I'm sitting at the E Street Café
in Encinitas, a place about which I used to have mixed feelings. Five years ago, coming here felt like a betrayal of my favorite local spot, Pannikin Coffee & Tea
in Leucadia, just down the Pacific Coast Highway. Five years ago, I spent a lot of time insisting on the importance of fidelity to places bound up with a past that was in danger of being irreparably cut off from the present.
Things are different now. The complex network of attachments that made me reluctant to come here back then now serves to make me feel that there is still order in my world, however differently configured than it used to be. Just like yesterday afternoon and this morning, my daughter is sitting apart from me in one direction, using her laptop in isolation. And just like yesterday afternoon and this morning, her mother is sitting apart from me in the other direction, using her laptop in isolation. And here I am, just like yesterday afternoon and this morning, doing the same thing in a seat near the window. Yet this dispersal is making me feel more closely connected to them than if we were all sitting at the same table. Why? Because the ritual of coming here revives memories of our previous visits, even as it further blurs the distinctions between our previous visits.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which people travel. For the most part, my childhood vacations were devoted to seeing new sights. Even when my family traveled somewhere we had been before, we almost always did something to differentiate the trip from its predecessors. Indeed, at my elementary school, making this distinction was a prerequisite for vacations that happened during the academic year, which is when my father's business-related excursions made travel the most economically feasible.
I knew at a young age, though, that my mother had reservations about this approach to travel. When she was growing up in the immediate post-World War II era, her parents had taken her and her sister to Cape Cod year after year, gradually turning the place into the proverbial "home away from home." While their lodging was often in different locations, they visited their favorite spots each time. During the peripatetic excursions my father planned, she missed the feeling of being doubly grounded that those childhood vacations had given her. I remember once, when I was nine, we took an uncharacteristic trip to New Orleans, where my father was attending a conference. My mother was delighted to have a week in the same place, because it enabled her to do nothing without feeling guilty about it.
I loved that trip, too, though I didn't mind the rigid touring format my father preferred. Even then, back in 1977, I perceived how different it was to stay in one place on vacation. Seeing the same street corners and shops over and over, as we did in New Orleans, made them familiar even as it made remembering specific moments in time more difficult. While I wouldn't have put this insight so abstractly as a grade-schooler, I intuited that this form of travel was a way of turning time into space. In place of history, where the "when" takes precedence, it gives us habit.
But that shift of emphasis eventually gets twisted back on itself if you visit the same place year after year. A week in New Orleans makes the city familiar; an annual week in New Orleans counterposes this familiarity with the realization that the physical landmarks that secure it are destined to metamorphose, getting out of sync with one's memories. When I returned to the city after nineteen years in 1996, for my honeymoon, and again, after another fourteen years, in 2010, after Hurricane Katrina -- an experience I wrote about
for Souciant -- this perception of mutability was heightened, even as I did my best to find those places that had retained a feeling of familiarity for me despite the passage of time.
Here in the Carslbad-Leucadia-Encinitas corridor in northern San Diego County, where I have vacationed with my daughter and her mother at least once a year since 2001, there are enough landmarks that haven't changed significantly to keep things familiar. At the same time, a number of locations are bound up with momentous changes in our lives in a way that makes them resonate with an uncanny power for me. E Street Café is one such place. I can't forget what led us to start coming here. But there is comfort in the fact that the place hasn't changed much in the intervening years. Even the access code for the café's wireless network, which you're supposed to get off your receipt, was still programmed into my laptop from last year so that I could access the internet without buying anything (though I did, of course, buy something).
Lou's Records, by contrast, forcefully reminds me -- as I also wrote about
for Souciant -- how fragile this sense of permanence is. I first visited the famous "North County" music emporium back in the summer of 2001, along with Pannikin, on a exploratory jaunt I took to check out places that a friend from the area had recommended. Back then the store was a complex of several buildings, with separate spaces for new and used music and also for video. Over time, in keeping with the music industry's steady decline, Lou's has shrunk several times. Now, the only part of the original complex that remains is the smallish space that used to be devoted exclusively to used material. The past few times I'm stopped by to pay my respects, the atmosphere has been so saturated with a mixture of bitterness and regret that I could barely stand to look for something to purchase "in solidarity." I'll probably force myself to stop by before we leave on Friday, but it will take a real force of will to push me over the threshold.
I suppose it's fitting that the most permanent feature of this part of the world, the reason we come here in the first place, is also the most compelling reminder of change. Every year I look down from our cliffside camping spot at South Carlsbad State Beach to marvel at the ocean's splendor and vastness. At first glance, it radiates intimations of the eternal. But the closer I look, the more I notice details that will never be repeated exactly the same way. Even the beach impresses this lesson. In the ten years we've been camping there, the cliffs have eroded sufficiently to destroy one of the stairways to the beach for good and force extensive repairs of others. And the beach itself has shrunk in scope almost as fast as Lou's. A decade ago, there was a wide strand to walk upon long before low tide had been achieved. These days, we're lucky to find a stretch of rock-free sand on which to disport ourselves at any point in the day.
The biggest change of all, though, is the one I see in my daughter. Even if I'm regularly reminded back home of how much she has grown up, it's here along the Pacific that this lesson is most powerfully communicated. Because I've taken pictures of her every year on our vacations here, the photographic record of our visits doubles as a time-lapse log of her metamorphosis from toddler to little girl to confident grad-schooler to sometimes-surly and sometimes-delightful teenager. The photos of her interspersed throughout this entry, presented in reverse chronological order, give a sense of what I mean. As much as she has changed, though, the underlying person I got to know when I was watching her as a baby -- her identity was well defined long before she could crawl -- is still there, to my mind, as mutably immutable as the sea.
Tags: autobiography, daughter, photography, travel
Current Location: 92024