Being in England is inevitably a return to my past, the one I left twenty-two years ago when I moved to California. It has had different weights over the years. It took me a few years to start dreaming about being in the US; now, people and places from across my life blend together in my dreams – in a recent example, people were setting up meditation cushions on the unpaved road where the house I grew up in was. About ten years ago, I was feeling homesick, I thought, and considered going back, though eventually I realised that what I needed to do was to leave Zen Center and start a new phase of life.
I have often observed that my friends and family in England have a continuity of past that I don’t – I have a ‘then,’ and a ‘since moving.’ At my sister’s this week, we tackled the things that I had stored at my father’s house when I left, that she had taken when that house was sold after his death. I wasn’t sure how much of it I would be able to manage, while at the same time realising that it needs to be dealt with. I had slimmed the number of boxes down once with my step-mother, on the same visit that made me remember how little I enjoyed English winters, and we managed to do more of that this time.
The main thing we did was go through all my old photos – from childhood Instamatic shots to the hundreds of rolls of film I shot from teenage years onwards – first on the SLR that my mother had bought and then lost interest in, and after that camera was stolen in my last days at college, a couple of others that, it seems now, produced a lot of rubbish and only a few things worth keeping. But looking at all the albums I had made, for the first time in more than twenty years, was quite a trip. I snapped plenty of shots of the prints with my phone to share them with the friends I have been staying with, since we have known each other for thirty years, and there we were, fresh-faced and a bit slimmer, with other friends and occasions more or less well-remembered. My friend Heather on the south coast had shown me some pictures of our early days at the BBC, and I could more than reciprocate, feeling very grateful that I had taken my camera to work on quite a few occasions.
This was followed by a drive up to my mother’s. When I had been planning my trip, my brother suggested he was free on the 26th to come over from France and meet me, and I mentioned that this was the day I was arriving in Hereford, so he sorted out a flight and a car rental, and showed up in the early afternoon. We hadn’t told my mother about it ahead of time, and let her know he was coming only once he had landed at Heathrow, just in case the current travel chaos interfered. Most likely, we thought, the four of us had not been together since my nephew’s christening in 1999. I had moved after that, and my mother had stopped traveling as she found it too stressful.
Part of the afternoon was spent trying to convince my mother that having a chair with a mechanical lifting mechanism would be a good idea. She is stubborn about her independence, even as her mobility and eyesight have declined considerably since my last visit, and extremely resistant to any kind of change. We prevailed in the end, though I am sure she will take time to accept this new reality, once it is delivered. My brother-in-law also worked hard during the afternoon to raise her favourite spot, the sofa, several inches higher so she could get in and out of it more easily.
Once everyone else had gone back, I had a couple of very quiet days there, walking a fair amount, doing chores, and preparing for the weekend at Hebden. Walking has also been time in history: for my last day on the south coast, we took a long walk in the hills that aren’t quite the downs, but there, as well as the tracks and paths around Hereford (ones that I have happily run in the past) I always have the sense of following in ancient footsteps.
What I am noticing is that this swimming in the past makes me feel more three dimensional, that touching the deep past; remembering all the experiences, good, bad, pleasant, unpleasant; all the people I have cared for and who have cared for me, are all supporting the person who is alive in this moment. The past selves stepping into the present self simultaneously feels like the self melts away, and feels like heft that I can bring to my teaching.