anticipating this trip since we rather impulsively made the plans several weeks ago, and had no doubt that these five days would be little short of perfect.

The next day, the sun came out, and we went into town to walk along the narrow streets lined with gingerbread houses, and sampled lobster-flavored ice cream. We made curried chicken for dinner, and rushed to finish eating so we could go out to the beach and watch the sun set. At night, we lay out on the pier, huddled under thick wool blankets, and stared at the stars, scattered like salt across the black expanse of the heavens. We all came back in hours later, built a fire in the fireplace, and, one by one, fell asleep in our respective living room chairs.

There are moments like this, vivid and fleeting, in whose very midst I can feel time ebbing, stretching away from the present into the nostalgic days of the future, leaving me longing to return to this place, this instant, before it is even gone. In what could not have been a more perfect parallel, Proust comes to this same conclusion rather early in his narrative, when Marcel eats that famous, evocative madeline, dipped in lime-blossom tisane, which his mother brings him one morning at Combray. When, years later, the adult Marcel (with whom this is the reader’s first encounter) tastes the same dessert, he experiences a rush of joy, a connection he cannot place:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to be, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.

Proust spends a good deal of his epic concentrating on how best to recapture his memories—that much I know without having read much more than the first hundred pages. Whether he succeeds in this endeavor, or somehow manages to find another tact (in what I have assumed is his writing) has yet to be seen. I, too, at this point in my life, torn between college and the future, long to distill into permanence these doorway moments, to take everyone and everything that I love, and keep them just as they are, before we have time to move apart, to grow up, to put down roots.

And I began again to ask myself what it could have been, this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof, but the indisputable evidence, of its felicity, its reality, and in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished. I want to try to make it reappear. I retrace my thoughts to the moment at which I drank the first spoonful of tea. I rediscover the same state, illuminated by no fresh light. I ask my mind to make one further effort, to bring back once more the fleeting sensation.

Will these moments in time, brief and eternal, colored by the light off the ocean, the sound of leaves in the wind, the way my wet clothes clung to me when Kylie made us bike down to the beach and plunge, reckless and fully-clothed, into the water, fade into memory and lose their vivid permanence? Are we fated only to live in remembrance of things past and anticipation of those to come? Or can I, like Proust, fight to hold onto time so it will not be lost, so that, even once this magical weekend passes into memory, I will be able to somehow go back, to lie under those vast heavens, cuddled against three of my best friends, and once again feel the breathless laughter in my chest?

For now, it seems, only time, and perhaps Marcel, will tell.

And then for the second time I clear an empty space in front of it; I place in position before my mind’s eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise, something that has been anchored at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed. (60-62)