Perhaps you have heard the famous quote that is attributed to Buddhist teachings: “The trouble is, you think you have time.”
And isn’t that the truth?
Or conversely, the problem is that we feel we have no time at all. We’re always pressed to get this or that thing done on our dreaded To Do List, and years fly by before suddenly we realize that we haven’t prioritized things that really, truly matter to us.
We think we have time, but we claim we have no time.
I’ve always loved time travel stories ever since I fell in love with the Back to the Future trilogy. There’s something so appealing about the idea that we can revisit things, relive things, change things, and fix things. Not to mention visit long-gone eras and see history firsthand! Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), we can’t actually travel through time, but I think there are important things that we can learn from these stories about how to live right now.
In this blog entry, I’m going to talk about three time travel stories: Back to the Future, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and 11/22/63. I will clearly separate each into its own section, so you can skip over any stories where you don’t want spoilers revealed (because there will be big spoilers).
- Back the to Future (movie trilogy starring Michael J. Fox)
To me, this is the quintessential time travel story. I hope they never remake these films, because you can’t do it any better than writer-director Robert Zemeckis and lead actors Michael J. Fox as Marty, Christopher Lloyd as Marty’s mad scientist friend Doc, Lea Thompson as Marty’s mother Lorraine, and Crispin Glover as Marty’s father.
If you’ve never seen it (um, watch it now!), here’s what it’s about: It’s 1985, and Marty McFly is accidentally sent back in time 30 years to 1955 in a time machine built from a DeLorean by Emmett “Doc” Brown. Marty must find the 1955 Doc Brown to help him accomplish two goals:
#1 – Reunite his parents who he’s inadvertently come in between (oops, his Mom now has a crush on him). Marty must make his parents fall in love or he won’t be born!
#2 – Get back to 1985.
This movie is fun from start to finish, and it’s full of so many setups and payoffs. What do I mean by setups and payoffs? I mean all those character or plot things that get set up early on and come back around later in some exciting or funny or important way. For example, the clock tower is set up in the opening scenes in present-day 1985. The town is trying to raise money to fix it because it hasn’t worked ever since it was struck by lightning in 1955. The clock tower and famous lightning strike become a critical piece of the puzzle of getting Marty back to 1985. It’s cerebrally setup and paid off, and it’s visually set up and paid off as we see Doc dangling from the clock tower moments before the lightning strikes.
One thing that I love about this story is that Marty gets to meet his parents in their teenage years. He hangs out with them as a peer and he witnesses their love story firsthand. He’s rooting for them to get together because if they don’t, he will cease to exist. But it’s more than that. He finally sees his parents as people with heartbreak and victories and stories inside them too. I think that we live in a very ageist society. Many other cultures revere the elderly in a way that we don’t here in the USA. I think that’s a shame because older people have a wealth of stories inside them. They’ve seen the most and lived through the most. Traveling back to 1955 teaches Marty this. It takes him out of his selfish teenage world and reminds him that his story is not the only important one. We all have stories.
The biggest theme of all that I take away from this trilogy is that any future is possible. It’s not set in stone. It is yours for the making. Your actions have consequences and create ripple effects. So take hold of your future now and make it a good one!
- The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (novel, which was adapted into a movie starring Rachel McAdams)
I read The Time Traveler’s Wife about six years ago. It was a good read but it wasn’t a personal favorite of mine. However, there is a moment in that book that has stayed with me. To give a little personal back story, I was deeply grieving the loss of a loved one when I read this book. It was the first time I’d ever lost someone that I deeply loved who was deep-rooted into my entire life, a person whom I expected to be there with me in old age. He’d been sick with ALS for two years, so we’d had the longest goodbye. And yet, to lose someone that you are that close to is a shock even when you know it’s coming. One minute, it was Friday and I was planning to visit him on Saturday morning, and the next minute, it was the phone call everyone dreads. Singer/songwriter Matt Kearney says, “We’re all one phone call from our knees.” It’s true. One minute I could call or text him, and the next minute, everything I’d ever wanted to say to him had already been said. It was final.
And yet, in those first several months after he passed, I found myself looking for a sign from him. As close as we were, surely he would send me a message from the afterlife if he could, wouldn’t he? Where was he? Would I see him again when I, too, died? Losing someone I was that close to raised all kinds of existential and spiritual questions in a very real and immediate way. I wished so desperately that we could have one more conversation, one more hug, one more laugh together. It was almost unbearable.
In the Time Traveler’s Wife, an artist named Clare falls in love with a librarian named Henry who inadvertently and accidentally travels through time on a constant basis. She never can be sure when he’ll suddenly disappear or reappear to her. This means that Henry visits her sometimes when he’s much older than her. Their timelines are not always in sync. And then one day Clare experiences a confusing and terrifying moment when time-traveling Henry appears before her bleeding profusely before he disappears again almost immediately. As the years pass by, Clare and Henry come to accept that he was probably dying in that moment, because they realize that Clare has never seen Henry appear before her as an old man. They both come to accept that he probably does not live to old age with her.
And here is the part that stayed me with me vividly…. Knowing that his death is surely coming soon, Henry tells Clare that he visited her once as an old woman. He describes the house and the view of the lake and the window she was standing at. Clare carries that knowledge with her into old age, the knowledge that she will have one more day with Henry someday late in her life.
