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Archive for the ‘Memory’ Category

Place in Time

To feel nostalgia does not necessarily mean you want to turn away from the present or the future; it’s enough to feel that you can’t ever go back to a place where you were happy. Sometimes I think even happiness doesn’t matter, that even places where you were unhappy can call out to you, if enough time has passed. And by “place” I mean, of course, “time”.

I had been thinking about the apartment in Pagkrati, where I spent my first ten years here in Greece, how things seem to be changing so rapidly in Athens, and how my Athens seems suspended in time, now that I’m gone from it. Images come to me almost unbidden, most often moments spent in solitude: my first Christmas Eve, walking along an empty Stadiou Street, and going into one of the cinemas to see a film; walking from my apartment to the Panellinion cafe at the bottom of Mavromichali Street, determined to go in and play chess, but then merely standing outside for half an hour, too shy to go in alone with so many good players inside; deciding to watch the sun come up from Lycabettus one Easter morning.

And then, about two months ago, a message comes from J.:

Just walked past your old house. The ensuing wave of nostalgia has obliged me to take a seat in a nearby hostelry and order a large cloudy one in your honour.

I don’t drink so much ouzo any more; it’s connected in my mind with Athens and sitting around with J. Now it’s Cretan wines I prefer.

I get the sense that J. is getting ready to leave Greece and go back to England after 15 or so years. I’m sure he is already beginning to feel nostalgic for the place he is preparing to leave. And by “place” I mean, of course, “time”.

Over a week ago, I was travelling down a road I’ve come down so many times before, every summer, some Easters, even a Christmas, into the Peloponnese, down through Nemea, and the Argolid, and then Kynouria, the part of Arcadia that touches the sea. I thought about how many times I’d made this trip as a bachelor on the Athens-Leonidio bus, and now I was driving down with my wife in our car, taking our daughter along for her first time.

* * * * *

The wind is up, blowing in from the sea, as it does every day. Little E. sits in my lap, turning over a eucalyptus leaf in her hands, quietly babbling to herself. I give her sprigs of rosemary and lavender to play with too. She brings them to her lips, without putting them into her mouth. She doesn’t seem to have learned to smell deliberately yet. I take her tiny hands and sniff them, and find traces of the three scents on them. The wind ruffles her little curls. And I think to myself, I will forget this moment, all the details that give it vividness: the coolness of the sea breeze, the warmth of E.’s little body, her shoulders, the back of her neck as she looks down at the sprig. She is bombarded by sensations and colours and sounds, and she absorbs them all, so that she can one day learn that this is called a tree, that is an ant, and that other thing a chair, but she will not remember this moment in itself, because it is all just a drop in the torrent of impressions she experiences every minute of the day. But I who have become so jaded, and who in all my forty years have never sat here in this place with a warm little daughter in my arms, what excuse have I got?

I set about trying to preserve the moment. I mention it to N., I write it down, I even grab my video camera and start to record moments that I know I will forget: the leaves of the lemon tree, seen through the balcony railing, as they sway in the wind, a bee among the oleander, dried up bougainvillea petals tumbling down the road. A caique in the afternoon as a fisherman casts his net. Our beach towels hanging to dry on the railings. The chaise longue where sleep is sweetest. The sandals left outside the door. The sound of someone chopping vegetables in the kitchen, or of the little gas cooker being lit and a little spoon tapping the inside of the briki of coffee. A lemon and two oranges in a basket hanging from the latticed roof of the pergola, and the wasp that hovers near them. The spider webs in the rosemary bush.

When I return home, maybe I’ll edit the fragments of video and make a DVD that I can watch on television. Years from now I will watch it, or read these words, and be so removed from the sensations that I tried to capture, that I will be reading them, like you, for the first time, like something I never lived at all, and they will remind me not of this place where I sit now, but of some other place like it, a place like no other place I’ve ever actually been — and by ” place” I mean, of course, “time”.

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Allen: behind the mirror

Lately I’ve been thinking about Allen, my friend for 15 years before we lost touch. I’ve been thinking about much he changed over those 15 years, till he became something I could no longer relate to, and I’ve been thinking about how little I ever really knew him.

