I’ve been doing a bit of traveling lately. Today I dropped in on the neighborhood where I grew up in Ohio, then headed off to an artist colony in New Mexico where I’d spent time in the late ’90s. Next came Traverse City, Michigan; Mojacar, Spain; and Ojai, California.
No, I don’t have a private jet. I’ve been cyberstalking the places of my past with my new obsession: Google Street View. I roam the digital skies on my iPad like some ghostly bird, using my index finger to swoop around the landscapes of my life. I find it utterly fascinating, zipping up and down country roads or suburban streets I once traveled, zooming in close to try to peer in windows or read street signs, seeing what has changed, what has been built up or torn down, finding spots I thought I remembered well but find that, actually, I don’t.
“At each location, images of my life wash over me: my first time away from home at an all-girls’ camp on Sandusky Bay, a whirlwind bus tour through Europe one college summer, the studio apartment in Greenwich Village where I lived for 19 years, all filling me with bittersweet memories.” I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland with a grid of tree-lined streets and sturdy homes built in the 1940s. I haven’t been back in more than 30 years, so I was eager to see the house. A brick and stone Tudor with the same lilac bushes and front walkway, it hasn’t changed—except that what had seemed so big to me as a kid now looks dwarfed on its postage stamp–sized lot. Yet it’s still there, familiar and comforting—still the house I loved as a girl.
At the artists’ colony, I find the adobe casita I lived in for six weeks but feel sad that the artsy café a group of us frequented is gone. But the vast landscape of Taos Mountain with its glistening light is unchanged. Roaming the streets of Taos pulls me back to that productive, fun time that consisted of writing for hours each day, exploring, making new friends.
At each location, images of my life wash over me: my first time away from home at an all-girls’ camp on Sandusky Bay, a whirlwind bus tour through Europe one college summer, the studio apartment in Greenwich Village where I lived for 19 years, all filling me with bittersweet memories. I binge-Googleview certain spots over and over, as if they were some cable TV series, sometimes toggling between images of the same locations Google has taken years apart: catching a glimpse of a parked car with the door open, a truck delivering fuel, a shed where there once was none, a For Sale sign in front of a house I once lived in. These are moments in time when I wasn’t there. Yet I was there.
Why do I keep going back to these places? What am I looking for?
I Google “I’m obsessed with Google street view” to see if others have the same fixation, and bingo—there’s actually a blog called “I’m obsessed with Google Street View.” But that blogger posts only screen shots of famous events (the Boston bombing, a sinkhole in Florida) or homes of celebrities. I prefer to spy on places from my life.
“E. B. White said, “Maps are the places where memories go not to die but to live forever.” I’ve always loved to study where I’m going and where I’ve been on old-school paper maps. And now I stalk the places of my past with these street views as if they were a time machine.” E. B. White said, “Maps are the places where memories go not to die but to live forever.” I’ve always loved to study where I’m going and where I’ve been on old-school paper maps. And now I stalk the places of my past with these street views as if they were a time machine. The places I long to return to mostly bring up memories of carefree, happy times—places where I felt my true self, most at ease, unencumbered; places that define me, where I felt comfortable alone; places I liked to share with friends or where I would luxuriously sink into my writing. Or maybe I just want to remember parts of my life that I haven’t thought of in a long time.
Maria Popova, creator of the thought-provoking Brainpickings.com blog, wrote: “[A]fter all, maps have always been one of our greatest sense-making mechanisms for life, which we’ve applied to everything from the cosmos to time to emotional memory.” She refers to the “emotive storytelling power of maps.” Now, in my mid-50s, perhaps I’m “reading” my story to make sense of my life.
Albert Brooks’s movie Defending Your Life portrays people on their way to heaven who review scenes of their lives. I’m quite certain that Google is already on to this and that in the not too distant future we’ll be able to call up scenes in our Google-brains and watch the movie of our lives as we’re living it. Yet I know there are times from my past I won’t want to relive: stupid blunders, messy breakups, painful times of loss, grief, plain unhappiness. For now I like being able to select where and when I want to go and use my own memory, however sketchy it sometimes is.
These places I repeatedly visit are like an alternative universe, existing without me. The writer in me thinks, What if I were there now…what if? Ultimately, I think I’m looking to hold on to the memories, recapture the emotions. I’m looking for validation, a way to say: Yes, I was there. And there. And there, too. That was my life.