You Can’t Go Back

by Mar 14, 2016Storytelling, The Missing Conversation4 comments

In responding to my post from last week, Simon Dunkley, on his own blog, makes an astute point about modeling the past: we can’t return to it. We can recreate the objects and to a certain degree even the settings, but we can never capture the true essence of them.

I wrote about my childhood memories of lying in bed and watching the switch engine work the siding next to the house. I can paint lovely word pictures of that time and with enough research, perhaps even render the location faithfully. What I can’t do is go back and relive those experiences. They are forever gone except as a memory, one that is likely marinated in nostalgia after a half century.

As Simon pointed out, there is more to our past experiences than just the setting and the railroad artifacts we’re so fixated on. There is also touch, smell and the interactions with people among countless other aspects we cannot recreate in miniature.

You can see from the two photos of North Morton Avenue, that things have changed dramatically. The opening photo dates from the late 1970s, while the second one was shot on March 14, 2016. Both were taken from approximately the same spot. As you can see, the mill, my grandmother’s house and the railroad itself have been gone for decades now. With only the 2016 image to go by, would you even know a railroad once existed here? Perhaps, if you knew the area well but it’s unlikely you would otherwise.

I never tried to model Centerville, Richmond or even the Pennsylvania itself because I always sensed that the work would not equal my memory of them and therefore be a disappointment and source of frustration. I’m grateful I never went down that rabbit hole but I came very, very close. Instead I focused on the visual attributes that would apply to any subject of my choosing. And, that has proven to be the wiser choice.



  1. Simon

    Hi Mike,

    In actual fact my post started as a comment to yours, but I realised it was becoming more personally focused and would sit well on my own blog.

    Let me say now to anyone reading this, avoid the rabbit hole.

    Believe me, it ain’t worth going down it, but if you do, it helps to have friends who can direct you out!


  2. Chris Mears

    Simon and Mike: I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts back and forth on this subject. I apologize for not finding the words to express how much I’ve enjoyed these posts and that I’ve not said thank you on your blog, Simon, and now that I’m finally finding some of those words to express them here on Mike’s.

    Back to the discussion.

    I agree with the thoughts on distinguishing between trying to replicate a memory. I’ll admit I have a lot of trouble avoiding the rabbit hole myself and my relationship with it is evidenced throughout my own work or lack of it. Maybe just me, but I find managing this balance to be my single greatest creative block these days. (I’m not asking for someone to tell me what to do. Just confessing something probably already quite obvious.)


  3. Simon

    In my experience, Chris, there is no point asking what to do as the choices are too personal. I just listened to what my friends were saying, and asked myself the right questions based on that.

    Follow the voices – they get louder as you approach daylight.


  4. mike

    “I’ll admit I have a lot of trouble avoiding the rabbit hole myself…” Chris M.

    I believe we approach this idea from the wrong perspective. On the surface, we focus on the circumstances that fuel the memory: the event(s), the location, and the other physical or emotional parameters involved. The physical attributes can be rendered or approximated, the emotional aspects can be implied, if only by ourselves. Herein lies the trap the two of you seem to sense: what happens then? What happens after the first train has passed through our miniature childhood and gone on its merry way? How many times will it take before it’s trite and meaningless?

    What I learned from my trips down amnesia lane is an understanding of my relationship with trains and their meaning for me.

    I know that I’m drawn to these images because I was repeatedly exposed to them at an impressionable age and, that those seeds were planted deep. The preferences I developed have stayed true even though I willingly embraced other influences over the decades. I say they remained true because of the nagging dissatisfaction I always felt with modeling things I was only marginally interested in, even though the mainstream was all slobbery for them.

    The struggle, if you want to call it that, involved shutting out the noise, so I could listen to myself think.

    It’s not offered as advice, so take it for what it’s worth.