I met Allen in 1982, when we were both twelve. He was in my class in grade seven, which for me was the happiest year of all my public schooling. We both belonged to a small circle of friends, but I was better friends with a couple of other guys than I was with Allen. I don’t think he had very much patience for me; I probably struck him as a wide-eyed naive kid. He was more sophisticated than me. You could tell as soon as you saw him that he was different.

He was chubby and had longish hair. He wore a green jacket, much like an army jacket, somewhat in the mod style, and it had a greasy stain in one pocket where he’d put his pack of fish and chips. (They were still wrapped in newspaper in those days.) And he always wore t-shirts with the Beatles or the Sex Pistols or Marilyn Monroe or the cast of Leave It To Beaver on it. He was, as I’ve written elsewhere, precocious. He read adult literature and underground comics and wrote poetry and could speak intelligently about such things. That was the year Glenn Gould died. Gould had grown up just around the corner from our school, and when our teacher told us about him, he asked if any of us knew who he was. Only Allen did. He even had some of his records.

But he was odd, as well. He would wobble his one knee back and forth when he stood so that his whole body seemed to jiggle, and when he spoke, his sentences trailed off into a cross between an indolent mirthless laugh and a nervous mumble, even if there wasn’t anything even remotely funny in what he’d said. His vocabulary was advanced and often formal, especially with scatological humour. When asked about the grease stain on his jacket, he’d say it was a urine stain. He found proper words like “urine” and “excrement” much funnier than “piss” and “shit”, when most 12-year-olds didn’t even know what excrement was. It was as if by using these words he was deflating the dignity of the adult world and exposing the pathetic farcical nature that lay beneath the surface of it. I think he found the word “buttocks” the funniest word of all.

His strangeness could have an edge to it. The year before I met him, while he was still in grade six, he had belonged to the recorder club at school. (I still can’t picture Allen playing the recorder.) The club was supposed to perform for parents one night, and Allen didn’t want to. His teachers and his mother forced him to. So he got his revenge. When they were finished performing, he opened up his shirt and displayed a swastika that he had painted on the t-shirt underneath. His mother, understandably mortified, ran up and pulled him off the stage, trying also to pull the t-shirt off him.

Many of his friends were grown-ups. That doesn’t seem so strange now, but it did at the time, although I admired him for it, and liked the adults he knew. Allen was mature enough to hold interesting conversations with them, although I now suspect they were humouring him a little. The two friends that I’d met owned used bookshops, and one of these men, I later learned, was the son of one of Canada’s most famous poets.

The details escape me now, but gradually we became friends. In those years, I was a Beatles fan to the point of obsession, so when I saw the various Beatles t-shirts he wore I must have looked upon him as a kindred spirit. But as I said, that first year, we weren’t that close. I always felt he was mocking me a little. He was simply older than me in intellectual development.

I wanted to be a comic book artist at the time, and that was our first joint interest. He introduced me to good artists. Although I could draw quite well, it had never occurred to me to think of one artist as better than another. Allen collected artists though, not just superheroes. Through him I discovered the work of artists like Neil Adams, Frank Franzetta, Frank Miller, Robert Crumb, and Chester Brown (an Ontario artist whose self-published comics Allen collected). He read Zippy comics, Cerebus, Raw, The Freak Brothers. He had the Maus series in the original installments.

His record collection was interesting, too. If I try to remember randomly some of them, Miles Davis’s Round About Midnight comes to mind, or a couple of Richard and Mimi Farina records, or a red see-through record of Ginsberg reading “Howl” and other poems on the Fantasy label. He had a couple of Lenny Bruce records from the same label.

The first time I went to visit him at his house, I went to look at his comics, which he kept in mylar envelopes in acid-free boxes. (That was the first time I’d heard of acid-free paper, or even that normal paper had acid in it.) We sat around in his large spacious room and listened to music and talked while I also looked at the books on his shelves. His bed was just a mattress on the floor. He burned incense on a brick. He had a good stereo, too, and put on All Things Must Pass, an album I liked and wanted to get, although I never got round to hearing it again for another 23 years.

