I once had the opportunity to go back to the house where I lived during many happenings – life, death, nearly birth (I left the house 10 days before my first child was born), our wedding, … a lot. When I got there it was all I could do to walk the familiar corridors, feel the bumpy wallpaper, and enjoy the creak of the stairs as a rainbow of emotions welled up inside of me and the water that goes with the rainbow leaked down from my eyes. This was some 10+ years ago and I wasn’t sad. On the contrary it was a privilege to dance with those memories in that space again, and I was lucky that not much had changed yet. That might have been beyond what I could have handled – in that moment.
That story is relevant now, in a different way. It sets a context. As people grow, live, change, return, sometimes they have an urge to search, to seek and this happens in various ways. Through a pilgrimage or retreat. Sometimes people cross continents and oceans, going to far away places to seek a quiet repose, or to get in touch with something…
I used to sit and write wherever I was. and write. and write. and write. It was my lifeline while I figured out whether it was ok to be me, you know, the existential quest of…. Well, Kafka’s the Castle was and is still a favourite of mine. Life can be like that, in that you are in it, and nobody quite knows where you are, but also nobody quite knows where you’ll go next, not even you – sometimes especially you. I thought about these things, things I understood, and things beyond what I could understand, and I wrote, and bits of my soul leaked out through that fountain pen onto the paper. It was my life-line. My friends and I communicated like that. We wrote and wrote and wrote.
There came a day when I moved on (well across the pond- so moved on in a big way). It takes moments to move, but decades to really remove yourself, because traces are left in places, fragments and filaments- like rhizomes and seeds scattered in the wind. There was a pivotal moment though, when the ‘things’ I had left behind could no longer be stored and it was time to clear out. It was time for someone else to use that space, and all the visible remnants had to go – all the writing had to go and I had only two days to sort it. That was impossible, so I made a snap decision and threw it all away- recycled it- all but what I could put in one folder. Piles of journals, letters, play scripts and poems, stories and dreams went in the bin and I watched as the city workers dumped them into the big truck. I did save a few things – I saved one letter from my grandmother, one letter from my grandfather, one letter from a friend. Very little escaped that purge. At the time it was devastating, because there was no process beside putting armfuls of paper in the recycling bins. No time, no particular choice, no selection, no reading. Deleting a hard drive may be easier these days, but today we make backups.
It was a grim time, but I got over it. Whatever or whoever I was, that was then and I am here now, and this is what matters.
There is something to be said for dancing with memories. My experience of going back to the house where so much life happened was wonderful, and gave me a special sort of closure. What comes next is something else altogether.
First it must be said that time is not linear. I can’t explain that. A year can be a day and 20 years can be a blink.
About a month ago, I received an email from a friend. ‘Can I come visit?’ she asked. -Yes, of course.
This was not at all an uncommon request, as people have always come to visit those they know.
The unusual thing was that I hadn’t seen this friend, or really talked with her since we were very close friends in 1989-1991. That was at least three lifetimes ago, and then some. Our lives had forked, as often happens, and that was how it was.
She did come to visit, to stay with us, and she brought two backpacks. (I thought she might have more luggage) In the backpack was a folder. Still in the first day of our visit, in the evening, she said ‘I brought something’ and produced a blue folder and said – here, sit down and look at this. I brought your writing.
I brought your writing.
My writing. I used to write, and we used to write lots – sometimes to each other, sometimes we wrote for ourselves but also shared it… so much friendship and growing and living was shared. Youth and endless summer days
Small bits of folded paper, different ink, different paper, mostly dated, and also mostly time stamped. She saved what I wrote and brought it back to share with me. It must sound trivial to write it here, in just a sentence, but it was one of the most profound profound things. As that folder came out and I saw that top piece of paper I felt like –
There was feel to the writing. -not that there isn’t now, but the texture, the way the scrap of paper was folded, the ink, whether it was written in best hand or scrawled hastily, and how it was signed. We signed what we wrote.
It was the texting before computers after all – but more than that it was conversation and storytelling. Sometimes there were words or feelings or poems or stories, and there were not the people there to listen or the time was not right to hear, and so we wrote. The receiver of the writing could, and did, choose when to read it, and there was something in the act of receiving the writing. It was partly to do with choices of paper and ink:
Sometimes when there was something really important to write you just had to get it onto the paper – any paper. It might have been the back of a napkin at a restaurant, or a blank page in a book, or the back of a discarded envelope from some other bit of post (usually from another real letter).
Oh my. Words cannot really explain. My eyes are leaking. It has taken me three days to write this already. Maybe it will take four.
Another day has passed. Sometimes, even though time doesn’t make sense, there is a need for that cushion to absorb so you can rest in the thought, like a pillow receiving your head, it doesn’t happen all at once, but you sink into repose.
Some people go away on pilgrimages. They go to find themselves or to have some revelation or to shed the many layers or the world, or or or… I went nowhere. I opened the door by saying yes, and someone walked out of the past – which, by the way was yesterday if it was 25 years, just as much as that moment called now has just slipped out of our hands too – and showed me myself. (I was going to type ‘confronted’ and that is the right word, but not in an aggressive way, just in the way it is- con/with the front.) It was different to dancing with a memory in the house, because the house didn’t speak back and I knew I was going there. I didn’t know this was coming. It was upon me, in front of me, it was me speaking to me, and I tasted the person I was then. I, as me now, heard from me, as me then. And do you know what? I am still me. I felt time stand still and that friend who was held dear in my memory was not there any more because she was sitting with me, and somehow she had tapped me on the shoulder, and instead of explaining something to me- she let me explain it in the words I had written. You cannot duck away from your own hand.
There is a difference between looking back at something on purpose, and meeting it in life. Imagine, like a storybook, where someone looks into the mirror and sees a reflection of herself. Yes that, but here I didn’t approach the mirror, it came to visit and then I popped out of it and sat next to myself. Surreal, and a little bit wonderful.
Who would have thought that my friend would hold on to something and give me a gift like this, 27 years later, and what did I discover? Well, I somehow found the words back then, and I mean it still today.
I count myself very lucky to have such wonderful people in my life.
…and a song to end on- this was one of our favourites, and she brought this back to me as well: