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So I'm out walking somewhere, or on a train or a bus and I see someone I think I know, but then I realise it couldn't possibly be them because I haven't seen them for thirty years and they wouldn't look like that now.
We're not the same people we once were.
I tend not to try and track down long lost friends these days. Life carries us in different directions and it's rare to find someone with whom the spark can be reignited in any meaningful way. More often, any initial sense of euphoria is dampened with mutual disappointment.
I recently read on Facebook that an old friend I haven't seen for years has just celebrated 30 years of marriage. I first knew him when he was 12. We were incredibly close during our teenage years. He has a wonderful wife and two adult children but to me he will always be that special friend of my teen years with whom I shared such a powerful bond.
Having kept diaries and journals all my life, the people I have loved and who have shaped me remain vivid in my memory.
The past is not a foreign country to me.
For someone who is steeped in the visual arts, I've done a lot of writing over the years. I don't harbour any grand illusions about writing a great novel or even a short story for that matter; I dispensed with those a long time ago, but I do place a high value on the written word and its value in keeping track of who I am at any given time in my life.
Over the last 45 years I've filled dozens of diaries and journals. God knows who, if anyone, will ever read them, but I'm glad I did so.
I can't imagine how my younger self could have processed life without the aid of the written word. Growing up in the northern suburbs of Adelaide in South Australia I frequently found myself feeling confused and bewildered about life and the world at large. Unlike so many of my friends, I was an intense teenager, the kind of intensity that might initially draw people in but then end up pushing them away again. At such times I would find refuge in the written word. Writing in my diaries and journals allowed me to pour my heart out without embarrassing myself.
There are people I lost track of years ago, long before we had the benefit of Facebook to help keep people in touch. Who and where they are now, who can say? All I know is that whenever I think about them, it's their younger selves that I recall. And who knows, maybe they think about me sometimes; a younger me with smoother skin and more hair. Maybe if we passed each other on the street now we might still recognise each other but maybe we wouldn't. Maybe time and experience has altered us so much we wouldn't even notice.
Nostalgia. It's a powerful emotion. It affects the way some people see the world. It can influence the way some of us vote in elections. It can apply a rosy filter to things that were not necessarily so rosy at the time, especially as we grow older and reflect on how the world used to be when we were young, or more precisely, how we imagine it was.
On another level, it can be a kind of longing for a time when all of life lay before us, before we got ahead and put so much of it behind us.
We've all experienced it, the powerful dream that seems so real that you think the other people who were in it surely must have had the same experience. Of course, this is never the case but it goes to show what an amazing thing the brain is that it can create something so compelling while weíre supposedly fast asleep.
Sometimes I get dream hangovers. Iíll dream about something thatís so affecting that it stays with me throughout the day. It might be about a friend, an event or some strange situation and I just canít seem to shake it off.
Sometimes Iíll dream about someone Iíve never met; someone who doesnít exist. Iíve had dreams where this invented person is someone incredibly important to me; someone I love or someone I care deeply for. We can have this entire shared history thatís completely embedded within the contextual fabric of the dream and while Iím dreaming it, it feels as real and authentic as any relationship Iíve ever known.
Waking from such a dream can feel profoundly disappointing or disconcerting as I realise that what I was experiencing was a complete fabrication; that the person I was dreaming about doesnít exist.
Then there are the dreams involving dead people. These can be the most affecting of all. They can also be the most uplifting. For all his many sins, a dream I had involving my father a couple of weeks after he died shook me profoundly. In it he was making sure I understood that he had done many things he regretted in life. Iíve also had dreams involving my mother which have left me feeling remarkably happy, even grateful, for having had the opportunity to re-experience her at an age and stage when she still had her wits about her.
Sometimes Iíll have a dream about someone in which theyíre a lot younger than they are now. Such dreams can evoke mixed feelings because the people we once were is different to who we are now. Upon waking, I can feel overcome by a powerful sense of nostalgia. It might even have me reaching for the phone or, if itís someone Iíve not seen for ages or even lost touch with, I might even consider checking to see if I can track them down online. I rarely follow through though. After all, it was really nothing more than a dream.
