Having the Memory but Losing the Place

The Black Labrador is an English Pub in the Montrose area of Houston situated near downtown and the Arts district. We’ve only lived in Houston for a little more than five years, and it’s 45 minutes from where we live, but given our Anglo-predilections, we’ve visited the pub’s warm environment more than a few times.

As any good pub does, just being in the environment of wooden tables and chairs, draped windows with ivy encroaching from the outside, the entirely unnecessary fireplace (it is Houston, after all), and the copy of the Magna Carta by the bathrooms, The Black Lab stiffens the resolve and convinces one to keep calm and carry on. 

You’ll notice I began the opening paragraph using the pronoun “we” because every experience I’ve had there has been with my darling, Kirsten. We have met former students there for a bite and to reconnect, spent Valentine’s Day there with friends and their parents, celebrated our son’s 21st birthday there (for the record, he had a very respectable pint of Guinness), and then, of course, the many times just the two of us have just ended up there after visiting a museum, bookstore or art supply store in the area; the little four-top table near the bar, kind of out of the way, next to a window. 

It was announced this week that after 33 years The Black Labrador was closing. And to add a little salt to the wound, this came just after the Half Price Books in the Rice Village announced it was closing after being in the location since 1981, another place we have been to more than a few times.  What to do with such news?

When You Lose a Place

Of course, the older you get, the more of these types of places exist; places where you once had experiences, perhaps even meaningful ones, go to the wayside. 

My home town of Tulsa is littered with these types of places. I spent the first 23 years of my life there. Now, when I go home to visit and drive around town, it seems all I do is say things like, “See that Ace Hardware? It used to be a Safeway.” I do so knowing full well that that things I point out to those in the car with me cannot accurately represent the wash of emotion I feel as nostalgia does its work.

Outside of places such as restaurants, school buildings, and grocery stores, another example to which many can relate is a house in which they once lived. I grew up in the same house from age 4 to 19. I played with Star Wars toys, shot a bee bee gun in the backyard, had sleepovers, Christmases and Easter egg hunts; all the memories there in that one house, that one physical space, and then I no longer lived there. 

How strange it is to inhabit a physical space for so long, and then leave it? 

We drive by it every now and then, the old house. I fantasize sometimes about going up to the door, giving it a knock, introducing myself as the person who once lived here, and being able to walk through the house again, the living room and kitchen, my old bedroom. 

They Paved Paradise

Then there is the kind of loss where the physical structure no longer exists at all due to something like a fire or demolition. 

The best example I have of this from my own experience is Tulsa’s Bell’s Amusement Park, or what used to be Bell’s Amusement Park. It is now, quite literally, a parking lot, albeit a very nice one. When I was there last year, we pulled into the parking lot where roller coasters, log flumes, and haunted houses used to physically exist. The cold spring air that cooled my face on that grey day suggested something vague to me that I still can’t put my finger on. 

I have memories of experiences as a child and teenager in a place that I can no longer physically see or touch. It is gone. The whole Bell’s Amusement Park is gone (it has been since 2006). Of course, many Houstonians have a similar emptiness; Astroworld was demolished and turned into a patch of earth now used for overflow parking during the Houston Rodeo. 

bells-amusement-park
The dismantling of Zingo, Bell’s Amusement Park’s signature ride.

What do we do with this particular kind of loss, where the place where we once had experiences is not just a new business in the same building but the building itself is literally gone?

The Tangible and the Intangible

This brings up some very interesting questions about experience and the objective world. The building which The Black Labrador currently occupies is going nowhere, but something new will no doubt occupy the same space (hopefully another English pub). The house I used to live in is still there, but another family now lives in it. Bell’s Amusement Park is no longer there, but a new thing physically occupies the space; a thing as unromantic as you can imagine, a parking lot. 

So what is experience? In what ways should we acknowledge it and to what degree should we value it? And what to do when we can’t physically go back to where important experiences happened?

Recently my mother-in-law traveled to her 60th high school reunion. The building which had been her high school had been torn down a few years ago. Those who attended the reunion were given a brick from the old building. What’s the point of that? Why do we find that important?

I suppose it’s a type of mooring, if you will. That our experience, which is intangible, has an easier time maintaining itself if there are tangible places were we can visit, to help maintain our consistency of mind. This explains why moving to another city can be so jarring; the places that once gave us meaning and helped represent who we are, our memories, are no longer around and we have to build new ones. These places give context to our lives. 

To my earlier question, what to do with such news?

I think we keep calm and carry on through the sometimes painful creation of new contexts and live into those new contexts with our entire being. What other choice do we have if we wish to live healthy and happy? This does not mean we forget the past, the experiences we had at places that are now gone. We should not forget Bell’s or Astroworld or the houses we once grew up in, but we must let go of the sometimes crippling pain that comes with losing a place for the purposes of our own liberation. 

And yes, it’s okay to sit around with friends or with yourself and reminisce. Don’t burn the past down. Don’t turn it into a parking lot, but do move forward with what Paul Tillich calls the courage to be. Be here now, create now, build context now. 

Compliment this article on the importance of embracing our existence with Yes, Existence Is Absurd, and That’s Okay

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