time travel & longing

“It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry…Why does he go where I cannot follow?”

The first time I read Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, I was a senior in college (a Fourth Year for all of you fellow Hoos out there; I’m still down with the lingo). It was spring time, my boyfriend was nearing the end of a nine month deployment and I was nearing the end of what seemed like an endless chapter in life. For me, college was about three years too long. I distinctly remember finishing the book in two days, flipping it over and starting again from the beginning. I could relate so strongly to the sentiments in those pages that I couldn’t let the last page be the end. It felt like a salve on my soul. Still does.

I have always had the sense that I’m waiting for my life to start. Hop scotching through time and space. Always anticipating the next thing, waiting for the ones I love to return to me, waiting to experience life as I think it should be.

“I want something… I want. That’s all. I am wanting.”

Niffenegger uses Henry’s sci-fi genetic disorder of Chrono-Displacement-uncontrollable time travel-to illustrate how longing affects us normal human beings. Those of us rooted in the here and now. But that’s my point. Even us non-CDPs find ourselves either stuck in time, waiting, or disoriented by loss or grief and wasted years and what ifs. Like Henry, we fight to stay here. now.

TTTW tells the story of Clare and Henry. The fits and starts of their life together. For Clare, a love which began at age six and lasts a lifetime, punctuated by his profound absences. While this is primarily a love story between Clare and Henry, Niffenegger explores longing in all of its forms. Henry is repeatedly drawn to watch is mother’s accidental death. Clare’s inability to connect with her mentally ill mother. Clare’s six miscarriages and fierce desire to become a mother. This book is about so much more than the grief that comes from death. It is the grief of life. Of wanting more from life. More from love.

Birds fly through the pages of TTTW. Universally, birds represent freedom. Cranes, crows, goldfinches in tubes, doves, a hawk, starlings, hummingbirds. Clare describes her artwork, a mix of paper-making and aviary sculptures, to be about longing. Young Henry, three years after his mother dies in an icy car accident which alters the course of his childhood, is described as having a thin back and shoulders which “stick out like incipient wings.” Too young and underdeveloped, he is helpless to fly away, to escape his warped life. Birds appear at the junction of every event which disturb the normal flow of life. Which stop Clare and Henry in their tracks. Slows or speeds time to the point that time is both meaningless and overwhelming. Lives are reduced to pin points in time amongst swaths of blurred color. The birds seem to mock the mere humans with their ability to flee at will.

“In fairy tales it’s always the children who have the fine adventures. The mothers have to stay at home and wait for the children to fly in the window.”

There are many ways in which the imbalance of those who go and those who stay can happen. Moves across the world. Emotional distance. Disappearance. Death. Each turn us into a time traveler. Wishing to be here. Be now.