There is a disturbing tendency in modern America to view all the technologies which structure people's lives as both absolutely new and completely indispensible for survival. A common belief (nurtured by vast advertising industries) holds that the newest, most fashionable accessories (from hybrid cars to smartphones) are, simply by virtue of their newness, necessarily superior to all their predessessors. The idea is widespread that the only reason to forego these things things is to abstain from a single example for a finite period as a sort of Lenten exercise in self-denial - to be followed by a massive prize, or at the very least smug self-congratulation. These beliefs breed an attitude that anyone with the tragic misfortune to have been born before such things were invented must have wept out their miserable existence in a constant state of yearning and hardship. This is a very "presentist" attitude - as prejudiced in its way as a bigot who assumes that someone of a different skin color or sexual orientation from himself must neccessarily long for the perfection he perceives in himself.
To truly understand the past, people need to challenge these assumptions and expand their avowed modern tolerance of diversity to encompass historical viewpoints. To comprehend history, it must be viewed as simply a different culture - different from modern America, but representing as many diverse thoughts and opinions as our modern nation claims as a source of pride.
What if a married couple chose to explore the philosophies and technologies of the nineteenth-century - not as a paid stunt bankrolled by Hollywood in order to cast aspersions on the past - but rather as a lifestyle choice, because it is truly the way they wish to live?
The Past That Touches Us explores these themes. My husband and I became deeply fascinated by the way the objects which fill people's daily lives affect them when we started collecting antique clothing and I adopted a Victorian-style corset as an everyday foundation garment (experiences described in my first book, Victorian Secrets.) Our fascination grew beyond garments though, and we wanted to learn what other artifacts and technologies of the past had to teach us. To further this end, we moved to a 19th-century house (built in 1888) in the Victorian seaport of Port Townsend, Washington. From the very start of our life here we began outfitting our home with as many usable period-appropriate artifacts as possible. This ongoing labor of love involves many challenges and adventures - but equally as many rewards.
In our (so far) four years of incorporating ever more Victorian culture into our own lifestyle, we have laughed over failed cooking experiments (and drooled over successful ones), faced hostility from strangers as well as loving support from friends, and discovered that there is a deeper significance to the changing illumination of passing seasons than a world lit only by electric light had ever prepared us for. I took delight in discovering "new" beauty techniques which my grandmother would have considered old-fashioned, while my husband adopted the workout routine of a Victorian heart-throb. Our experiences are not limited to the confines of our home - or even our Victorian town: we accomplished a 130-mile bicycle ride together with my husband riding an antique 1887 highwheel bicycle.
Throughout all of our adventures, several consistent themes have constantly reiterated themselves throughout all our research and explorations. The first is that certain universal constants hold true for all people regardless of time or place. No matter who, when, or where we are, humans share similar passions and fears, joys and triumphs. The second theme which constantly repeats itself is that many of the elements making up the modern world are far older than people realize them to be.
Part memoir, part micro-history, The Past That Touches Us is an exploration of the present through the lens of the past, and an analysis of how the warp and weft of these two times weave the fiber of the world in which we all live.
"...After several years in Port Townsend most people of the small town knew me, but once in a while new residents move here with interesting results. In our fourth year of residence here, I was given occasion to remember the early ghost story and wonder how many superstitious people there might be in the general population.
A new couple had moved to the general neighborhood, accompanied by their two dogs. Exactly where this foursome had taken up residence I had no interest in knowing, but it must have been within a short walking distance of my home because they started (ahem) pausing by my yard on a regular basis. I can forgive the dogs for pausing. All biological creatures are subject to natural functions. However, I was irritated by the owners' complete nonchalence as they watched the action being performed on someone else's property - and their total lack of any scoop or bag.
Some people like dogs and others don't, but I have never yet met a person who relishes finding the discarded digestions of someone else's dog directly in the middle of their walkway. I'm sure even the most avid dog-lover will understand my irritation after three weeks of this daily performance. When they came back and stopped in front of my house and the overture began again, I contemplated an appropriate way to bring it to a close.
My first impulse - which was to rush out the door, start screaming and possibly throw something - seemed a bit heavy-handed, and possibly wanting in dignity. I decided an escalading approach was more sensible. First I would stand very visibly in my window, making it very clear to the owners that they were watched. Any half-way decent person would slink away, ashamed of themselves.
If they weren't even half-way decent and persisted in behaving badly in front of a witness, I decided I would tap on the glass, point at the defecating dogs, and shake my finger a very stern, "No!" If even this proved insufficient, I would open my front door and take one step outside, glaring at them. (The dogs might take this as enough of a hint, even if the humans didn't.) I saved screaming and throwing things as an option of last resort.
As it turned out, the very first step in this escalating chain proved far more effective than I had imagined it would be.
I saw the overture commencing: The owners pulling the dogs across the street and pointing at my front walkway. At their masters' command, one dog squatted and the other lifted its leg.
I was wearing my pure white summer dress so I knew I was visible, but to make extra certain I would be seen I waited until one of the owners happened to glance upwards. Then I stepped into the alcove of my bayview window, right up against the glass, glaring downwards with the strongest expression of disapproval I could manage.
Just as I had hoped, the man's eye was caught by my movement and he saw me. I expected him to look embarassed and make an awkward retreat. His actual behavior, though, proved far more amusing - in fact, it was almost worth my irritation at the dogs' digestive fluids.
The man's eyes grew wide as saucers, and all the blood completely drained from his face. I saw his mouth shape a word. It took a moment for my mind to interpret it, by which time he had already grabbed the arm of his woman companion and started running, dragging both her and the dogs with him.
They were halfway down the block by the time I deciphered the shape I had seen his mouth form. When I did, I looked down at my 1870's-style dress (copied from an antique in our collection), and at the 1888 bay window framing me. Then I laughed out loud.
The word the man had spoken as all color drained from his face and before he started running, had been "Ghost."
They never came back..."