Some time towards the end of grade seven, I was riding the Queen Street streetcar with Allen and I — arbitrarily, it seems — decided to start collecting books like him. It seems strange to think that it was the object itself that drew me first, and not its content. (The desire to write came soon afterwards.) I announced the sudden decision to him and asked him to give me some recommendations to get me started. This was later in the day, leaning on a fence across the street from my house. I wrote down a list of authors he came up with on the spot: Kerouac, Burroughs, Orwell, Huxley, Joyce, Camus — a seemingly random selection of 20th century literature. And slowly I started spending my allowance on used books. And what’s strange, now that I think back on it, for a long time I would call him and tell him what I’d bought, reporting how my shelves were slowly filling up. It was as if I were an apprentice reporting to his master. Years later, when I was in university and my collection had long since surpassed his, whenever he’d come to my house, he’d casually look over my books, and if he saw something he hadn’t seen before, he’d take it out and leaf through it, often even asking, “When you did you get this?”

I must stress — and this is no exaggeration — that in those early years, Allen was my mentor, even though he was several months younger than me.

In grade eight (1983-1984), the small group of friends broke up a little in that we were in different classes. Only Allen was in my class, and this is how we became better friends. Grade eight was a very different year, at least for me. It was the beginning of a series of unhappy years at school. Peer pressure is always a problem when you’re a teenager, but I think those years, the Ralph Lauren years, were particularly conformist, not to mention expensive for our parents. (It’s no wonder that the image of Alex P. Keaton or the girls from Heathers come to mind as icons of that time.) For me those years were a tight-rope walk: I didn’t really want to be a part of it, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself; I wanted to belong and be popular, but I didn’t want to jump through hoops to be so. Allen did even less to belong, and paid for it dearly.

I don’t know why someone who never made any effort to belong should have suffered because his peers were not accepting him. Maybe something else was happening, which I never understood or even caught a glimpse of. At any rate, Allen became stranger and stranger as the year wore on. I don’t want to go into detail, but I’ll say that I was often embarrassed, sometimes even disgusted by his behaviour. One thing I will mention, which is not so strange, is that he refused to cut his hair. In the end I think he waited a year and a half before he got it cut. Although it wasn’t dirty, it just hung down. He could have tied it back or something, as so many men do now, but the way he did nothing with it made it seem like an act of rebellion, a deliberate act of negligence.

At this point, just as we were becoming better friends, I grew alienated from him, which no doubt must have made things worse.

In September 1984 we entered high school, which turned out to be a bigger, more intense version of the junior high school we’d just attended for two years. Whatever problems we’d had there also became bigger and more intense. I kept up my balancing act for the next couple of years, eventually leaving to go to another high school for the last two years when I could take it no more. Allen did not last even the first term of grade nine. He dropped out and refused to go back. His mother, a teacher, with whom he lived, was understanding and willing to wait till he found his way. His father, with whom he spent most weekends, had less patience and insisted he see a psychologist. He also wouldn’t let Allen watch Rumble Fish, one of his favourite films at the time, because he was convinced that it had encouraged him to be rebellious.

When the second term started Allen found his way. He enrolled in an alternative school with students who hadn’t fit into mainstream schools. It was at this time that we really began to be best friends; now that we weren’t in the same school together, no amount of strangeness on his part could embarrass me socially. The school he went to had a lot of interesting, eccentric and charismatic teachers and students, and I wanted very much to join him. My parents, however, wouldn’t let me because they didn’t trust it academically. In a few short years, a lot of the interesting characters who went to the school graduated or just left and it began to fill up with spoiled rich kids, probably because the school had become fashionable.

Allen cut his hair and started to dress differently, in a way more in tune with the times. (The way he dressed when he was twelve would become fashionable over a decade later.) In many ways, the people who had mocked him and found him odd two or three years earlier had caught up to him and could relate to him now. He became popular, started going to parties and clubs.

I had always kept a certain distance from everyone, seeing most of them only during school. But in 1987, the year I visited Greece, the year I found the Rimbaud pictures and my life changed, I withdrew completely from the circle on whose periphery I’d always been, and changed high schools. I never told Allen that he had to choose between me and the others, and never thought of things in those terms, but somehow he started to get tired of them too.

