How to Talk to Yourself in the Past

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I had been hiking for a while in the backcountry, lugging a backpack full of landscape painting equipment. My paintbox, mineral spirits, paints, panels and the hope that inspiration would strike. 

The early autumn air was brisk and invigorating. The deer paths were narrow but led to a promising opening. A vista, just beyond the trees and brush.

I emerged from the woods to an open meadow of soft grass, grand views and an inexplicable discovery. For there, disconnected from the world in a forgotten meadow, a lonely and weathered phone booth stood. I stared at its tired structure, covered in twigs and yesteryear’s dust. 

And then, the phone rang.

Voices from the past

I looked around. Had I stumbled upon an elaborate joke? But there were no hidden cameras or grinning pranksters in the woods. Just me and this ringing vestige from the past.

I set down my painting gear and wrestled open the phone booth’s folding glass door. Strange to be inside a phone booth in this age of smartphones and instant communication.

 I lifted the receiver and said, “Hello?” At first, static. But then I heard the distant sounds of holiday music, a doorbell ring, and a dog barking.

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It was so familiar, these mysterious sounds in the receiver. Next, I heard the creak of a door opening and a boy’s voice. “Hey Seth, come on in. Did you bring your sketchbook?”

I stood there in the phone booth, speechless. The voice on the line was me when I was thirteen years old. The dog barking was Ebony, our family’s small poodle. Seth was my childhood friend.

Except I’m fifty-four years old. My buddy, Seth is fifty-five. Ebony died decades ago. How could any of this be possible?

What would you say to yourself?

I listened intently and could hear my mother’s voice in the background. “Dinner’s in about an hour, boys, so don’t disappear outside.” 

My friend Seth said something about a toy snake he brought over to scare my sister with. Next, there were footsteps. Then I heard my younger self say, “Hey, someone forgot to hang up the phone.” There was a brief fumbling sound followed by, “Hello?”

“Uh, is this John?” I asked, unsure what to say.

“I’m Johnny. You probably want my Dad. May I ask who’s calling?”

I stood frozen. Dad passed away in 2004. How I longed to talk to him again. There was some static on the line. “Johnny, I’m an old relative calling long distance. Say, how’s your artwork coming along? Are you still into that fantasy artist, Frank Frazetta?”

“Yeah, I have three Frazetta books now! Since it’s getting close to Christmas I asked Dad for my own oil painting set. But he said it all depends on my school grades.” 

So many forgotten memories! I recalled that I had been struggling a bit in private school. Always drawing instead of studying. And my father kept telling me that art was fine, but I needed a stable career to rely on.

“Well, your Dad’s right, Johnny. I know Harker Academy can be tough, but hang in there. And your algebra teacher, Colonel Tuttle? I’m pretty sure you’ll get a B in his class. In fact, you’re gonna do just fine.” My eyes were a little moist. I felt strange. So many emotions crashing down from the past.

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“Okay, cool. Well, here’s my Dad.” As I heard those words, I thought my heart would stop. But suddenly, clear as day, Dad’s strong baritone came on the line. “Hello?”

The gift of gratitude

I had to think fast. My father was an administrative law judge. I remembered that when I was thirteen, he was still recovering from a stress-related heart attack. He’d been emotionally down, unsure of his health and future.

“Judge Weiss, this is Father Patrick. You probably don’t remember me, but I visited you while you were in recovery after your by-pass surgery.” It was a lie, but a pretty clever one, I thought.

“I’m sorry, Father, I don’t recall your visit,” my father said.

“That’s fine, Judge. The hospital provided your phone number and I just wanted to follow up.” As I spoke, the connection started to break slightly.

“Well thank you, Father, I’m feeling much better.”

“Judge, when you were in recovery you spoke a bit in your sleep. If you’ll indulge me, I just want to tell you. You’re going to be fine and live a long life. Your wife Pat will always be cared for. Your daughter and son will both land solid careers. In fact, your son will become a police chief, but will always be an artist at heart.” The static was starting to come back on the line.

“Well, thank you, Father. Very kind of you to say.” My father was skeptical but cordial.

“Oh, and Judge. Your family loves you more than you know. And they always will.” There were tears in my eyes now, but joy in the thought that I was able to express immense gratitude.

“I’m sorry Father, what was your name again?” my Dad asked.

“John Patrick, Dad. It’s John Patrick.” And with that, the dial tone disappeared. I hung up the receiver, exited the phone booth and collapsed in the grass beside my painting gear. 

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Emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed, I closed my eyes. When I awoke a bit later the phone booth was gone. Maybe it was all a dream, but it seemed so real. Either way, a sort of peace washed over me.

Find your own phone booth

We don’t have to stumble upon a miraculous phone booth in the woods to reach out to the ones we love. We just have to reach out. Through our art, our words, our actions, our forgiveness, and our love. 

Take a moment to find your own phone booth in the woods. And when it rings, do yourself a favor and have the courage to pick up the receiver.

(Adapted from and originally published at Fine Art Views. This story also appears in the book "An Artful Life- Inspirational Stories and Essays for the Artist in Everyone."