The Amateur Time Traveller

Joel B. Levine MD

I tried to do something that should have been easy. I wanted to stop going forward and go back to a life of 20 years ago. Memories of it were still so vivid that I was sure that I had more than a one way ticket.

I lived in town, actually a series of very small villages, in a beautiful part of the State. Land renews over time, seasons pass and spring really is eternal. Nature inexorably moves forward but we, sensing how transient we are, lengthen time by looking back. Looking for what was is as chancy as imaging the future.

Driving back was the easy part. Remembering the way affirmed its reality. But once arrived, the old life proved harder to find, no seeds were left as markers on the trial.

I took a very local route, drove the lanes, still sublime, saw homes, still so evocative. When you travel with a purpose, with people waiting for you, the way to them is part of the anticipation. Land holds a vital energy that it shares as you move through it, place and person intimately entwined. Now it was just the cold smile of the past lover.

I went to a bookstore that had always featured local authors and local people. There is an intimacy to talking books among people who know you. Plug me in again, welcome me again to the fold.

I found a staff person and asked about a man I knew, that everyone knew as he was an anchoring figure for the town. She looked at me blankly, not struggling for recall, but just having no recognition. “Well, I am not from here, just work here”. I did not think this possible, not even allowed. We were all unchanging parts of the same whole, the best cogs for a wonderful wheel. But a home became an address and I was not even the prodigal son.

Across road was a small farmers market. In my day, local farmers were the epicenter and the few others of us, perhaps around 1000 people in each of the 3 villages, lived by their grace. Farmers are our natural monuments. Living amongst them should be a required life experience. They learn the land, you learn through them.

Farmers markets were touchstones. I knew the father of each crop and lived through the same storms or draught. Rough in the palms and at the edges but so well defined , even when fitfully irascible. If they were not one thing, it was delicate. But this day, delicate and delicacy were fully on display.

Not just cheese but the lineage of the goat, not just fruit but the sworn testimony about the fertilizer. And the cast of characters ; a down home with a Gucci, a Wall “Streeter” rushing by as if to a bond swap, a “ monger” who had studied, of course, in Italy. Going to the market was now clearly an event. Just behind it, a renovated garage was displaying high-end art, likely pictures of fruit in pastel and sour dough in mauve.

But then I saw a sign, literally, with a name of an old friend, a chef whose restaurant had been a joy and haven. He kept a booth at the market to show the flag. To my good fortune, he was to return to help close things down. It had been almost 20 years but the staff told me what I so wanted to hear, “ Oh he is still the same”. And so he was, older in just the right way, same in the essential ways.

We connected as if there had been no time, no distance. We held each other and promised to make new memories. I would return, in a few weeks to the restaurant, he would make all the food I loved; we would talk about our families and see time as a rainbow.

I went back but did not really know how to return. I wanted for a place to remember how I lived in it, for my habits to be important to others. We cannot be greedy with life. We may demand but it owes us nothing. If we want something, give something. Keeping in touch is keeping.


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Joel B. Levine MD

Professor of Medicine , essayist, practitioner, basic research and education ; reflections on medicine and modern society