A Spiritual Trip Down Memory Lane

Assistant editor Dan Hoffman revisits and reevaluates his past through Google Street View.

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Posted in , May 2, 2016

A bridge in Niort, France.

The past few weeks I’ve been re-reading the journal I kept three years ago, when I was working as an English teacher in Niort, France, a remote and unremarkable town of 60,000, around 250 miles southwest of Paris.

Reading about myself back then reveals the ways my inner life has changed and the ways it has remained the same. Curiously, the omissions in my journal–events that I somewhat recall, but didn’t put down in words–are just as interesting to me as what I did write. These gaps force me to re-imagine what was happening and what I felt. In this re-imagining, I’ve made an important discovery: This time of my life was the beginning of the spiritual journey I’m still on today.

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The words in my journal speak to the decided lack of “fun” I was having in France; they speak of constant boredom and solitude. When I wrote of the friends I made, it’s as if I always held them at a distance, because I didn’t fully understand their culture or language.

In one entry, I described a night out with my new friends at a restaurant. The passage sparked a memory of a certain bridge we’d crossed over on our way, called Les Vieux Ponts. I remembered another night, not recorded in my journal, from early in my teaching stint, when I was nearly mad with loneliness. Frustrated I didn’t even have a single friend to see on a Friday night, I’d walked by this bridge and sat on a bench near the water. I became transfixed by the way the moon was reflected under each arch of the bridge.

Now I suddenly wanted to see that bridge again. But how? I couldn’t fly back to France. I realized Google Street View could help. I typed in the name of the town into Google Maps, zoomed in to street level in front of my old apartment building. I clicked the arrows to explore my former walking route: down a footpath on a steep incline covered in trees and flowers, to that bench next to the bridge. Google’s cameras had captured the view in daylight. Examining the image, I was filled with a profound longing for this irretrievable period of my life, even if it wasn’t what I would call “fun”.

In the midst of my boredom and loneliness, I was able to find some solace walking those streets, which I had now virtually recreated on my computer. No matter how much my social life left to be desired, I was forced to find a kind of satisfaction in simply existing, being alone with my thoughts. It was in quieting my mind and looking at that bridge, or sitting at a café with a book, that I found pleasure. I learned that there were other facets to life than adventures and thrills. There could be something great about doing nothing on a Friday night. It was not a dramatic awakening and turn to faith, but the seeds were planted. Only now, in hindsight, could I appreciate how formative that time of solitude had been.

As I continue to read through my old journal, I realize many things I wrote down were not nearly as important as the small details that pop into my mind, transformed into nostalgia by the passage of time. My walk though Google Street View evoked what my words left unsaid—the simple grace of being a part of this wide wonderful world.

Where did your spiritual journey begin? What places do you remember differently now, years later? Share your stories with us.

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