Theo and I and our hometown dig
I'VE finally become acquainted with Theophilus North. We shared one lone, uninterrupted, wintry afternoon, and I became enchanted with his views on the Nine Cities of Newport. I had been mentally scratching the urge to leave my own city during the gray, gloomy days of weather below freezing. Tantalizing thoughts and half remembered travel posters tickled my imagination: Greece? Mexico? Hawaii? Anywhere but here -- surrounded by the discontent of the sameness of things, people, places, and activities hanging about like sodden clouds. But after Theo and I had our talk, I began to be fascinated with discovering and excavating the archaeological levels of my own city. Theo had once entertained an ambition to be an archaeologist and had been enthralled by the idea of Troy and the nine cities, one on top of the other. In his story -- as told by Thornton Wilder in the novel ``Theophilus North'' -- he discovered nine cities of Newport, R. I., ranging from 17th-century architectural remnants, through the 18th-century town, the seaport ``city,'' the Army and Navy world, the intellectual family groups, the wealthy empire-builder city, the underground solidarity of working servants, the city of ``camp followers and parasites,'' and the American middle-class city. Some of the cities were superimposed; some completely separate.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Theo inspired me. I decided to begin looking around with new vision right where I was. I became a visitor, a tourist, and a child, all in one afternoon. Did my own town have distinct cities? The working-outside-the-home-mothers-and-associated-support-systems, the factory city, the business city, the foreign student groups, the agricultural city . . . yes, it was an absorbing study. I began to analyze how much each was part of the others and how much I was actively part of each city I could identify.
I took the ideas further. I pretended to be a photographer and scouted out old town areas. I took photos of construction-in-progress, and old buildings with layers of painted signs overlapping on their brick walls. I determined to locate the site of the first bakery, and found it. I followed faint trails by the river. I took mental pictures of the varied trees in the late afternoon light. What was the use of Mexico or Greece or Hawaii, when the primary reasons we go away from where we are -- novelty and adventure -- were at hand? The flinty skies and needles of sleet only increased the pleasures of intimate discoveries and the sound of one's own feet on one's own quest.
Then, I began to consider the architecture and archaeology of people. There's always more than is presented on the surface. Like Theo, I tried to express honesty and forthrightness and joy in the dealings with others I encountered daily. Examining the levels of my own mental experience was exhilarating. Sometimes I dug up gems and sometimes shards of useless crockery. But what excitement the digging brings! The importance of individual lives upon each other, the smile cracking through the hard faade, the immediate outstretched buttress of hand, began to be seen, and an affirmation of harmony and content -- right where I was -- broke around me like shattering prisms of reflected winter light. Just glorious, Theo. Just glorious.
Oh, Theo, thanks again for the vacation.