On Time Capsules

On Time Capsules

For my fifth birthday, my uncle built me a bookshelf. Huon pine with miniature toadstool carvings, it towered above me and spanned the entire bedroom wall. My grandmother filled it for me, crowding in everything from The Fairy Realm to The Chrysalids. Rodda and Wyndham sat together on the shelves as unlikely neighbours. Each manuscript contained a different mask for me to wear, a new home for me to live in, another voyage to undertake. It was perhaps for this reason that I wedded myself to literature: for better or worse, ‘til death do us part. For weeks after its reveal, I sat on my knees at the bookshelf’s base. I would stare up into the universe of miniature worlds that had been collated for me, mouth open, running my little fingers up and down their spines.

Thirteen years later, my hands still trail across timber toadstools, fingers still skip up and down the spines, cracked now. Pristine pages have been dog-eared and wrinkled, ripped out and floated like paper ships down lonely rivers. And like sand trapped between the leaves, parts of myself have been captured within these books – severed and chronicled for me to return to later. The adventures captured between the covers are no longer just the ones written out in print, but also the ones they accompanied me on. And so somewhere between five and eighteen I discovered that not only does a book change you, but you change the book. My sentimentality began to justify my hoarding tendencies, and no matter how entirely ruined a book became, it remained like a boarded up old house in my city of volumes, refusing to be demolished.

This is without a doubt why I grew into a writer: it was always about stories for me. Reading them, yes, but telling them was just as important. When I was seven and my sister was five, we would entertain one another for hours in the dirty old bathtub that had been abandoned on our front lawn. I’d say “C’mon Oli, let’s go to the jungle!” And she’d say “No Moo-Moo, there are tigers in the jungle.” But I’d assure her that we’d be safe in our porcelain airplane, and so we’d take off, me steering with a rusted pair of taps while she navigated from the co-pilot’s seat. We’d fly above kapok trees, pointing out scarlet parrots and golden macaws swooping by. The birds would call to one another as the sun burnt out of the sky and then my sister and I would glide home just in time to hear mum calling us for dinner.

The will to write down the tangents of my overactive imagination beckoned me for years, but I ignored it. I understood the impossibility of replicating the narratives of Roald Dahl or Frances Burnett. But after years of insatiable reading the temptation overtook. It didn’t matter how terrible it was going to sound, I wanted to write. I wanted to build the time capsule for someone else to fill with memories. At first, the resulting creations weren’t so much books as they were half empty wads of paper, stapled together in an ambitious attempt to impress. Complete with pencil illustrations and a large copyright symbol on the cover, these works of ‘genius’ took up prime real estate on my bookshelf. Eventually, however, I graduated from the Faber-Castell and Reflex concoctions, and taught myself how to project my bathtub adventures onto the page with words. I was finally producing something that contained more depth than a scribbled depiction of a purple horse and without meaning to, I had created another vessel within which I could capture myself.

French novelist Anaïs Nin once said “we write to taste life twice”[1], and for me, that was true. Writing became a new way for me to document my existence. It was some kind of reservoir of past selves I had killed off: eleven-year-old girls in stripy knee socks, and fourteen-year-old girls with black hair and dark eyeliner. Crystallized within old hard drives are odes to Zinger Burgers and fingerless gloves and shoebox dioramas. A broken hearted version of myself wrote eight pages on a girl who killed animals, stabbing out their hearts and leaving them with empty holes where vital organs used to be. Fingers tapping away on a keyboard wet with heartache, the perfect little wounds my protagonist carved took away my own pain. Plot holes and shoddy writing didn’t matter. What was important was that these were my diary entries.

Reaching up into my bookshelf of wizened and rain-swollen memories, I pull down Strike Sparks and riffle through the pages. Suddenly I am thirteen years old again, hiding under the covers in the sweltering midsummer heat. On the cusp of womanhood, I despair at the thought of it; the cock in our mouth, ah the cock in our mouth.[2] Crickets chirp outside my room as I skim through the obscenities of the outlawed book. I pick out The Handmaid’s Tale and I am seventeen, swaying seasick in a train carriage. The Austrian countryside is flickering by like the pages of a flipbook, and out of the corner of my eye I sense my friends scowling at me. I am too engrossed in Offred’s story to care. The Secret History, it’s July of 2012. I can hear the buzz of an electric knife slicing through a slab of meat in the next room, the last memory I have of my grandfather. We’re crowded around a circular table. I’m piling sweet potatoes onto my plate, drowning them in gravy. I pass him the roast potatoes, then the peas. I’m scolded for reading at the dinner table. We have golden syrup dumplings for dessert and I steal glances at my book where I can. I wanted to drink a bottle of whiskey a day;[3] a mouthful of sugar-sweet dough. Outside, the treetops tumbled and tossed;2 arms deep in soapy water as he turns the pages for me. She held a cigarette, caught in the knuckles of her bitten-nailed fingers; I stand in the doorway, waving goodbye as he drives away. The next morning, I board a plane to Europe.

April 28th, 2013. Sitting in a dining room somewhere in Munich, I’m creating a mosaic of prosciutto and cheese on my bagel. The room smells of burnt toast and cinnamon buns. My dad’s personalized ringtone sounds, the Astro Boy theme song – hoshi no anata, yuku zo atomu. I excuse myself, make my way upstairs. He tells me he has been trying to call all night. “Morgan,” he says, “your grandfather passed away.” Halfway up a staircase in the middle of nowhere, I suddenly understand why there are so many clichés about heartache.

There was no sanctuary, no escape. Parts of him were littered in my every comfort. Everyone kept looking at me funny when I said that he was haunting me from some place inside my bookshelf. Narnia was a fourth grade graduation gift, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a visual diary of us sitting on a back porch in summer. Memories had been snagged on words like scarves on tree branches. I didn’t read for twelve months, letting the pain grow inside me. My bookshelf became a graveyard, a reminder of all the things I’d lost. On April 13th, 2014 – what would have been his 74th birthday, I fished out my copy of The Secret History. There was something familiar about the weight of the book in my hands, it’s scent, the thick creamy paper. I realized that the time we spent together was suspended within the sun-bleached cover, the small tear on page 303. He wasn’t haunting me – he wasn’t even gone. Rather, he continued to live on in the golden syrup stains scattered through chapter four. I learnt that pain could exist inside the books I owned, the ones I read and cherished, but that they were not worth less because of this. I would not give them up, my personal histories.

For other people, these parts of themselves might be stored within old records, or the perfume they wore as a teen, or a leather jacket they sported every time they left the house for a year. Old ghosts can live in ancient lipstick shades or in a silver tin full of baby teeth. But for me, it’s always been books. This is why I don’t like to let them go – not so much a fear of losing the physical thing itself, but rather what it signifies: the person I was when I read or wrote it, or indeed, the people who were around when the story was so alive. This is why, when I imagine myself gnarled and grey, I am always tucked away in a rickety old house, sitting in a velvet armchair, surrounded by rows upon rows of heavy books. I reside in a museum filled with scraps of my identity, wedged like bookmarks between pages. Hardcovers and paperbacks alike, the spines stand to attention like a small army on the shelves, volumes of me.

[1] “Anais Nin”. Anaisnin.com. Web. 7 Apr. 2016.

[2] Olds, Sharon. Strike Sparks. New York: Knopf, 2004. Print.

[3] Tartt, Donna. The Secret History. New York: Knopf, 1992. Print.

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