After 1987, something strange began to happen, although it took me some time to realise it.

I began to discover Greek music and literature and wanted to move to Greece. Allen shared these interests with me and also planned to move to Greece. I think he craved a feeling of rootedness, of tradition. Then he started to dress like me. The reason I didn’t notice this at first was because it was so gradual. For example, I remember looking at some photos of James Dean and thinking that I’d like an overcoat like the one he was wearing. We went down to the vintage clothing stores in Kensington Market and I found one that was a bit too big for me. Allen saw one and bought it too, even though he hadn’t been planning to. When we left, we put them on. My mother saw us coming up the street, dressed in these long black coats. “You look like a couple of pallbearers,” she said.

In the summer of 1988, Allen went to Greece too. Then, in September, when he got back, he transferred to the high school I had changed to, and it was only then, when someone pointed it out to me, that I realised he was becoming me. I didn’t dress unusually, but I did dress somewhat unlike people my age. I dressed like an older person then (nowadays I look younger than I really am), in a tweed jacket. And so did Allen. My mother, amused by all this, would often say, “If you shit purple, so will he.”

I suddenly got embarrassed by him at school again, and kept my distance from him for a while. I remember the day this girl I knew was commenting on all of this as we were walking down the hall. “I’ve created a monster,” I said as we turned the corner. Just then Allen was standing in front of me. I don’t know if he understood what I had been talking about.

He must have realised the transfer had not been a good idea, and soon he changed schools again. After that things were all right again. He slowly started at least to dress less like me.

Allen had been with me during those feverishly formative years between 1987 and 1990, during the Rimbaud fascination, the discovery of Greece and Greek culture, and he shared in all my enthusiasms. He took them on too. I had become the writer, not he. I was now introducing books to him. Slowly, our roles had reversed. I had become the mentor.

I wonder if my passions were too much for him. Something happened to him during those years. He lost something, his brilliance and his originality. A flame went out.

I graduated from high school with mediocre marks, but spent a year upgrading them, and just managed to get into university. Allen, who had always and effortlessly done well in school, also got admitted to university. We both started at the same time.

Whereas I flourished and enjoyed myself, Allen drifted with no sense of purpose and dropped out in the first term, early enough to get a partial refund from his tuition fees. He decided to try again the following year, 1991-1992, but the same thing happened, only more quickly. And that was the beginning of the end for him.

University had a powerful effect on me. It matured me intellectually. Allen and I were still best friends, listening to music together or watching films, but I couldn’t share what I was experiencing in university. He lost interest in books and could barely read any more. He’d start books and abandon them. He wasn’t interested in getting a good job; he worked in a teleresearch firm, and would save up enough money to float through periods of chosen unemployment. If I remember correctly, somewhere around 1992 or 1993 he went to Greece again. Although he never said so, I think he may have been disappointed somehow. His passion may have cooled, but he had nothing to replace it with, nothing to move on to. He still listened to Greek music, read Greek poetry, but somewhat half-heartedly.

He became lazy, without any direction or ambition or motivation. He’d sprawl out on the couch and watch TV all day. He got fatter. And he developed the annoying habit of yawning loudly at least once or twice a minute.

His mother sold their house around this time, and he had to move out. He rented a room from one of the adult friends he’d had back when he was twelve. Eventually, his mother agreed to let him move back in with her in her new house.

At some point in 1996 I found I couldn’t relate to him any more. I saw less and less of him. He depressed me and the yawning got on my nerves. In January 1997, on the night before I left to come to Greece, I called him to say goodbye. It had been weeks, perhaps even months, since we had last spoken.

I wrote to him when I got here, but he would barely respond. His letters were short notes written in block letters. When they stopped coming, I wrote to him and said that if he didn’t write to me as well, I doubted our friendship would be able to survive. (This was still two or three years before I went online, and I don’t think Allen has ever done so.) I decided that as his friend for all these years, I would be honest with him and tell him it was time he’d got his act together. His reply was brief:

DEAR TOM

I’M SORRY BUT I AM UNABLE TO RESPOND TO YOUR LETTER AT THIS TIME.