After Henry does die in middle age as they suspected he would, she spends the rest of her life waiting. Standing at that window. Waiting to see him. Waiting, waiting, and waiting. It’s heartbreaking. And just as she knew he would, one day he finally does appear to her in her old age. And that’s the end of the book.
I read that last page and I cried, because it was very sad but there was also something very healing to me about it. I realized then that if we could get direct “signs” or “messages” from our loved ones after they passed away, how would we ever move through the stages of grief? Wouldn’t we all just be like Clare, standing at the window waiting for one more moment? As terrible as it is to lose someone to death, it made me realize that maybe there can be something comforting in the finality of it. We say goodbye and we hold them in our hearts and in our memories, but we don’t have to stand at the window and wonder if and when they will send us a sign. I’m thankful for that, because I know that I would stand at the window for anyone I loved deeply, for as long as it took.
But there are too many wonderful things to be experiencing in life right now for any of us to be standing at windows, just waiting and waiting.
- 11/22/63 (novel by Stephen King, adapted into a TV mini-series starring James Franco)
I kind of wish I’d read this book before I watched the TV mini-series. The book had been sitting in my Amazon shopping cart for a couple of years along with a couple hundred other books that I’d like to buy and read. Someday I will die with a shopping cart full of books, because there will never be enough time to devour all the great stories out there.
As it were, my husband and I were looking for something to watch and we were both very interested in this mini-series, so I said, “I have a million other books I want to read. Let’s just watch it.”
And it was good. Here’s what it’s about: English teacher Jake Epping (played by James Franco in the mini-series) has a friend named Al who owns the local diner and shares a shocking secret: His storeroom is a time travel portal. Al has been going back and forth for years trying to stop the JFK assassination because he feels doing so will prevent many terrible things that came later (such as the Vietnam war). Now Al is dying of cancer, so he enlists Jake on a mission to try to stop the JFK assassination. This is where the mini-series felt a little thin to me. I never fully understood why Jake would risk his life to stop the JFK assassination when he has no idea what kind of butterfly effect that would cause. Hasn’t Jake seen Back to the Future? Admittedly, the mini-series does set up Jake as lonely: he recently lost his father, he just signed his divorce papers, and his very favorite student has graduated. I have a feeling that his loneliness and lack of purpose may have been more richly drawn in the book. Perhaps stopping the JFK assassination gives him the purpose that he needs. It comes across like that a little in the mini-series, so I figured I’d just go with that idea.
And what unfolds is quite interesting. I love history, and Jake is like an undercover agent of sorts, since he possesses information about the future. Because the portal only leads to 1961 (kind of a strange portal, eh?), he must wait two years to save JFK. So it’s also a character story as we watch Jake build a new life in the ’60s. That aforementioned favorite student also comes into play as he visits the student (who’s a child in 1961) and tries to prevent a family murder that gravely affected the student’s life. So long before we reach the JFK assassination, this story serves up some great suspense and action.
But here’s the part that made me really think long after the credits rolled. In this story, Jake falls in love with an intelligent, sassy librarian named Sadie. He eventually trusts her enough that he confesses that he’s from the future. She believes him and she, too, becomes determined to help him save JFK. In their attempt, they do save JFK but other things go wrong and Sadie is killed in the effort.
All is not lost though. Jake knows that if he goes back through the portal to present day and then returns again to 1961 where it all started, his return will automatically “reset” everything.
Therefore, Jake gets himself back to present day, and to his horror, he discovers that saving JFK has basically ruined the world. It’s a full-on apocalypse. Fortunately for Jake, he can return to 1961 and it will reset. So he does just that, intending to start up with Sadie again since the reset will bring her back to life in 1961.
But when Jake returns to 1961, he comes to the heartbreaking realization that he shouldn’t mess with the past anymore. He should let things be. So once he sees that Sadie is alive and well, he returns alone to present day….
In present day, Sadie is an older woman and Jake travels to an event where her work as a librarian is being honored. As she gives an inspiring speech to a ballroom full of students, alumni, friends, and family, Jake stands in the back and listens with tears in her eyes. After her speech, he approaches and asks her dance. Still as sassy as ever, older Sadie dances and lightly flirts with this man that she only sees as a handsome yet oddly familiar stranger. It’s a beautifully romantic scene. Thirty-something Jake is dancing with seventy-something Sadie, and he’s as in love with her as he ever was. Since their last parting in 1961, Jake has lived days while Sadie has lived decades…
A blink of an eye versus a lifetime.
Life really does move so quickly, doesn’t it? Days can be slow. Maybe months are slow. But life is so fast. This scene in 11/22/63 does an amazing job of highlighting that in a romantic, poignant, moving way. It was very powerful.
All in all, I love time travel stories – the excitement, the possibilities, the things they can teach us about today. But since we can’t travel through time, we only have our memories of the past, our hopes and ideas for the future, and our right here, right now.
So I say this: Don’t let your life pass you by. Give the world your love and passion and courage, so someday you can look back on your life and know that you really, truly lived it.
Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, and film producer. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.