I’m telling a secret about myself that will probably interest no one, but here goes: I spend a significant portion of my time (in my head) in time periods other than the one in which I find myself. I do not mean that I obsess over my personal past, or worry extravagantly about the future, mine or in general. I mean that I time travel. Actively, deliberately, for sport.
It may look to you like I am walking down the street thinking about my bills, or my work, or what's on TV tonight, or what I'm going to eat for dinner. But I'm probably not. It's much more likely that I'm trying to figure out what would be on the menu if I were eating dinner with Leonardo da Vinci or Catherine the Great or Jack the Ripper.
This avocation began in my preteen years, with Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie books. I fancied us kindred spirits, not only because she was feisty and smart--and tended to get in trouble, like me--but because I shared her fascination with Indians. In sixth grade, we spent a good portion of the year studying Ohio Indians. We learned the meanings of the Indian words attached to many of the place names around me. I became a little obsessed.
At some point, I figured out on my walks back and forth to school that although they didn't live here anymore, this was was still Indian country. These houses and the streets they sat on were fairly recent in origin, and I could pretend they weren’t there. I could try to see this place the way an Indian would have seen it, try to think the thoughts he might have been thinking as he walked in this same space. I could go down by the Maumee River and try to imagine what it looked like to him, long before those houses were sliding down into it.
I imagine this has something to do with why I eventually studied history.
I remember the first time I admitted this propensity to another person. I was in college, and I was taking a hike with my boyfriend through the Wisconsin woods. We’d spent the day before tubing on a river. Both of these were ideal situations to engage in my secret pursuit. But he would not shut up long enough for me to settle into it. I don’t know what he was talking about—sports, probably—or music, but it was just blah, blah, blah. All day long.
When he would stop talking for a few minutes, I'd finally begin to get into my zone, and then he'd bring me right back to the present with an inane comment like "I really have to pee." Grrr. So, on this second day, I finally lost it. I might have yelled. I'm pretty sure my exact words were: "Would you please STFU? I'm pretending to be an Indian."
There. I was out of the closet, and in a big way.
A few years later, when I was in Russia, I drove my summer-program friends crazy. Standing in front of the Winter Palace, I wondered aloud about precisely where the bodies were falling on November 7, 1917. On a walk through St. Petersburg, we came upon a 60-year-old sign that read: "Citizens! The shelling is worse on this side of the street. Cross over." That prompted a little disquisition from me on the Siege of Leningrad. I helpfully pointed out that if it were 1942, we wouldn’t be complaining about our cafeteria food. We’d be eating our shoes.
Later, we took the overnight train to Moscow, and were awakened by the hissing, heaving stop of the train in the middle of the night. We jolted up out of our bunks and peeked out the window shade. It was pitch black except for one lamp on a post, which provided just enough illumination to show that it was foggy. Creepily foggy. And also that--although we were apparently in the middle of nowhere--there were two guys in some kind of uniforms smoking cigarettes under the lamp post.
Then, we heard the sound of multiple pairs of booted feet running down the passageway. We began whispering to each other about what could possibly be going on. We were in Russia, after all. As safe as we felt most of the time, we were well aware that a little blue passport didn't make us bulletproof, and we harbored a tiny seed of doubt about its power to actually get us back through the looking-glass when we needed it to.
A moment later, while taking another peek out the window shade, it occurred (aloud) to me that if it were 1943, those guys out under the lamp post would be NKVD-types, and we’d be soldiers on our way to the frontline. The train would probably have stopped because the Germans were strafing troop trains ahead of us on the track. And those NKVD-types out there would have weapons trained on us, although they probably wouldn’t be needed, because we’d also be padlocked in this train car so that we couldn’t desert when the train stopped.
My friends said they were going to throw me out of the cabin if I didn’t STFU.
So I went back in the closet.
But I'm out again today, so that I can say what comes in the next post.