My life in seventeen boxes
I am leaving the country shortly*: most of my stuff is in storage. I went and looked at it the other day, in its bleak metal box in a bleak industrial unit a short walk away from the middle of Croydon. I went and looked at it the other day: I went and looked at me.
A storage unit looks as bare when it is filled as it does when it is empty. The walls seem almost to come through the contents, to render them transparent, to render them absent. Their bareness says, this is a place where things are left, not kept. Whatever you leave here, is insignificant. It is not used, it has no place, it therefore has no meaning. There is nothing here. Your home is where you keep your things: yet here they are, your things. You call this home?
My life is in that unit. My tangible life. It is easily listed. A television, without remote control. A bike, neglected. A couple of chess sets. Four paintings. Six bookcases. And seventeen boxes. White packing boxes, of two different sizes, stacked like bricks in a corner. About fourteen of them are full of books, the rest with bits and pieces, bric-a-brac. It took me forty years to accumulate the contents of those seventeen boxes. Yet, when I look at them, especially when I look at them hunched together against the bare walls of a storage unit, how little they feel.
Well, a life is not composed of lists. A life is not composed of tangibles. Your life is the memories that you leave behind you, not the marks you make. And every life can be squeezed, can be reduced to the thinness of a notice, the carving on a headstone, the line in a newspaper, the numerals which denote the date of birth and death. All the matter in the universe might be compressed into a ball so small that it would fit inside my unit many times. They are nothing. Caesars, Christs and Stalins had statues erected of themselves in even the smallest towns and yet they were never satisfied because there were always places that remained unmarked. Often I have wished that I could cut myself free from my possessions and travel as I pleased. But there they are, piled small, and it hard not to look at them and think that they are all I have to show for forty years. To think that they are awfully little to have to show for all that time.
My books, mostly. My books. If those books that I have spent so long accumulating and protecting, if those books man nothing, what, then, do I mean? I am beginning again, another person, an unknown, in another country, one I do not know. That should be distance enough to allow a new beginning. But the strange thing is that it is hard to begin again without the sense that one is not beginning, that one is building on what is already there.
The past is always with you as you travel. You can only drop anchor: you cannot cut yourself adrift. Almost every night I dream. I dream of things gone past and yet not gone. I dream of fears both known and unknown. Last night I dreamed that I was living on a high cliff, and yet the waters had risen and were coming over the top. I am glad to be going and still I am afraid. Your life is in the memories that you do not leave behind you. Those memories make me afraid. Those memories make me stand in a cold box in Croydon looking at the boxes that it holds, and asking them what they tell me about me.
[* = hence the paucity of recent postings, for which my apologies]