And that was it. He did actually try to write once more, a few months later, saying that he would now “BE ABLE” to write more often, though he didn’t explain why he was able to now, or what had prevented him before. The rest of the short letter was nothing more than brief notes about impersonal news and inconsequential information. The only thing I remember is his mentioning that John Fowles had recently visited Canada and was depressed by its lack of wildflowers.

I never heard from him again. I probably only wrote back once myself. In December 2000, when I returned to Canada for the first time since I’d left, I didn’t even call him. I didn’t have his mother’s new number. I ran into his younger brother one day and he told me nothing had changed: Allen just lay around on the couch “collecting static”. He gave me their number, and said, “You’ll probably have to leave a message first. He’s developed a habit of not answering. He just looks at the call display and waits to hear the message.” Hearing that put me off the idea completely. I visited again in 2003 and 2004, and still couldn’t call. By that time, too much time had passed.

Although Allen and I spent a lot of time together, we weren’t really close. We were the kind of friends who could sit around for long periods of time in silence, each doing his own thing, and I really enjoyed that. We were comfortable with that. But we never really confided in each other. As a result, I often wonder now, was something bothering him all those years? Something that had caused problems for him when he had dropped out and wouldn’t get his hair cut? I can only guess now. After all these years, Allen is a mystery to me.

* * * * *

Last year, I began exchanging emails with Paul, another friend from those early years in the eighties. We were reminiscing and I mentioned Allen. Paul started to tell me his view of Allen from the years 1987-1988, and how he had decided to keep his distance from Allen too.

A get-together at my house with A.S. and his girlfriend. Allen was so drunk, walking around my street in the middle of the night spinning his underwear over his head – that terrible naked appearance only a man can have – shirt on, socks on and nothing else.

Another time, it was New Year’s Eve. After this incident I wasn’t hanging around him much anymore. It felt like a dividing line for some reason. That could be because I am looking back at it. I have not thought about these things in years.

Anyway, it was a New Years party at Matt’s house and I invited Allen to it. I had just begun to hang out with a new group of people in the dramatic arts program, and was getting involved in that program more and more. Allen had this huge glass jug of either homemade wine or the very cheap stuff. The glass jug was huge. Like a jug from a hillbilly band…

Anyway, Allen was being his usual anti-social self and was drinking and spewing off things that I’m sure he thought were cryptic and Morrisonesque. They weren’t. I remember trying to get him involved in conversations – trying to get him talking to girls etc. At a certain point he became so loaded that he started pouring this cheap red wine over all of the girls’ heads. Not the boys. I found that strange at the time, but now I tend to think that he wasn’t so loaded that he couldn’t figure out that he would have gotten his ass kicked if he had. There were all different types of people at this party – dramies [i.e. people from the drama department], jocks, M.J. and all of her friends, older, big jocks.

He was stumbling around leaning on girls and trying to pour wine over their heads. They were all dressed up as well, seeing that it was New Years. He was wrecking their clothes. I look back on this and see that some of these kids had summer jobs and weekend jobs and bought their clothes – you know, worked for them. I think Matt kicked him out… but I can’t be sure of that. I am pretty sure that I got him home or he stayed at my place.

That was it, really. But I was trying to make a good impression and he fucked it up. People would ask me about it for months after. What’s wrong with your loser friend etc. I always felt a little sorry for Allen, but that was it for me. Allen had a way of really annoying the hell out of me. You know, pushing things too far. And after that – I may have hung around with him, but I was pretty much through.

Then the next year – we totally lost touch.

Did Allen experience any trauma in his childhood? I don’t want to speculate – maybe not. But if this whole double way of behaving and his ultimate 15-year couch-nap tells me that there is more going on than just a lazy poet.

I do think he had an aura of something different around him – but I really just think he was sick. And he never wrote anything from what I remember and he never really did anything. Never had girlfriends, etc. Just very sad. Very little living experience.