Iím often intrigued by the way actors will talk about the characters they play as though they were real people. Iím not an actor but I can appreciate how inhabiting a character on stage or in film and bringing that character to life requires a submersion of oneís own self into that of another. Some actors even talk about finding it difficult to shrug the character off once a film or performance has been completed. It must be quite challenging for those who are closest to them, having this other person inside them, especially if itís someone whoís really repugnant.
My mother spent many of her teenage years in the north of Spain during the 30s, prior to Franco assuming power. She would sometimes talk about the friends she had known then, especially the young men with whom she was obviously very popular. When she talked about them her eyes were light up and there would be this warm, happy glow as she recalled a time in her life when she was genuinely happy and a sad lingering sigh when she thought about all those beautiful young men, many of whom subsequently lost their lives during the ensuing civil war.
Towards the end of my motherís life I would sometimes read my fatherís old war letters to her. She always used to enjoy listening to them, although I was conscious of the fact that there was sadness for a time that was no more. The last time I ever read them, she became so engrossed that when I was finished sheíd lost all sense of where she was and more specifically,
she was. It took a little while to explain to her that what sheíd been experiencing were memories. After that, I never read the letters to her again.
We take memory for granted. We assume itís a given and that weíll always have it. As we get older of course, this assumption can be tested. We may know someone with Alzheimerís or Dementia. We might experience memory loss ourselves. We might suffer a stroke and find there are chunks of our memory missing. Thankfully, I donít appear to have experienced any memory loss but I do know what itís like to be with people who have. Itís one of the reasons I have become interested in keeping diaries and journals again. It makes sense to write things down.
Looking through some old photographs recently, it occurred to me that I have memories of people which their children will never know; could never know. They may have seen plenty of similar photographs; they may have been told stories about their parents, even imagined what they were like, but thatís not the same thing. Similarly, we can never know our own parents as they once were. We can imagine them; we can have insight into who they once were and what they might have been like but we can never know them as their most intimate friends once knew them.
My father is a mystery to me. He dropped dead at the age of 67. I was 18. As far as I can recall, we were never close. As a young teenager, I discovered things about him that made that any semblance of closeness impossible. Nevertheless, when I look at photos of him as a young man I canít help wondering who he was and how he was perceived by others. Presumably he had some close friendships and presumably he wasnít always driven by despicable desires to molest young girls. Who was the man my mother fell in love with?
My mother lived for another 33 years after my father died. With the passing of time her memories of him became selective. Towards the end of her life, having lived with another partner for many years, they began to fade. It became harder for her to recall who he was. Of course, that became true about all of us. Iíve often wondered what it must have been like to know what he had done at a time when such crimes were rarely called to account and how she reconciled the man she married with who and what he later became.
Ironically, my first ten years of life growing up on the Isle of Wight were idyllic. Thereís no other way to describe them. I was blissfully unaware of any of my fatherís wrongdoings and certainly never the focus of them. The world for me was a friendly place filled with friendly people. I was in awe of nature and had a natural affinity with nature. Itís the kind of idyllic childhood that fewer and fewer children have access to these days. Such innocence and unquestioning trust in the world instilled in me an inner fortitude that has served me well.
Had the sordid revelations about my father emerged during my formative first years I would probably have grown up with a very different set of personal traits and characteristics. Over the years Iíve worked with a lot of young people who have been damaged by the crimes and misdemeanours of adults and/or the knowledge of what adults are capable of. Memory plays a crucial role in mental health. To have oneís memories defiled by the moral transgression of those charged with the responsibility of keeping children safe is a crime that can and does wreak unspeakable havoc later in life.
I was 14 when I first learnt about my fatherís crimes. I donít know that I was able to fully process or even believe it at the time. What I do know is that my teen years were incredibly tumultuous, not least because of all the drama that happened when everything was brought out into the open. I can remember looking at him as one might look at a stranger or even an intruder. We communicated, yes; I guess we had to because we lived under the same roof but I always had this burdensome sense of disassociation and disgust.
The sense of smell can be a powerful trigger for childhood memories. Whenever I sink my nose into a heavily perfumed rose I am overwhelmed by memories of the small boy I once was. Interestingly, these memories are more to do with sensation and perception than actual, specific memories. I have sensations of colour; soft pastel hues of mauve, green and yellow combined with vague, blurry memories of little old ladies who grew such flowers in their gardens throughout the village in which I lived and then, for the most fleeting of moments, I am six years old once more.
