Saturday, September 27, 2008
I live over the street and sleep with the window wide open. The street is small and crowded, each house 12 foot wide and joined to the next. At night it’s utterly silent. No traffic, not even a footfall: too quiet really, for a piece of litter scraping on the pavement in the breeze is sometimes enough to wake me. A taxi-driver, returning after a late fare, tip-toes into his house but something creaks at some point, and it echoes down the street. Then on Friday night and Saturday morning the silence is punctuated by the return of revellers, some of those non-Muslims who rent a room on this low-life street, who get paid in cash for their week’s manual work and have been joyously celebrating the fact.
So at 3:58 I decided to get up.
Scot asked, of something in my last post, “Is that a metaphor?” Yes it is, Scot. All of it is metaphor, even though I seldom understand it myself, at the time.
What I write is always inspired by feelings of heightened intensity, which you might want to call “joy”, though they come in so many flavours, that you wouldn’t think they could all have the same name.
My quest is not to chase those feelings, because they can’t be hunted down, at least in my experience. They happen. So I try to understand the circumstances which lead to their birth. (I wonder if there was ever a time when human adults had not discovered the link between sex and babies.)
In my extended researches so far, these feelings---sometimes they are needle-sharp moments of joy or recognition, at others an epiphany which seems to have neither beginning nor end---have something to do with time or memory. The present has to be clearly in focus, without the distractions of anxiety or stress or reluctance to do what one is doing or antagonism to one’s environment. One is gazing as it were over unruffled water---or let me seize the offered metaphor---listening to the silence of the night.
In such moments I am sensitive to the slightest footfall, the tiniest zephyr which ruffles the still lake’s surface. This is when I see clearly how memory interlaces with present experience, layer after layer. It only takes the cry of a starling, a whiff of some acrid smoke, a resin released by the lopping of tree-branches, or the petrichor diffused by rainfall after drought---any of a million triggers.
On wings of memory---but it’s faster than any wings. It’s a bass-line in harmony with the present melody, a background percussion that adds a dimension to the moment of now. Or an echo (but not a déjà-vu moment, that’s a different phenomenon).
The place where memory transports me most often is between the ages of three and seven: especially when I was five. How do I know which? Circumstantial evidence: my life was fractured in those days. I was in Perth Australia. Then on a ship to England; in my grandparents’ house there; in Holland; back in my grandparents’ house; in my stepfather’s house; at boarding-school; in hospital; out again; back to school. There’s a busy timeline to plot the memories against.
I feel drawn to things which trigger those memories, such as places which haven’t changed, old vehicles, old books, animals, trees, anything or anyone “timeless”. I’ve only to search the archives of this blog---I mean in memory, not literally searching---to find examples of the strangeness of memory. Here’s one, extracted from a post called “Hope” (October 30th 2007). I wrote it in the third person:
In a well-prepared field a bone-like piece of flint stood alone, thrown up by the plough. His heart leapt up, as it had in a similar moment when he was nine: not for the flint but for hope. He smelt that hope, kneaded it in his hand like the Plasticine they used to model with. What is hope? A vision of what we once knew? These were the questions he asked later, in the stillness of home, when thought was restored.
Perhaps these “moments”---the moments he lived for---were the doors to another world, in which souls were not separate. Or perhaps (he was astonished by the audacity of this idea) his memories and imaginings were the threads binding the world, keeping it full of Hope.
What does it mean, when a flint pebble on the surface of a ploughed field, seen a year ago, reminds me of a similar incident fifty-seven years earlier? Even if you dismiss it as imagination, it’s no less odd. On this occasion I felt that the significance of the sighting was its association with hope, that most intoxicating of feelings.
Feelings are the fixative of memory. And sometimes it seems to me that those feelings, or the seemingly insignificant incidents to which they attach themselves, can be traced to even earlier times. When I relive the five-year-old memories, for example---the smell of grain being winched up in sacks into warehouses, mingled with the smell of chickens roaming wild, pecking up the fallen grains from the cobbled wharf below---they seem to signify something, as if they echo back to something even earlier. Or I have walked along a woodland path, or an exposed hill-ridge, and felt a direct connection with prehistoric wayfarers and hunters.
These are some of the things I find worthy of exploration. Meanwhile, the affairs of the day---the politicians, celebrities, fashions, news stories---seem hollow hearsay. They don’t touch me, don’t ring bells as my senses do, echoing across the expanse of time like a carillon of memory till Kingdom come.
Posted by Vincent at 7:12 am