So… once again the DPchallenge prompts me to get a mid-week post together! This one has the double-whammy benefit of also helping me figure out what I wanted to write for my weekly post. But for now, I faced the challenging question of: Where would I go if I could travel back in time? What would I do?
It was a challenge to write at first, especially since I didn’t want to bog myself down in the research I feel is necessary to really write a “back-in-time” piece. And I promised myself I wouldn’t give disclaimers, so I’ll stick with simply noting that this is very much a first draft. Yup.
It is disconcerting at first, when you step through one of those fine places of separation and find yourself in a completely different time. I remember the first time it happened to me — I swore that it must be a dream. Some twisted, thesis-writing, caffeine-induced dream. An indication that I probably should step away from the research for a while.
I came up with this complex explanation for myself in those first moments, as I stood awkwardly in the heavy undergarments, the large dress, pins digging into my scalp holding my hair up under some sort of bonnet. I must have simply fallen asleep at the coffee shop — was probably drooling all over my laptop and thesis research while the poor barista’s debated if they should wake me up or simply refill my coffee mug for the upteenth time so it would be ready when I jolted myself awake. It must have simply been part of the dream that I had gathered my things, begun to make my way back to my apartment, and suddenly found myself back in time. The only explanation, I thought, was that it was a dream. Too much time steeped in thesis research had placed my brain in a historically-oriented state. Even though where I stood was not Reformation era Basel, but appeared to be Portland Maine somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century, perhaps my brain had decided not to distinguish between different historical eras.
But the sights and sounds were far more real than any dream. I wandered in a trance, admiring the outfits on others, trying to memorize all that I saw. There were familiar buildings, and many others that were not. It was just a brief moment, as I walked down the street, heading to the church that I knew would be there — loving how different everything was, basking in this moment of being in a time long-past, but still longing for something familiar. That tether to the world I knew.
That time it had only lasted a few moments. I walked a few blocks through what later research would help me pinpoint as 1850s Maine, trying to drink it all in, and putting aside the question of what had happened. I tried to ignore the nagging questions, and the attempts to draw parallels to every time-traveling movie or book that I have enjoyed. And after a while I found myself returned to the present, on the same path a moment ago, but now in my familiar jeans and sweatshirt, a far-too-heavy backpack on my back, and a to-go coffee in my hand. After a few more times, over the next few years I would ultimately learn that really that’s what you had to do when you find yourself suddenly stumbling into a different time and place. You have to just accept the new reality for a time, settle back for the ride, and try to not get into too much trouble.
Which is what I remind myself now. It isn’t the first time I have jumped time and place, after that jaunt through my neighborhood street there was the moment where I found myself stepping through the bedroom door into a real-life medieval festival. And once, on a walk around my neighborhood in Oregon and discovered myself on the wide open plains of Nebraska in the company of a wagon-train.
But this time… it is the first time I really feel a struggle to figure out just what I am going to do. The change in outfits, the unidentifiable change in the air, the onslaught of different smells and sounds — those I have learned to adjust to. I have even come to terms with the fact that I will inexplicably be able to understand what those around me were saying, even though they sometimes speak languages I don’t actually know (and sometimes, frustratingly, languages I have struggled to try to learn but failed at). But I have never faced a situation where I stand facing someone I really want to speak to, a moment that I desperately want to know more about. All those old time-travel theories flood my mind, if I act could I change the course of history? By simply being present do I change things? Or perhaps, has my being there always been a part of the history — one of those interactions overlooked and forgotten that actually has some influence in shaping the way that my own reality existed. And in the ultimate scheme of things, did the actions of this person, that holds such importance to me, really have that much of a lasting impact on the world at large? I had certainly written a thesis that claimed he did, albeit a quiet and subtle influence. If I did anything to alter his actions, would I change that?
It is surprising to recognize him, given that the only existing likeness of him was printed some time after his death. But there is no question in my mind that the man standing before me, gazing out over the Rhine, was Sebastian Castellio. Despite my best efforts at scholarly distance, I have definitely built him up to be a great figure. A voice for tolerance, who spoke his truths, but spoke them with great caution. A lively and dedicated educator, who based his actions in his faith, a faith based in love. I had no idea when, in his time in Basle, this is. Has he already written Concerning Heretics? Is this in the middle of his year of tragedy, when he lost his wife, two children, and quite nearly lost two more? Or perhaps he has just arrived, completely unaware that he will be unable to lead a quiet life, searching for a way to eek out a living for his small family.
I want to ask him what he really thinks of John Calvin, had they once been friends as I have speculated? Was he really considering moving to Poland to escape persecution? Why doesn’t he — such a move could mean he could keep writing, keep speaking for tolerance. What did his Catholic parents think when he left Lyons, now a Protestant, to seek out Calvin? What had his childhood been like? Does he regret the writings he’s publishedt? Does he realize that, have any hint or dream, that over 400 years after his death people would still be reading his work? A small handful of people, granted, but still, I can not help but recognize that I am standing in the presence of a man whose writings still speaks so profoundly. So many questions, but I find myself tongue-tied. Just as I have been unable to put together a coherent statement the few times I have encountered a celebrity in my own time, turning into a silly star-struck fan, I can’t seem to find the way to broach a conversation. Instead I just stand there, watching the man I have certainly deemed a quiet hero, an underdog, as he looks out over the water, apparently lost in thought. As he turns away from the water he catches sight of me and gives a nod.
“Good afternoon, Madame,” he smiles warmly at me. I return the smile.
“Good afternoon,” my voice sounds meek, but he seems not to notice. With a polite nod he continues on his way. I let out a breath, as the moment passes. Even though I am quietly berating myself for not taking more action, not doing anything, I can’t help but smile. Any questions I had gotten answered, I reason, I wouldn’t be able to back-up with documentation anyhow. Instead I had gotten to have a very human interaction, with a man who I had come to admire because of his human-ness. And it is with that thought that I turn away from the Rhine, and find myself once again stepping into my kitchen to prepare dinner.