The travel of the mind is easily the most seductive. And the most dangerous. I am writing a biography of a man I once knew. Still do actually, though he ‘crossed the Jordan’ in 1996. If I was to be honest with myself I have not been prepared for the emotional dislocation that has happened as I have pored over more than 1000 pieces of his personal correspondence with more than 1000 still to be read. As I read, and uncover the old photos, and otherwise immerse myself in his life I find myself forgetting he preceeds me by at least two generations. The children in the photos in the 1960s are now elderly folk, including some who are helping me with the research. The reverie into which I am lulled can become all too real and I catch myself truly forgetting he is dead. It’s with a jolt I tumble out of the wardrobe into my real world and rue that I can’t find my way back in. At least not by intent. There is a time traveller’s trick at play here: of walking with a young man through his letters only to discover he has grown old and long since died. The experience creates a repetitive mourning – and other emotions I am still trying to decipher. Something about regret as I look forward across whatever time I have left.
But the retro trip with this old friend happened in another way last week when my parents sent through some childhood letters and pictures, invoking cringe mixed with warmth. My early pictures at primary school often involved scenes of churches burning down. Today a psychologist would make something of that given my Dad was a pastor. But to a five year old, mixing the largest building in town with the most dramatic thing I could imagine was probably pretty normal. But on top of the pile that arrived in the mail was not a picture of an inflamed vestry but this sketch. I can smell the wax crayon and feel the coarse brown paper but can’t recall what story was in my head in 1967. Whoever he is, he looks pretty happy to be flying his broom in his green tunic and blue hat to a brightly lit house on a clear sunny day. My biography friend was on the cusp of retiring from forty years work in Peru when I put crayon to this paper and I would meet him a few years later for the first time. He would give me drawing lessons and laugh at our childish ways, for he was a big kid himself. If I gaze at the happy face long enough the three-ply of the wardrobe might dissolve into fir forest and I will find myself in another place and another time with amazing people. It’s a brilliant thing to look forward to.
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