I was back in my hometown of Providence a couple weeks ago with my oldest son. This was the first time he and I had ever traveled to the Motherland together, and I thought it would be fun to give him a quick geographical tour of my childhood. One of the first things I noticed about Providence is that for a supposedly modern city it is weirdly indifferent on the value of street signs. You’d find yourself at a four-way intersection, and you’d look up to the right, to the left—and nothing. When I pointed this out to my sister, who is still a Rhode Island resident, she only shrugged. “So? You know where you are.”
This is a uniquely Rhode Island attitude. It knows only home, and so street signs would make no more sense than labeling every cabinet in your kitchen for its contents. Comforting in a way, I suppose, but as I showed my son the house where I’d grown up, and the house where his mother had grown up, and my old high school, and my old hangouts, I became increasingly depressed.
Many a writer spends his adulthood rewriting his childhood. This is fertile storytelling ground, and I’ve certainly tilled that soil often enough. But to tell the story of your childhood is to make the past the present, to bring the child forward through the wisdom of the years he has not yet traveled. To simply visit the past itself is another matter entirely. To do so I must discard everything that has been learned and gained because, unlike electrons, I do not know how to be in two places at once.
Fortunately, Providence is a small city and I never ventured very far in it. The tour was soon over and I was living in the present again and all was well. I doubt the tour would have bothered me so much if I had not been on it in some small way my entire life. I think it’s over now, and the Providence city planners know why: You don’t need a street sign to know where you are.
Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. "A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.