When I expressed amazement at how differently he acted around Paul, Paul wrote back:

It makes more sense in light of what has come to pass – that the real Allen was the drunk, incoherent, attention-seeking guy and maybe the fake Allen was the one you knew. Who the hell knows. See that was the last Allen I knew and then I hear what ends up happening to him and I am not at all surprised.

* * * * *

I met Allen twenty-five years ago. I last saw him ten or eleven years ago. In my mind, though, he lives in a place frozen in time, a place of arrested development. I want to break the silence, find his mother’s latest address and send a letter, or call, but it would be awkward. If I was in Toronto I’d be scared to see him. How has the past decade been to him? How obese will he be? How much will he have aged? If Allen had become nothing more than a reflection of those around him, what would I behold now? Would I recognise him at all?

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The Book of Faces

I had been planning a post about Facebook, and wrote some thoughts down, but then a few weeks ago, somebody I knew in high school posted nearly 200 photographs he’d taken of people in the halls and in classrooms, and a second post emerged. I’ve divided them up, because they represent two different ways of looking at it.

1.

I find the faces of people I knew when I was a child or a teenagers. Sometimes the person I knew is hiding behind behind the skin, peering out from the eyes. We are all approaching 40, and all, to varying degrees, showing the signs of age.

I wonder what they think when they see me. I’ve put on a little weight, which shows in my face more than anywhere else. There’s a freshness gone from my skin, but generally I don’t think I’ve aged much in the past twenty years. I look at pictures of myself back then, and I just seem thinner.

But there are some people there I can barely recognise. And it’s not because their present faces don’t conform with the faces that had been frozen in eternal youth in my mind. In most cases I can’t remember how they looked back then. The only moment of recognition is when when I see their names. The faces are strange, someone else, barely the shadow of who they once were.

And yet others remain very much as they were when I knew them, as if they have only changed their haircuts. I wonder why some have aged more quickly than others. Have they not treated themselves well, or even abused themselves? Has luck been not as kind to some? Too much stress and worry can make them look old and tired and can lead to being overweight.

Have some of us refused to age emotionally too? I still feel as I felt 20 years ago. (I feel more confident and less anxious than I did then, so perhaps I even feel younger. Only my body feels older, more sore in the morning when I get out of bed. And there’s a bit of grey in my hair.)

I began to imagine a real face book, a sort of atlas of a person’s life, built up over time, where you could turn the pages and see on each one how a person’s face progressed and aged and decayed. Before I got my digital camera, I planned to take one picture of myself every day, to record those changes, the fluctuations in weight, or how my skin grew dark or pale through the seasons. But I never did. Or at least not yet.

I think I’m more interested in seeing change after it has passed unnoticed, in being surprised by it. I want the process removed, with only the results to show. A.W.’s father, a photographer, had come up with the idea of having all the residents of a street stand out in the front of their houses as someone drove down and filmed them all. The idea was to put the film away and see how many people were still there ten or 20 years later.

2.

There are faces of those I haven’t even thought about in years, faces I’d forgotten until I saw them again, but they are different now. It can’t be a trick of memory because my memory hasn’t been exercising itself on them all these years. They’re younger and fresher and more alive. Why would I expect them to be otherwise? Did I expect them to be pictures of Dorian Gray? Did I expect their faces to grow older on film as mine has in reality, in life, since then? I must have. Why else would I be so surprised to see them now?

Or is it because I felt so much wearier and older then (I’m sure we all did) that I’m surprised to see what fresh children we actually were on the outside? I look as deep into the eyes as I can now for signs of the corruption I was so sure was eating us up inside, but it’s not there. Just sweet lovely youth.

If those faces could see us now, if those children could see the 40-year-olds we’ve become, would they also be fooled, see age and weariness in our faces and think them a reflection of our souls?

It occurs to me though that it was all in my head; I had projected that sense of corruption on others. They would all say to me now, “What are you talking about? You’ve got it all backwards. We always felt young and free and fresh.” It makes me sad. I want to go back and get it right, to open the windows of my poor misspent youth and let in the light and fresh air, the light that I later followed here and which has come to fill my life. My face is not among those I see, but if it was, I would apologise to it. For years I had blamed my youth and said it was black. But wasn’t my youth — it was me all along. I was green and didn’t know it. I don’t want to go back, but I want to give myself happier memories. I want to put myself in those pictures among all those faces I wish I had known better.

