Durham News: Opinion

Robin Kirk: Oval Park Pensieve

I live a half block from Oval Park, one of Durham’s little jewels. The park is split in two by West Club Boulevard. To the south are a battered tennis court, a basketball hoop and a picnic shelter. To the north lies the playground and a small baseball field. Both sides are shaded by loblolly pines.

When my children were little, the playground was a second home. Now, my teen son frequents the basketball court where’s he’s learned the unwritten rules of when and how to join a game. On third Thursdays, food trucks park near the swings, luring families away from their TVs and computers. Past the closing hours that no one really enforces, middle schoolers huddle on the play structure, still playing though they’d never, ever admit it.

For me, Oval Park isn’t something fixed. By that, I mean that the park changes beyond seasonal shifts or time of day. The way I look at it is molded more by what is going on in my life than any external factor. It’s a little magical.

By that I don’t mean easy, predictable, Disney magic. I mean the kind of rough, dangerous magic that J.K. Rowling captured so well in the Harry Potter series.

If I had to describe Oval Park with a single magical implement, I’d say it’s my pensieve.

What’s a pensieve? Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore explains the pensieve to Harry Potter in the fourth book in the series, “Goblet of Fire.” “One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure,” he tells his student. “It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.”

With a gentle press of his wand, Dumbledore touches his temple, retrieves a thought and slips it into the liquid that preserves that thought like a sliver of fruit in sweet liquid.

Like the pensieve, Oval Park helps me see my memories fresh and sometimes connects them to my current challenges in a new way. For instance, I’m in the midst of too-complex writing project that often leaves me frustrated and spent. But a stroll with the dog through Oval Park, especially when the swings are busy, can divert my dark ruminations just enough to let the next step in the story glimmer ahead of me.

The park is also how I connect to my children’s memories of growing up in Durham. As they become adults, their childhood – still so present to me, a shimmering thread stirred by the wand in the magical basin – appears in a new way, becoming something we share even though we see it through different eyes.

Recently, my daughter recalled how the Fall Festival used to bring a pony ride to the baseball field. She remembers the thrill of the pony, huge to her, with its soft, whiskery nose.

I remember the jumper she wore, her chubby legs against the leather saddle, that enormous smile that was the definition of fear and pleasure combined. Horses became one of her passions. I date that to a specific fall morning, the memory the color of orange and red autumn leaves.

One thing Oval Park doesn’t do as well as the pensieve is remove bad or dangerous memories from my head, so that even I forget about them. But in Muggle World, the world of non-magical humans, those memories soften with time. At least, their bite grows dull.

Oval Park has a power the pensieve lacks. A little like a mirror, the park reflects the changes in me that, in the rush of hours and obligations, I often miss. Recently, I once again failed to entice my son to make the Incredible Journey from his comfy chair to the park for a food truck dinner. The evening was fine, warm. Children crowded the jungle gym. Every swing was busy.

As I do, I looked for people I know. My quick scan of faces revealed not a single familiar one. Then I realized that I was looking for faces that no longer look the same. I wanted the faces of the young parents with school-age children I shared the park with, the recently marrieds, the thirty-somethings on their first house.

But all of those people are older now. Our children gone or getting ready to leave. We might walk the dog by the park, linger at the picnic shelter – but the park isn’t ours in the way it used to be. The pensieve of Oval Park reflected me and showed me that I’m different. I’m one of those people I used to see as they walked by, looking at me, perhaps, through that same magical mirror.

As I said, not just happy magic. The real magic of change.

Robin Kirk, a writer and human rights advocate, teaches at Duke University. You can reach her at robinkirk13@gmail.com