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The pain that might come from a pane of ‘slow glass’

T. R. Kerth
T. R. Kerth

I woke up this morning feeling just a bit like Daniel Boone – an older Boone, too tired to make the jump one more time.

It is said that Daniel Boone preferred to live deep in the frontier, away from civilization of any kind. And whenever he heard the thunk of another man’s axe on a tree, he knew it was time to move over the mountain to the next valley.

And this morning when I woke up and stood with my coffee cup looking out the window, it occurred to me that the view – those houses, yards, barbecue grills and all other evidence of civilization – is a scene that wasn’t there 10 years ago.

When my wife and I moved in, our house was new, and it stood on the edge of the “frontier,” if you want to call it that. The view outside that window was of nature – trees, meadow, sky, and nothing more.

We always have been like that, moving to the edge of the suburban “frontier,” knowing full well it wouldn’t be long before civilization hopscotched over us and moved the frontier further along, past our ability to see it. We have done it with the last three houses we owned, but we knew this time probably would be our last move.

Fortunately, we like our new neighbors, and we don’t begrudge them their houses, yards and grills any more than we are begrudged by those who lived on the edge of civilization the year before we leapfrogged over them and changed their view. It is a nice enough view, as civilized suburbs go. It’s just not the “frontier” view we had long ago, when we first moved in.

And this morning, just for a moment, I was wishing that the window I gazed through had been made of “slow glass” that would show me our frontier view from a decade ago.

The concept of slow glass isn’t new, and I’m not the first to think of it. The idea was introduced more than 50 years ago in a short story called “Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw.

Light travels through air (of course) at the speed of light, but what if a type of glass could be developed that would take light a decade to pass through it? At first the glass would be black, as light struggled to pass through it. But when it finally did get through, whatever events or images you saw through that glass would be scenes that reached the outside of the pane 10 years ago, and the images would move exactly as they moved then. That bird flying past? Those clouds gathering on the horizon? That all happened long ago, seen now as the light of other days.

It wouldn’t be just a window; it would be a “scenedow.” And it would let you travel back in time to witness moments that passed from view long ago.

And this morning, as I stood with my coffee gazing out at my no-longer-frontier view, I couldn’t help but think of slow glass, wishing I could gaze through a pane that would show me the light of other days. Just to see it all again, as it was in the beginning, when my wife and I moved into our new house and stood with our coffee, looking out at “our frontier” together.

But then, there’s always a twist to the tale, isn’t there?

In the short story, the panes of slow glass are sold by an old man who lives in a cottage on a scenic hillside overlooking a Scottish loch. The panes stand mounted on frames outside, gathering light for a decade or more before being sold to urban-dwelling customers wishing to bring them back to their homes, where the view is drab and lifeless. And once brought home, the new owners of the slow glass can look through the window and see life on a Scottish loch unfold minute by minute, day by day, night by night, season by season for a decade or more, until all the light is played out, up until the moment they bought it and took it home.

But the old man, as he shows the panes of slow glass to a potential customer in the yard, keeps glancing back at his cottage, where a young woman and a small boy may be seen playing inside. They pay no attention to him or the customers standing outside, but the old man seems distracted, glancing back at the cottage often, drinking in the sight of the woman and the child inside.

They are his wife and young son who were killed in an automobile accident six years earlier. Because light travels in all directions at once, looking through a pane of slow glass from one side can reveal a view of a pastoral loch a decade ago – and looking through it from the other side will reveal whatever there was to see inside the cottage 10 years ago, even images of loved ones who have passed into memory long since.

And so the old man spends his days sitting on a chair in the yard, with his back to the scenic loch, staring into the cottage through the window at what his life looked like a decade ago.

I thought of that plot twist this morning as I stood with my coffee gazing out the window at my no-longer-frontier view, longing for a pane of slow glass that would show me the view I saw a decade ago when I looked outside.

But could I resist the urge to stand outside instead, gazing inside to watch my 10-years-ago life unfold?

And could I bear to look away or even blink for an instant?

And could I gaze through that window without feeling my heart ache over things changed, over things long passed and gone forever?

Could you?

• Tom “T. R.” Kerth is a Sun City resident and retired English teacher from Park Ridge. He is the author of the book “Revenge of the Sardines.” He can be reached at trkerth@yahoo.com.

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