I am not very good at going back. When friends tells me about reunions – for work, school, college – I shy away. Memory may not be an accurate record in terms of legal evidence but some wise anonymous person suggested that “memory is the power to gather roses in winter.” I like a winter rose.
After ten years of holidays there, I play with the idea of returning to Crete but I fear the incursions of the ex-pats, the increased commercialisation, disturbance to Phaistos and other ancient sites – and I know that no, food, no wine, no company could offset how unhappy that would make me. Cretan memories include the two elderly brothers who taught my then small son to eat cheese pies for breakfast in their cafe at the back of the market in Chania, the pelican’s lunch time walk in Sitia, the bull altar at Knossos, the first visit above the tourist line to George’s parents where everything was home grown or home made, prepared by Amelia (hismother) including the best metriou (coffee) skimmed seven times and the spring under the cypress where mountain water ran dark and cool with its own taste.
Risk disturbing this ?
I think not.
In life, things go wrong, Relationships – whether to people or places – falter, fall or just blow out. To use the engine of memory to cling to the deeply unhappy is poisonous. And you have to let go of a lot for a few bits of red ribbon from the sunken wreath to float to the top of consciousness. I have met people who go over and over what went wrong. In misery, I have done it too, but it leads nowhere anyone wants to go. You have to live in the present even when the past is so painful it obtrudes and every
encounter begins with you talking about your major troubles in the largely pointless hope that you will hear something to help you bear it, or that the recital itself will ease feelings of failure so tangible, they almost have shape and colour, or that, in telling the story again, you may come to the understanding that eluded you. This has not happened to me.
What has happened is that I have drawn courage from an unlikely source, unlikely because other than appreciation, I don’t know what I am talking about. The world is full of surfaces, one slips off them. One of the Zen masters of my relative equilibrium is a naturalist called Peter Matthiessen whose book The Tree Where Man Was Born taught me that love can exist even when what you love ceases to. (The sequel Africa Silences is paralysingly mournful.) PM’s love of Africa remains. And Eliot Porter’s photographs in the first book gave me the image of the black rhino that I stroke at dead of night when I can’t sleep and need unalloyed and unexpected beauty.
Works for me.
The second source which I found only recently is by Adrian Root whom David Attenbrough credits with “almost singlehandedly making wildlife films grow up”.
Root’s books (called Ivory, Apes and Peacocks from the John Masefield poem “Cargoes”) is a love letter with the ugly left in, including his blunt assessment
of conservation failures and the havoc wreaked on heavenly plenty by mindless man.
But he still lives in Kenya, he wants his sons to know his remembered Africa.
I have only been to Africa twice so it’s obviously not what I know. It’s what the writing symbolises.
Both these men saw wonders destroyed, witnessed horrors and went back – and in so doing, somehow managed to exorcise enough demons to keep their good memories intact. I can only appreciate their courage and witness but the fact that they did it
enables me to go forward. I don’t know why this works.
I am not putting the dramas of my little life on a par with the truly dreadful things that have happened over time in Africa.
But I have sought a way to continue and it seems that you can only do this when you let go.
It doesn’t happen automatically. It involves acts of will. Life improved greatly for me when I went to bed one night and instead of saying “Please God” which I do about everything from not shrinking a sweater to my son being OK, I started thinking about what I had enjoyed that day, what was good, and saying thank you, falling asleep with a smile on my face.
I think alluding to love and God and Africa in one breath is OK: I believe in all three.
Another great write up