For the past three months, I have been languishing in the tropical heat of Indonesia and watching the seasons change in my native New England, some 10,000 miles away. When I left Boston at the end of September, the leaves were just starting to turn and the temperature had barely begun to dip. Soon afterwards, as if compelled by a combination of genuine homesickness and the sort of ornery hometown pride that repeatedly being asked where you come from can stir up, I followed several Instagram curators and influencers whose main subject was the quintessential scenery of the Northeast states. All through October and November, they rubbed the ensuing, woodsmoke-smelling dream of fall in my face. Acorn Street, with its glistening cobblestones covered in yellow and orange leaves. A row of sailboats bobbing dockside on a bright, cold morning in Maine. A barn door and a tire swing in Vermont. The White Mountains all aflame, as seen from Franconia Notch. When the first snowstorm hit around Thanksgiving, my feed dutifully changed tune and showed all the same things as before—”crowned,” now, as E.B. White put it, “with a cold, inexpensive glory.” Also, the cornucopias and Jack-O-Lanterns had been exchanged for wreaths and Christmas trees, which gave all the front stoops and living rooms of Back Bay and Charlestown a familiar, consecrated look.
For it is indeed a dream that these pictures are showing me, and not just an assortment of objects and landscapes, confined to a specific corner of America. More than just a place, these pictures convey a sense of place—a mood, a feeling, and an idea of New England, at a particular time of year, that exists partly in reality, and mostly in the mind and the heart. Reality came first, of course, in the specific form of climate and geography, and the dream has depended on it ever since. But the dream has also depended, for its continuous survival, on the imaginations of people—on our endless search for familiarity and belonging. In years past, I guess it was mainly poets and artists who made a deliberate effort to narrate this dream, even as their fellow citizens lived it and contributed to it just by going about their daily business. Today, anybody with a smartphone and a sufficiently potent yearning can sing the lullaby to him or herself, or to anybody else who will listen.
It never occurred to me to follow any of these influencers while they were still my neighbors. Why should I have? I was a local. Presumably, if I wanted what they were offering, I could just step outside and partake in the real thing. This must have been the thought in the back of my mind and any identification I felt with the dream in the pictures, or the dream all around me, I must have felt subconsciously. It took moving to the opposite side of the planet and exposure to a brand new climate, geography, and grounding reality for me to feel like there was some origin point worth tethering myself to. And now, in the late nights and early mornings, I sprawl naked and sweating on top of my bed and scroll absent-mindedly through all of the pretty pictures. Do I feel tethered, then? Conversely, have I felt lost or adrift? What has been the effect of this sudden proliferation of lullaby-singers and dream-keepers on my mental horizon?
It’s difficult to say. On the one hand, there is no question that the dream of fall and winter in New England devolved long ago into an enormous cliche and that each predictable, idealized picture of it further compresses the cliche. Business thrives on the season’s mere image (beats it to death) and gives us pumpkin spice and Bean boots and mall Santa in return. On the other hand, there seems to be no better proof than holiday kitsch that the dream is in fact alive and well—that some powerful, collective memory continues to endure and to inspire. I feel tethered to something alright. But I am not sure to what, exactly, or whether my own desperate, backwards glances actually net me the aforementioned grails of familiarity and belonging.
The triggers are abrupt, at any rate. The mental grooves that lead back are roundabout. And the endpoints are, for now, all consumed by angst and trauma. A dry palm frond blows down the alleyway outside my window. The sound of it scraping against the gravel completes the picture I have just seen that morning of a sedan parked on a street in Brookline, its wheels nearly obscured by fallen leaves, and suddenly I feel the chill at the school bus stop—the teeth-chattering anxiety that accompanies a new notebook and a new school year. At dusk, I walk past an empty lot in which two children are burning a pile of trash. The smoke rises off of the fire in the same way that somebody yesterday saw smoke rising out of the chimney of a log cabin deep in the Green Mountains. I instinctively quicken step, desiring nothing more than to be indoors. My girlfriend and I break up by email on Christmas eve. Later that night, while examining Boston’s festive street corners, I can’t help but see her face at every window, her upright silhouette beneath every street lamp, her footprints trailing down every snowy sidewalk. I want only to be far, far away from that city—from New England, the backdrop in fact or in spirit of every troublesome drama of my callow youth. And then I remember that I already am.
The dream is dreamt in piecemeal fashion. Its flavor is muddled and inflected with whatever perverse mood I happen to be stuck in. Sometimes, it is a nightmare.
A mile and a half from where my host family lives, in the direction of the ocean, there is a neighborhood where the locals have erected an enormous, five meter-tall Christmas tree by the side of the road. They made it from scratch out of plastic bottles and other litter and strung it up with lights that blink and pulse all night long. They do not know it, but in a way, their plastic bottle-Christmas tree symbolizes my dream: mesmerizing and spectacular from afar, strenuously cobbled-together out of mediocrities and detritus upon closer examination, endlessly celebrated, and forever overambitious—forever reaching for something a little more than the reality from whence it came. When I look at it, I feel glad for its existence and confident that year after year, here or there, such idols will continue to exist—to nurse and sustain my dream and keep it warm and alive against the day when I can do so myself.