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Fear

When I was a young child I savoured the chill and pounding heart in that disorienting moment right after I woke and realised that whatever had been threatening me was nothing but a fading receding nightmare. I enjoyed describing it and trying to recreate the feeling for others, as if I were telling a ghost story.

My mother claims to have seen a possessed woman on Cephalonia in 1966 and to have witnessed her exorcism outside the church of St Gerasimos. My grandfather captured it all on 8mm film, despite warnings that he shouldn’t film it. Somehow the reel disappeared before he could return to Canada and develop it. My mother told other stories she’d heard about the saint, how during a drought on the island he’d put his hand on the ground to show people where to dig and find water, and how they dug a well there, and how a tree eventually grew next to it in the shape of a hand. (I don’t know how historically “accurate” this is; I was just a kid when she told me.) I loved stories of religious miracles — saints or the Virgin Mary appearing to people in their sleep with a message — because they were not only eerie but supposedly true. I would tell my friends about them, but I don’t think they were impressed.

Once I spent a weekend at my cousin’s house near Bass Lake just outside of Orillia Ontario, and across the country road they lived on was a provincial park. My cousin and I found an old abandoned farm house there and went looking around in it. I wanted to go upstairs, but I didn’t trust the staircase, and I wanted to check out the basement, but it was too dark. I was sure the house had a history, of the people who had lived their lives in those rooms where there was now nothing but dirty floors and peeling wallpaper. But nobody knew anything, or was very impressed by what we’d found. By the end of the weekend I’d created my own story and when I returned to Toronto I had an elaborate experience to relate to my friends, whom I swore to secrecy. It was about the ghost that I had seen there. (I was the oldest kid in the group, and could often persuade them to believe ridiculous things.)

There are dreams I vividly remember waking terrified from even though thirty years have passed since then. One of them was a black and white film of a goaltender on the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1930s or 40s. He was a figment of my imagination, but I can still remember his face. A distinctive feature of his appearance was that his oiled hair was parted in the middle. I had seen a lot of old footage of hockey games from that time on TV, and the film clip in my dream was full of realistic detail, down to the way the much skated-on ice seemed both black where it was smooth and white where the blades had scratched it.

The scene was very short. The goaltender was crouched in front of the net, poised behind his leather goalpads, right hand behind the square blocker holding the stick, his gloved left hand out to the side. The camera, my point of view, was right in front of him, near the blue line. Someone shot the puck at him, but weakly, so that it only dribbled towards him. Nevertheless, even though it probably would have petered out before it could go into the net, the goaltender feel dramatically on his side, stretching his goalpads flat along the ice. The crowds booed at this cheap display — they knew it had been an easy shot.

But something strange happened. The sound of crowds was slowed down and drawn out as if I were hearing thousands of cows lowing angrily. The sound terrified me and I woke up with my heart in my throat.

A lot of my night terrors were aural, and are almost impossible to describe. I have nothing but impressions, which I can remember only because they were recurrent. One of them is a fervent mental activity accompanied by an electric buzzing, the aural equivalent of TV snow. I was always partly awake during this. I seem to remember myself in bed experiencing it. (My mother told me once that I sometimes would wake up terrified of a fly I believed was somewhere in the room. I don’t know if there’s a connection between that and the buzzing.)

Another is of two voices perhaps arguing. Perhaps it was only one voice. I am not really aware of words being spoken, only of a certain tone of voice. Each “sentence” begins fairly normally, but increasing acquires an urgent hysterical tone of anger, over and over again, like someone trying to explain something, probably to me.

There was something trance-like about these terrors. My mother would come in and find me sitting up in bed, talking but not making sense. “Who am I?” she would ask me. At first the question would shock and embarrass me; I would laugh uncomfortably. “Who am I?” she would say again. The shock and embarrassment would gradually disappear as it dawned on my that I didn’t know the answer. “Who am I?” she would ask and I would become calmer and more serious. By the time I knew the answer, I was fully awake.

