When I was a kid I was obsessed with the idea of time travel. I used to spend entire weekends deconstructing cardboard boxes and adding layers of tin foil, antennae and snacks to transport me to my desired time (usually Dickensian London, I had a thing for orphans and the writer Joan Aiken). I was enchanted by the story of two women, Charlotte Ann Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, who in 1901, visited Petit Trianon after a less compelling visit to the palace of Versailles, and fell, (they said) into a time slip. They reported Marie Antoinette frolicking in the gardens and wrote of a pock marked, sinister man at a toll booth. Elsie Wright's Cottingley Fairies, similarly captured me.
I read Douglas Adams, binge watched ET, Back to The Future and Cocoon; practised a lot of eye -shutting, breath -holding, willing, yearning, wishing and longing. And yet, nothing doing. No room on the shuttle, no phantom toll booth, no time tear to step into, no island of wild things to rumpus with. Nothing quenched that feeling, even though it wasn’t met. It remained undimmed, burning in me, this longing to drop from one world to another. After another thwarted visit to Narnia, I sat at the back of the coat cupboard, cloaked in the smell of damp wool and raincoats, furious. Where the fuck was Aslan?
My own reality was complicated. As a little girl I created elaborate fantasies and fairytale constructs about people and situations to make life more palatable. An awful, frightening thing could quickly become a dream, or story, replete with wicked witches, shadowy men, an incredible journey, crones, and draughts of poison. My heroines had fortitude and bags of patience. And for ever after, situations were spidery black and white, with no allowance for shades of grey.
And yet how grey we all are. How nuanced and shaped by our history, experiences and ancestors. Greyer than ever in this strange, changing, Wild West of a time we’re living in, but shouting in black and white and caps into an echo chamber, hoping someone, anyone, will answer. Hopefully a kindred.
I’m trying to get comfortable with this itchy, oppressive feeling of uncertainty, one that for me is increased by a collective sense of deep political unease and watching a world poised between two extremes, both the shouty-no-room-for-debate outward and the narcissistic worst of our teenage selves inward, both of which can leave a lot of us feeling like wandering, lost children. In this quagmire, time machines start to feel very appealing again.
The wonderful Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, writes that in the face of uncertainty, we need to be gentle. We need to have humour about our very humanness and our itch for transportation. “Our habitual patterns are, of course, well established, seductive, and comforting. Just wishing for them to be ventilated isn’t enough. Mindfulness and awareness are key. Do we see the stories that we’re telling ourselves and question their validity? When we are distracted by a strong emotion, do we remember that it is part of our path? Can we feel the emotion and breathe it into our hearts for ourselves and everyone else? If we can remember to experiment like this even occasionally, we are training as a warrior. And when we can’t practice when distracted but know that we can’t, we are still training well. Never underestimate the power of compassionately recognizing what’s going on.”
I’ve been vacillating between reading Pema Chodron, and books that rode me away as a child, the ones that don’t shy away from darker sides of human nature, the C.S Lewis, Astrid Lindgren, Michelle Magorian, Susan Cooper classics, all of them carrying another truth that Chodron captures with such heartbreaking eloquence:“The root of suffering is resisting the certainty that no matter what the circumstances, uncertainty is all we truly have.”
The 1901 Petit Trianon duo were loudly derided and mocked as fantasists. In a 1965 biography of the poet Robert de Montesquiou, his biographer Phillipe Jullian suggested that actually rather than a time slip, what Moberly and Jourdain stumbled upon could have been a jolly old knees- up, hosted by de Monesquiou, who was very keen on both fancy dress and tableaux vivant. What the two strait laced Edwardians took for ghosts, were highly likely a bunch of guys in drag, having a good time. Two narratives of exactly the same scene, vastly different stories. Many shades of grey.
Change is born of being awake, however painful. I’m learning to write new stories, my eyes open. No time machine required.
Preview image credit: Maurice Sendak