Defiant Spaces


Despite those moments of stillness when I notice, almost accidentally, the slow sway of the fir branch, or the gray spider moving along the windowsill, life most often feels like a headlong sprint. When we’re young, time’s advance doesn’t trouble us: It carries us reassuringly toward maturity—meeting that girl at the football game, getting a driver’s license, or making love for the first time. There can be a purposefulness to time. It delivers us to all the places we must see to become ourselves. And then, at a moment that is different for each of us, though inevitably later in life, the rush begins to feel more hurried than purposeful. I can’t say when exactly I came to resist the passing of time, but the feeling has become so habitual that I find myself more and more earnestly looking for those spots of timelessness, those places on the riverbank where I can hold my gaze as the current carries me by. 

Occasionally, as I look for these places, I find—both to my relief and my incredulity—that time’s tyranny isn’t as absolute as it can appear. I’m not so naïve as to think any object or place can resist the sway of temporality; but some spaces acquiesce more slowly, more artfully, than others. The alley behind my childhood home in Denver has changed over the years, but it is largely the same as when I wandered around in cut-off jeans and tube socks. The old brick trash incinerator behind our house remains as well, though I doubt children hole up inside it as my friends and I did, like members of some Roman cult, to look at racy paperbacks. Sometimes, when I return to Denver on my way to our family home in Aspen, I’ll drive down that alley and locate the back of my old house. I’ll look for the incinerator, now surrounded by trash cans, the house across the alley where old Mr. Prowdy lived (the man who ate baby food because he’d lost all his teeth), the Spencers’ driveway where we played basketball. Almost always, the alley is empty and I can stop the car for a moment and experience a fleeting but palpable deceleration in time—almost its retreat.

West Smuggler Street

The drive to Aspen is about four hours from Denver. In the summer, my family and I take the longer route through South Park to Buena Vista; then through Twin Lakes and over Independence Pass. Aspen sits on the western slope of the Continental Divide, at the foot of the pass. As you descend, Route 82 becomes crowded on either side by aspen trees, with their luminous bark and trembling, coin-shaped leaves. Closer to town, you see sleek, modern houses with extravagant gardens of lupine, delphinium, and columbine. Though it has gained notoriety for its movie stars and hedge-fund managers, Aspen was a much humbler place in 1949 when my grandfather built a chalet-style house in the city’s west end. Then, it was a silver mining town trying to stay alive by becoming a ski resort. Land was cheap, and no one ever imagined the value a field overgrown with sage and scrub oak would later command. Over the next seven decades, the house passed to my parents and their siblings, and eventually to my generation. Though I live on the East Coast, most years I manage to visit the house in the summer (we’re not skiers, so winter doesn’t hold as much allure as the gem-like days of July). This year we’ve made it back three times—largely out of fear that our family must eventually succumb to the temptation of selling. Who can blame any of us for heeding that siren song, even though we know that if we sell the tidy, brown house with the fanciful flower boxes, it will almost certainly be razed?

Perhaps it is my fear that future visits to this house will be counted on one hand—or it is that greater sense of urgency, the desire to locate constancy within the relentlessly mutable—that brings me here only two months after my last visit. There is something blissfully, reassuringly unchanged about the house, with its knotty pine walls and broad, brick fireplace. The same copper platter and coal scuttle have sat on the mantle for as long as I can remember. And, though the furniture has been reupholstered (probably several times), it is the same couch and chairs I remember from when I was a boy tired out from a day of sledding. There is a cuckoo clock in the corner of the living room that announces the hour with tenacious reliability. In the kitchen, hanging above the stove, is a wooden plaque that reminds us “If you’re lucky enough to be in the mountains, you’re lucky enough.”

A Mother’s Rosebush

It’s not just the house, though, that remains so puzzlingly constant. There is the rose bush my mother planted outside the little guest house (once a chicken coop). Though it must be forty years old, the bush remains a defiant three feet tall. I have never seen it blossom, though I’m certain it must. All around the house, the air smells of the cottonwood trees in our backyard. Every time I emerge from the car after the long drive from Denver, that smell is present—at once sweet and earthy, like cotton candy at a county fair.

This is all so much nostalgia, I know, a middle-aged man looking backward for reassurance that some solid ground remains beneath his feet. At 58, I can be allowed such indulgences, I think, if only to amuse myself. However, I am encouraged in my nostalgia by my wife who, though she grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, greets our home in Aspen with the same sigh of relief that I do. It took her twenty years to understand Aspen’s peculiar smell is cottonwood, and she still doesn’t know the street names that well; but her attachment to the house was nearly instantaneous. A professor of literature, she identifies the structure as a time capsule where every object is inscribed with its own narrative. For that reason, she is the last among us to complain that the couch has grown threadbare or that the paperbacks on the bookshelf are hopelessly out of date. Like me, she enters the house with her senses thrown open, welcoming the faint mustiness in the hallway, the darkness of the rooms before we open the curtains, the stillness of a space closed to the sunlight, as if to time.