In various cultures around the world, as well as in times not too long past, I would have been considered either OLD or or on the verge of being so. Instead, in the culture and the time that I live in, I am... oh, dear lord... sliding into that bracket known as "middle age". Which means I can expect to live about as long again as I have lived so far, and if I'm VERY lucky I might live to see my nineties without being senile, sick, or completely solitary. But I'm of an age where earlier generations of my family are gone or are stepping into the realm where the possibilities of going are increased, and I've already had friends who have spent their allotted span of days on this planet. This not to say that I am getting decrepit or that anyone immediately around me is, but I am just... looking back, and my life is a photo album.
It's like I've got all these little sepia thumbnails back there, some starting to fade rather badly - they aren't memories, themselves, but they're mnemonics and if I go and toggle one of them a memory will emerge. Sometimes vivid, sometimes trembling and paper thin and wavering in the slightest breeze like a chiffon veil.
I remember things from my childhood.
I remember the smell of the flowering linden trees in the courtyard of the Orthodox cathedral in Novi Sad, to this day the only place where I believe God lives. I remember the smell of beeswax candles and incense. I am not a churtchgoing person, but there - that place - those gilded and icon-painted walls hold the souls of the people I have once loved.
I remember the scent of lilac.
I remember receiving my first ever award for writing (at school, in winter, wearing horrible Seventies boots and in a sheepskin coat because the awards ceremony was outdoors in November).
I remember sitting in a school library (different school) while a Real Writer talked to my class about herself and her work, and I remember that the dream woke that night as the damp darkness of an English autumn quietly descended outside, and that I became a writer in my heart that day and I never stopped being one since.
I remember the skies of Africa.
I remember a school dance to which I asked a cousin of a roommate of mine, a young Greek god (he really WAS greek [grin]) with curly blond hair and a gorgeous smile and made my roommate (who was planning to ask him herself but I got in first) very jealous - I remember talking quietly to this guy for a long time as we stood in the empty courtyard in the aftermath of the dance, myself with my back against a pillar and him leaning over me with a hand resting on the pillar behind my shoulder, smiling down at me, and yes, the kiss, and then, not long afterwards, learning that some learner driver had hit his motorbike from behind and catapulted him over the handlebars into the path of another incoming car - I remember trying to talk to him on the phone, in teh aftermath of surgery and coma, and crying like a chile because this beautiful vivid human being had completely lost the ability to remember anything at all in the short term and could not even keep straight for the duration of a short phone call to whom he was actually speaking. He was only nineteen.
I remember growing up.
I remember my first year at University, the kid always so easily and brilliantly competent at school brought down and humbled by the workload of the first year at college where I could not rely on memory alone - we covered a year's worth of syllabus in two weeks, in a SINGLE subject, and I took four courses in the first semester. I remember having to learn how to study, from scratch, when I was seventeen. I remember the ivy covered walls of my University, on the slopes of Cape Town's Table Mountain. I remember being the only one smar enough to spot a loophole in one exam that brought me several easy marks (yeah? You want to know?... Really?... [grin}) I remember running with a couple of friends to catch the train down to the next suburb where the cinemas were, grumbling all the way, to go and see "Chariots of Fire", complaining about being dragged to see a sports movie dammit and I had no interest in sport - and coming out in tears and in love and going back to see that movie at least twice more in the theatre (and countless times since). I remember graduating, becoming a postgraduate, graduating THAT, trying to find my blundering way in the world of science and research, fighting with blistering headaches, trying to hold on to a career I had sweated and worked hard for... and then segueing sideways into scientific writing and editing, and losing the headaches I had not forgotten that night in the school library, just... put it on hold, as it were, and all the science years were leavened with poetry, with stories, with at least two unpublished novels.
I remember moving by myself from South Africa to New Zealand, brand new country, knowing nobody, alone, finding my way. I remember finding a temporary job - and through it getting involved in a disastrous relationship that I should have known better than to have gotten involved in but did it anyway because the guy involved made me LAUGH, fatally, and after taht it was easy to believe in things that were pure fantasy. In the aftermath of THAT, I remember meeting a man with whom I connected completely and deeply, who told me on our second date "If you don't want to make this a long-term thing walk away now..." and who ended that relationship, just about a year later, by accusing me of having "expectations" of him and couldn't we just be friends?... I remember the emotional desert which I entered, where even the writing dried up for a full year. and I remember crying inconsolably and without seemingly being able to stop the first time that a man I might care for showed me tenderness I could accept, after about a year of that. I remember that I was terrified of EVERYTHING what that man showed me in a hundred little ways that he loved me and cared for me and would always be there for me, and I eventually married him.
I remember coming to America. ANother new country. Another new start. I remember seeing the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, my first glimpse of the fabulous and improbable skyline of New York (that was a movie set. It had to be...) I remember being driven down to the Florida Keys, swimming with dolphins for the second time in my life, tasting alligator, running from a hurricane. I remember writing a book in the office I shared with my husband, with a desk which had started out life as a door but had been coopted as a flat working surface, the office itself part of a converted outbuilding which used to be the garage - when we moved from Florida, at last, I remember going to take a last look at the empty hole that used to be that office, with its dingy brown carpet and stained tiles of its dropped ceiling and bookshelves made of two-by-fours on cinderblocks and I remember crying because this was where "Jin Shei" was born.
And then, closer now, faster, I remember weeping at my first snowfall in Washington state; the vivid garden which bloomed in the spring after an autumn of planting bulbs, my first rhododendron blooms, the frustrations of blackberries; the arrival of two frisky kittens into the household and the passing of an elderly and ornery and increasingly failing character of a cat.
The first summer in Washington, and the aftermath of rdeck's stroke, and his long recovery.
I am thinking of the memories waiting to be made in the months and years to come.
SOmetimes I get scared, or frustrated, or depressed about stuff I really have little control over. Mostly I am a sum of my parts, I am what my life has made me, and I am ridiculously content. And every time I say that I feel like reaching out and knocking on wood because I can see, around me out there in the world, traces of people whose lives have evolved in pictures very different from my own. In pictures of fear and fire and foes, perhaps, with memories of wreckage and ruins and blood where I remember a childhood of a grandmother's love and daffodils and honey from my grandfather's bees. I haven't had a heartbreak-free life - but I have, in context, in perspective, been so utterly and incredilby lucky with my lot in life that sometimes that takes my breath away and I am frightened at how much I owe my destiny.
Last picture. CLose of day, with another summer coming to an end, sitting in a pool of light from my desk lamp, typing this. Asking you all, perhaps, to look at your own albums, and remember.