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Blog // Thoughts
October 22, 2010

The Relentless In-Breaking Of The Past

This past week has been something out of the ordinary. I’m here in Adelaide, visiting family and tackling a number of personal projects. One of these, perhaps the most important of all, has been going through boxes and items I’ve had in storage since leaving Australia, nearly twelve years ago. I recall, as a child, […]

This past week has been something out of the ordinary. I’m here in Adelaide, visiting family and tackling a number of personal projects. One of these, perhaps the most important of all, has been going through boxes and items I’ve had in storage since leaving Australia, nearly twelve years ago.

I recall, as a child, our schools had the habit of burying “time capsules” full of poems, photos and the like that would (supposedly) be dug up by future generations of students. Personally, I never understood the idea of putting stuff like that in the ground, instead of in a library. But, it did make some sense to store away a glimpse of the present as it was, for future children to ponder (or laugh at).

This week has been a lot like diving into a personal and complex time capsule. Opening each box brought back memories, not all of them good. On the one hand there were some pleasant surprises, especially mementos from trips to Africa in 1993 and 1995. On the other hand, there reminders of tough times and struggles that had otherwise settled themselves into the deeper recesses of my mind. Stirring up the murky waters of my senses led to a few sleepless nights.

It’s easy to imagine that memories are laid down like layers of sediment. However, we all know that involuntary recollections can cut through and make the past real to us at the most unexpected of moments. However, this was not sudden burst of memory, like Proust’s madeline, but rather, a sustained rupture in biography – the past breaking into the present.

So, I tried to find connections, between the person who owned all this junk back then and person staring at this junk today.

I found a thread in an old sermon tape (cassettes, I had so many cassettes!). It was a talk delivered in 1995, which apart from a couple of highlights, was one of the worst years of my life. The address was entitled, “Do Christians Have Something Positive To Say.” At some later point I had crossed out the something and written “anything,” which made the whole title even more cutting. I was surprised to discover that even back then one of my central frustrations with conservative suburban Christianity was already so clearly developed.

That thread of connection made me start to look at all these things coming out of storage boxes as somewhat random but potentially meaningful bridges to the present. After all, when I left for London some things were stored because I didn’t know what to do with them, while others (like the dining table made from recycled African railway sleepers) because I didn’t know where to put them.

This got me thinking about how things come into our lives, sometimes by design and sometimes by accident. Some of these old belongings were the result of conscious decisions while others had been impulsive acquisitions. Some were compromises, the best I could do at the time, whilst there were certainly things I would opt for today, even with everything I have seen of the world in the intervening years.

Then, as is always the way in life, there were things that came into my space, gifts (wanted and unwanted) and things that seemed to have no discernible provenance. I found a beat-up 12 string guitar that I don’t recall obtaining and a huge whiteboard that once adorned a wall of my home study and still had notes and phone numbers written on it, reminding me of my last working days in Sydney.

Vivid flashbacks and tortured nights aside, it has felt like a privilege to go through this old stuff. There are some magnificent old edition books that I look forward to re-reading, a wonderfully goofy board game called SoccerGrid that I thought was lost and some photo prints and negatives that I’ll be taking with me back to Hong Kong.

But, most of all, there’s the sense that however bad those last years in Sydney felt at the time, they actually weren’t all that awful in the greater scheme of things. Moreover, many of problems troubling me back then would play little role in my life today. It’s a rare that we get the chance to compress time this way and overlay different moments in our lives so clearly. It’s the gift that was given to the apocalyptic writers in Biblical times, to see history concertina in on itself and the grand drama of human history compressed into a few points.

Of course, the contemporaries of those writers thought they were mad!

In a way, I wish I could stop thinking about all this. After all, there is so little time left in the year and so much to do. But, the photos I’ve taken this week and the musical notes I’ve made have a certain quality to them that is, well, different. There’s no point denying that something deep has been stirred going through those boxes.

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