Tuesday, March 26, 2013

From There to Here.

I have this very strange experience, from time to time, of wondering how I got from there to here. I should say something about where and when “there” is/was.

There is a square, a courtyard – I’m not sure exactly what one should call it – in the suburbs of Birmingham, UK, sometime in the early 1960s. Let’s say 1964, when I would have been seven years old. It is summer, and surprisingly hot. Yes, it could feel hot during the English summer, when you were out in the midday sun. This square – a quadrangle, perhaps – was surrounded on three sides by rows of flats, three-storeys high. The fourth side was the road. Between the ground floor flats and this courtyard were expanses of lawn, except that on one side was a driveway, a parking area, I suppose, separated from the courtyard by bollards. My memory of details is poor. This courtyard was paved with flagstones. I have the impression that these were pinkish and grayish, but I could have made this up. My sister will probably want to correct this, if she reads it. She was older than I was at the time and her memory appears to be more photographic than mine. Perhaps I am fictionalising this to some extent, but it does not matter.

On this courtyard were two large pieces of play equipment, constructed of logs. At least, they seemed large to me at the time. One of these was an oversized bench which, as I recall, spent most of its time overturned. I’m sure it was never intended to be sat upon. Giants were uncommon in those days. The other was in the form of a ship. I don’t suppose that either of these pieces of equipment would pass muster these days, at least not without ample signage:

WARNING: Playing on this equipment may result in splinters and subsequent infection.

WARNING: Parts of this equipment are situated above ground level. Falling could result in injury.

You would have to be careful, too, not to hit your head on the signs.

This is the there to which I frequently return in my mind. I am there, straddling one of the cross beams of this ship: pale-skinned, with blonde hair and matchstick legs, and wearing plastic sandals (probably with socks). In other words: English. My favourite pastime was to sit on those logs, armed with a magnifying glass, burning words and shapes into those logs, breathing in the acrid smoke, getting badly sunburnt, no doubt, on my arms and the back of my neck. And, yes, I would occasionally burn ants that invaded my territory.

It is difficult to explain why, but this scene has become, for me, the symbol and summation of my early childhood years in England, before we set sail, in February of 1966, for Australian shores. I am alone. I am aware of no sounds, except for my own commentary on whatever mission I may have been undertaking at the time. Were others watching? Did my mother watch from the balcony of our ground floor flat? I imagine, sometimes, our black and white cat, Jimmy, coming to sit with me. But this may, indeed, be nothing more than my imagination.

And now for the here, because it is the getting from there to here that sometimes leaves me slightly dazed. The first “here” during which I really experienced this, was, in fact, another “there”. It was during my theological training that I first experienced the sense of wonder at the transition from there to what was (at the time) here. This was at theological college, in the hills just outside Adelaide in South Australia, surrounded by eucalyptus and bottlebrush. It was during our daily time of meditation, prior to Evensong. I was sitting on the steps outside the chapel when this scene from my early childhood seized me. How, I asked myself, did I get from there to here? How did that little boy become this man? I would use this place and time, this time of immense solitude (not loneliness) as a place of retreat, in which I would spend my contemplative time.

Now I am in another “here”, having moved on from those theological days. Now, my “here” is Cairns, in tropical, Far North Queensland. I am fifty-five years old, and still that image of myself can fill me with… with what? Nostalgia? Sorrow? Regret? Perhaps all those things. But mostly with wonder. Little of the physical me from that time remains today. Our body replaces most of its cells every seven to ten years. Not the neural cells of our cerebral cortex, though. The cells I have now, those still living, are the same as those I had back then. I have carried them with me so far, and kept them reasonably safe. Most importantly I try to keep the image of that boy safe. For some reason, he will always represent the “there” from which I have made the long journey to my current “here”.


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