Parallel Perspective

Transcending Time at Brown

There are two black and white photographs from the ‘70s taped to my dorm room wall. Both of them show a group of college kids posing on the porch of an old, white house, each wearing a different hand-made newspaper hat. It’s a whimsical, somewhat bizarre scene. A girl perches on the railing, her construction resembling a Native American Headdress; a boy, mostly hidden, peeks out mischievously from behind her; two people hang off the porch sides—one with bongo drums, the other’s limbs sprawled in every direction; and one sits crossed-legged in his origami headwear, with an inscrutable expression on his face. These images strike my friends as curious until I explain that this house is on Ives Street, the kids are Brown University students, and the boy looking at the camera from upside-down is my dad.

These pictures are particularly meaningful to me. They were taken my father’s senior year at Brown outside the house he lived in. I know the adult version of these kids well. One introduced my parents to each other. Another still lives in Providence, and I see him now and then. We celebrate Christmas Eve every year with the girl on the railing, and the boy standing on my dad’s right is still one of his closest friends. I grew up hearing their names. There is a mysterious, nostalgic glow around these images of things almost familiar. It’s as if I were there. Surely I, too, wore my very own newspaper hat?

Sharing Brown with my dad provides an added dimension to my experience and is one of my favorite parts of being here. Certainly, some things have changed—Keeney (his freshman dorm) is decidedly nicer, Semiotics (his concentration) no longer exists, and seven new school Presidents have been installed since he first walked through the Van Wickle Gates—but I like to imagine that the fundamental essence of this place holds true.

Tennessee Williams said that “time is the longest distance between two places.” But what if there is only one place? Perhaps as more time elapses, we don’t get further and further away—the space between our present and our memory of the past is fixed. The distance is static, always just beyond us. Five years or a thousand—just out of reach.

Physical locations, however, seem to defy time’s distance. When the place remains constant, time’s power to separate people is diminished. The gap that time widens begins fighting to close back up. This is why I love being at Brown: Every once in a while I sense the collapsing of years into one timeless place, impervious to the divisions time creates. That’s when I feel the magic of this campus. There is something about the way everyone spills out onto the Main Green on a brilliant, sunny day that makes me forget which year it is. I become hyperaware that my dad sat on the steps outside of Faunce and that he, too, watched the sun set from the stacks in the Rock. Contemplating this, I notice the cool detachment of time stopping. This correspondence removes context, making me temporarily immune to the generational isolation that comes from growing up in different eras. It’s my present reality now, yet it feels like my experience here is occurring simultaneously with my dad’s, perhaps just in parallel dimensions.

Such a strange perceptual distortion puts me alongside my dad and his classmates in school. Walking along the Main Green pathways, ducking in and out of snow-covered buildings, I halfway expect to run into him—his big, round glasses reflecting the icy sunlight outside of Sayles. In my mind, I watch him and his friends walking down Thayer Street, running late to classes, laughing at stupid jokes, or complaining about the food at the Ratty. What a revelation that my dad wasn’t born a fully formed adult! He too dealt with the trials and tribulations of growing up, choosing a concentration, and struggling to maintain that notoriously elusive balance between schoolwork, sleep, and a social life.

Hanging out with friends in a dorm room late at night, we wonder about our parents. When they were our age, were they sitting with friends, listening to music, doing the same thing we’re doing? Maybe they were wondering about their parents, or imagining their own futures. The circularity is dizzying.

It’s hard to picture my life beyond next week, let alone ten, twenty, or forty years from now. The closest I can come to projecting my future is looking at my dad and his friends, the people I hope to become not only because they’re successful as professionals, but because they’re successful as humans, as parents, as mentors, and as friends. Because they are generous, curious, and unpretentious. Because they still know how to have a good time.  Because my dad is the most genuine person I know. Several decades ago, they were standing in my shoes, and this assures me that the future, however enigmatic, is full of promise.

Seen through their eyes, Brown is a past tense. It is hazy in the way that only memories can be. Before actually starting my life on this campus, my idea of Brown was through their lens: It was a vague impression, it wasn’t real. Now it is real, but I have retained some of that perspective, that nostalgia, as if I’m already looking back on the present. I’m reminded to appreciate every extraordinary adventure and every mundane—or even occasionally miserable—moment with the urgency of time that has already slipped away.

In our world of ever-present iPhones, digital memories are captured, stored, and transmitted in the blink of an eye. Hard drives are filled with selfies, and Instagram chronicles every night out, every funny expression, and every meal with friends. Photos are taken, deleted, and edited with a tap on a screen. My children will have thousands upon thousands of images of my four years here to scroll through. Back then, however, one had to load film into a camera, process it, and produce prints by hand in a darkroom. Taking a photo required an elevated level of effort and intention. It was a conscious choice. Pictures of my dad are scarce, bestowing an increased significance on each one. The photos on my wall express a moment that they deemed worth capturing, worth remembering, and worth passing on.

These photos remind me that a connection is there, that human experience transcends time, and that I am part of a community much older and grander than myself. This feeling is evoked by any experience that draws attention to the fact that your parents were once young and that you will one day be old—but that is how it is manifested in my life. There is something compelling about living at Brown because I am constantly surrounded by the allure and beauty of a campus that holds a history relevant to me, and that connects me to my dad.

Crossing the Quiet Green on one of those nights when the freezing air feels like it might slice right through me and the moon cuts a defiant sliver out of the blackness, when the pressure of academics feels insurmountable, it is comforting to look at the serenity of this campus, knowing that the people in the photos made it through with grace, a determined spirit, and most importantly, a sense of humor. On a night like this, I am certain that time is not so far a distance to go.