The Distortion of Absence

I’m sure it’s happened to you, too.  After some time away, you return to somewhere familiar.  For some reason this doesn’t seem to apply to places you spend only a little time—for example, the cabin where I tend to go on vacation every year.  Rather, it impacts quotidian spaces, the places you see nearly every day.  Returning after an absence, the place looks strange, as if you’d forgotten what it was really like.  A fairly common example is a college dorm room.  When you return to it after, say, the winter holiday, it looks not quite how you remembered it.  It’s a little smaller or larger than you recalled, or you didn’t remember that the floor tiles were that color.  Within a day or so the feeling disappears and you accept the “new normal.”

The strange, or unfamiliar, is the source of many monsters.  Freud famously phrased the uncanny as “unheimlich,” un-home-like.  It is close to what you expected, but not exactly.  The uncanny valley is that place where things are about right, but slightly off.  It generates a creepy feeling, as if reality is being distorted.  On a business trip to Boston a few years back I visited Boston University School of Theology, a place where I spent over two years in my twenties.  745 Commonwealth Avenue hadn’t been renovated, but I stepped inside and was stunned by how wide the hall was.  In my mind it had become far narrower.  It was downright disturbing, as if I’d walked into somebody else’s past.  It made me wonder—is any of this really real?  Or more frighteningly—is my memory that fragile?

I recently spent a day working in the New York office.  While the office itself seemed the same, the city did not.  Emerging from the Port Authority Bus Terminal I knew exactly where I was.  Or did I?  I’d walked roughly the same route daily for almost five years, and two years before that a similar track.  It was as if the bus had exited the Lincoln Tunnel into an alternate Manhattan.  Unheimlich.  I’ve returned to many places after being away for awhile and this distortion of absence always creeps me out.  Can my memory be that faulty or is all of this an illusion?  The gap between present reality and remembered reality provides crevices into which monsters crawl, waiting.  By the time I reached the block of my office the feeling had gone away.  But somehow, the monsters remained. 

5 thoughts on “The Distortion of Absence

  1. Jeremiah Andrews

    Hey Steve,
    Your mind was so used to your New York trek, that you only paid attention to what you needed to, to get from the NYTA to your office. So you missed all the innocuous things along the way. Not for paying attention, but just getting from point A to point B. You spent time away, your mind has had time to clear out the pre programmed route and the things you ordinarily pay attention to, like cracks in the sidewalk, and grates in the pavement, and all the people you needed to navigate around.

    Going back to an old haunt, with new eyes, that are clearer and a brain less occupied with the regimen you followed, you are seeing the same location with a different perspective and you notice things that you did not in all the years you worked in the city.

    Life is cyclical. Every time you hit an old thought, feeling or experience, you experience it In that Moment, as if it were new, because you are where you are in the moment, and not in the moment you were there last.

    Your memory is fine. You just are noticing what you missed along the way.



  2. Brent Snavely

    A few years ago I visited the high school I had attended in the ’70s. It still looked like a juvenile detention facility. Despite removal of the chain link fence topped with barbed wire, the monsters were still there.


    • I’ve always been amazed how schools of a certain era (including my Junior High School) resembled prisons both inside and out. A society that implants fear of learning in children ends up with jokers, like the current incumbent, in the White House. We don’t want to spend money on our children’s education, supposing (I suppose) “it was good enough for me.” Surviving at all shows a great deal of bravery and determination.


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