The first time I ever felt the heavy touch of history was a little over a decade ago, in an eight-hundred year old synagogue in Toledo, Spain.
That autumn, I suddenly felt the urge to travel abroad. Looking back, I can see now that the first fissures had begun to appear in my life that would lead to my divorce and a complete revolution in my existence about five years later. I wasn’t aware of that at the time, though. I just knew I needed to go somewhere immediately. So I walked into my brother’s office one day and said “Let’s go to Spain.” He considered for a few moments — surprisingly few moments, really — and then agreed. It was a strange thing for me to do, because it wasn’t particularly responsible. My then-husband and I were in the middle of a cross-country move. We had a toddler. It was expensive.
But three weeks later, we were on a plane. I’ve learned since then that when I do something like that, something that seems completely disconnected with my sense of responsibility, it’s for a very good reason. It doesn’t happen a lot.
That reason, though I didn’t know it at the time, was the discomfiting tendrils that had started to reach and grow into my future. My husband had completely changed careers, and was spending increasing amounts of time in Asia — where he would eventually find my replacement. I think the part of myself that was dimly aware of all that was coming felt the need to plant a flag of my own. I planted it in Spain. And that trip would fortify me as the cracks in my life widened over the next half-decade.
And yet much of the trip to Spain was about my fascination with the past.
Walking into that ancient structure, designed in Islamic style, used over the centuries first as a synagogue and then as a church, I felt the veil of human history settle onto my shoulders. The stillness inside it, the low light, and the graceful horseshoe arches all felt loaded with the echoes of what had been.
History touches me in the same way the natural world does: it takes me somewhere outside myself, to a place I’m not really supposed to be admitted. We can never quite inhabit history, or the world of wild animals, but we can visit. One is always a guest, and can never fully live it, but there are brief, mystical, powerful whiffs of the other.
When I’m standing in a structure that was built a millenium ago, or watching two bear cubs follow their mother, I feel like I’ve punctured the membrane between realities. And somehow, in a way I still don’t fully understand, entering the worlds of the other helps ground me in my own.