It is a showy move to begin a personal essay with a Virginia Woolf quote, but I am a showy person.
So, here is Woolf: “What does it mean, then? What can it all mean?” Lily Briscoe, a young and single painter who lives with the Ramsay family during summers at their beach house on the Isle of Skye, asks herself in To the Lighthouse. “For, really, what did she feel, come back after all these years and Mrs. Ramsay dead?”
It has been 10 years since Lily set foot in this house. In those 10 years, Mrs. Ramsay died; Prue Ramsay married and then just as soon died in childbirth; a world war was fought; “a shell exploded — twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.” Lily has had lovers, some strange, some wonderful. She has made new art. Everything has changed. Yet, 10 years later: here is the Isle of Skye, and here is the beach house, which looks “much as it used to look.”
This passage — and To the Lighthouse — is about many things: loss, mourning, time, memory, and geopolitics. But as written by Woolf, whose parents rented the same house on the British coast every summer during her youth, it is also about the uncanny and vertiginous feeling of returning to the same place year after year. You close the house in late August, put tarps on the couches, drive off, and spend the next nine months changing. You get a different haircut, you fix some personality flaws, and, even if unbeknownst to you, develop some new ones. You grow a little less shrill and a little more sturdy. You have bedfellows — some strange, some wonderful. You develop a work ethic. You start taking a pill once a day and suddenly you’re happier and (your friends keep telling you) much easier to be around.
And yet when you return to the house nine months later, there are the tarps on the couches, there is the copper kettle on the back left burner of the stove, there is the creak from that one floorboard — everything, except for you, “much as it used to look.”
This phenomenon can make one sick with syrupy existentialism. (Who was I then and who am I now? Where have I been, where am I going?) It can be comforting (No matter what, I can rely on this!), or it can be confusing (What year is it again? Did the past nine months actually happen?). But it is always significant, one of those life moments when your nerves are plucked and you sit up a little straighter and look around a little longer. Your sense of smell, desensitized to the stink of the city, returns to you — you remember after all this time the smell of the ocean, same as it was before.
“Life stands still here,” Woolf writes of the Ramsays’ beach house. It is a feeling that is familiar to those of us who are lucky enough to come to Provincetown for a summer and then, nine months later, come back.
When I returned to Provincetown at the beginning of the summer after spending the winter back at college, I was flooded with existentialism, comfort, and confusion. Being back here forced me to take stock of all that had happened since the August before. I returned to familiar pleasures — the tomato sandwich at Pop + Dutch, the large air conditioning unit in the Independent’s office, the embrace of a tall friend, the fact that if I caught a man looking at me here I didn’t have to wonder if it was out of lust or hatred. Mostly, though, I returned to the water and the salt air.
I walked down Commercial Street and people kept saying hi to me and I felt like I was being mistaken for someone else. It dawned on me, about a week in, that the person I was being mistaken for was myself, but a version of myself from 12 months earlier, with a haircut that I find as regrettable as I’m sure I’ll find this one 12 months from now, with no facial hair but lots of self-pity, with boundless energy and no idea where to put it, who could develop a crush with an ease that I now find enviable. How sweet and feeling that boy was, how sad he would get each time the crush was not requited, how epic and cinematic he looked crying his eyes out to “Both Sides Now.”
I felt an urge to tell those people saying hi to me that I was not the person they thought I was, that they were mistaking me for someone else, that I had grown and changed — really, I had, but of course that melodramatic urge proved how little I had changed, how little time had passed, how perhaps I was just as young as that boy with the bad haircut and the wet eyes. But this time around, I was just better at being young. I did it with more grace and less apology.
I was grateful for the intonation of those people’s hellos, soft and sweet and vaguely concerned, which reminded me what it was like to be 21 and lost on the walk to Boy Beach, woefully ignorant and in need of some nice man to point to the ocean just in front of me and say, “Oh, sweetie, it’s right there.” What, I wonder, will the intonations sound like next summer? How do you address a 22-year-old who thinks he has it figured out?
That, I suppose, is a tomorrow problem, best covered up with a tarp for now and re-examined with a new pair of eyes next summer.