I remember as a teenager looking at adult men as though they were another species altogether. Growing up dislocated in the northern suburbs of South Australia in the 1970s I wasnít exactly surrounded by the kinds of men I would especially look up to. I was very disinclined when it came to sport and at that time in that place, sport for men was akin to religion and provided what seemed to me to be the sole focus for any kind of meaningful interaction. Combined with my all-but non-existent relationship with my father, this was a constant source of grief.
We change. I used to work with people who were predominantly older than me. I now work with many who are predominantly younger, including my boss. These people have no concept of who I was when I was younger, just as I have little idea about the early years of those colleagues who are peers by age. As for the children I teach, showing them photos of me in my late teens or early 20s can result in either squeals of laughter at my long beard and long hair or total disbelief that the person in the photograph is me.
I have little ongoing contact with friends who knew me when I was young. Some live overseas, others interstate and many have fallen by the wayside. Even my partner of 23 years has only known me since I was 34. The person I once was no doubt lives on in the memory of some people, at least those who from time to time might pause to give me thought, but by and large, my early life is forgotten. Thatís okay, by the way. Itís not a source of concern or grief, just a fascinating observation about the impermanence of life.
The one place where my younger self does remain vivid and alive is within the pages of my old diaries and journals. From the age of thirteen to twenty-two I recorded every single day of my life. In detail. I maintained a daily diary and hundreds of pages, thousands even, in the form of journals. Thereafter, despite gaps from time to time, I always wrote. And between the pages of all those diaries and journals the young person that is no more, with all of his worries and fears, his hopes and dreams of the future, remains very much alive.
In the same way that my diaries and journals allow me to remember who I once was, they also allow me to remember who the others people in my life once were. People who are now old, estranged or dead are young again, captured between the pages of a young observer of life who wrote not only about himself but about the people with whom he shared his days. Certainly, the writing is at times rough, often convoluted and over-dramatic, but running through it all is the observation of a particular time and place and the people who inhabited it.
Over the years the temptation to edit or to destroy my old diaries and journals has waxed and waned. Iíve often spoken to people who have kept such documents for years, only to throw them out or burn them in a moment of what I would describe as temporary madness. The reasons given are often mundane but in most cases the ensuing sense of regret is notable. Once destroyed, such documents can never be retrieved, and I use the word documents quite intentionally. Yes, they can be embarrassing, even damning, but that is the essence and nature of such documentation.
Having a handle on who Iíve been at various stages of my life has allowed me a deeper appreciation of how life seems to progress in stages, or chapters. At various intervals, Iíve tended to shake things up, throw caution to the wind and launch things off in a whole new direction. This has probably made it easier to remember and quantify the events in my life than if Iíd stayed in just one place and done the same thing. Each chapter is bookended by what went before and what came after.
So far, itís been a pretty good story.
I recently read Donald
Millerís A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
. In it he explores the concept of living our lives as Story and how doing so can inform the way we live. Itís a literary take on life that Miller suggests can enrich and provide meaning and direction where such things were previously lacking. Itís a take that resonated with me and which has to some degree rekindled my interest in writing things down. Writing is, amongst other things, an act of gathering oneís thoughts together and making sense and/or an understanding of whatís going on in life.
Everything I have achieved in life was once a distant dream. I remember when 1984 seemed way off in the future and was tinged with a vague, Orwellian dread. I remember when 2001 heralded the dawn of a whole new age of space stations and interplanetary space travel, as long as we managed to survive the doomsday scenario that Nostradamus had predicted for 1999. I had dreams of becoming a writer; an artist; a teacher, and I wanted to find someone with whom to spend the rest of my life. Life moves constantly forward, as do we, constantly emerging anew.
You reach an age where you realise you could drop dead at any minute. It happens to people all the time. Our tenure on this planet is tenuous at best.
There was a time when such thoughts would have thoroughly depressed me. Nowadays, Iím much more philosophical. Mortality sharpens the mind. It can help us focus on the things that really matter and help us to let go of the things that donít.
As Iíve said many times, I fully intend to live for many more years to come. But just in case I donít, Iíll keep writing things down.
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