I enjoyed being afraid when I was young because there was always the moment when it turned out that the fear had been an illusion. I enjoyed the feeling of relief and safety that followed. I have lost that feeling. Fear is no longer something that visits my sleep and flees when I wake. It hovers over my bed and keeps me awake. It’s always before me, in the future, waiting and snickering, “Who are you?”

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A Handful of Rain

I’ve been thinking about the rain a lot lately. I’ve always liked it it. I like listening to it fall, especially when there’s a tree outside the window and you can hear it patter on the leaves. I know of no other sound I would rather go to sleep to. One of the things I miss about Canada is how it could sometimes rain for over 24 hours. You could go to sleep to it and in the middle of the night it would still be there when you woke up. It would still be there in the morning too. It was great if you didn’t have anywhere to go.

But I like walking in it without an umbrella. I bought a pair of good waterproof boots about a month ago. I like when the rain gets into my coat, yet not enough to reach the clothes underneath.

When I was a child the sound of somebody taking a shower would make me feel sleepy. There’s something womb-like about being in a room with all that water outside.

I love all those water scenes in Tarkovsky’s films, especially the one in Nostalghia when Gortchakov lies down on the bed in his hotel room and the rain begins to fall outside. You watch it stream down the decaying wall outside the window, collect on the sill, and spill onto the floor.

I think about how our children and grandchildren will value rain a great deal more than most of us do. N. and I are moving to Crete, which scientists predict will soon become a desert. Scientists have been predicting lately that all or most of the Mediterranean will become desert. It doesn’t surprise me, but it does sadden me. Greece is already a dry place, where vegetation seems to struggle to grow. But this struggle always seemed eternal to me. I wanted to think it would always be that way. I wanted it to stay eternal.

I went out for a short walk in the rain tonight. I wore a hat to keep my head dry. I only needed to go out and get a few things at a shop a couple of blocks away, but I wanted to keep walking for hours. I wanted to get drenched. I wanted to carry some of it home in my hands and put it on the table or on one of the bookshelves. I want to lie down and sleep with the window open and not care if the papers and notebooks on my desk get wet. I want to sleep for a long time to that sound and have my dream enter the room, like Gortchakov’s dog, which came and lay at the foot of his hotel bed. In my dream I am 17 or 18 again, walking along Queen Street again late on a Sunday night, in the rain, as far as the old Fox Theatre to see the poster behind the glass, with all the films that are playing that month. Behind the doors the lobby is empty and dark except for the weak yellowish light behind the snack bar. I am young still, with the illusion that I am old already, instead of old already, with illusion that I am still young. I walk back home, past the closed shops, each as dark as the lobby of the empty Fox Theatre, as dark as only memories and dreams are. I am impatient to be older, to start my real life, far from there, in a place where there is heart-breaking light on mountain and sea, and nothing my young mind could ever imagine as a desert.

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Hearing what we want to hear

In the beginning of The Conversation, a couple are walking around in a large square, and their conversation is being recorded by a surveillance team. The central character, played by Gene Hackman, hears the man say, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” He, like the viewers, is sure that the emphasis was on the word “kill” (which was probably how you read it), but at the end of the film, through a bit of cheating in the sound editing, we realise that what the man had really said was, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

The first time you see the film you aren’t sure if your memory isn’t playing tricks on you. Were you wrong in assuming that he said, “He’d kill us if he got the chance”, or did they re-record the words? (If you watch it on video or DVD, you go back and check, but the film was made in early seventies, before people could do such things.) You wonder if the context actually affects how you hear it. If so, who’s to say that the second time you’re hearing it correctly? The first time I saw it, it seemed like a subversive joke.

Not long after I met C. and fell in love with her, she decided for a number of reasons that we shouldn’t see each other any more. She could see where things were heading, even if I had not openly expressed my feelings for her yet, and the feelings were reciprocated to some extent. But things were complicated, for a number of reasons, some of which wouldn’t be apparent till years later. So she decided the best thing would be for us not to see each other, not even as friends. I was a very determined young man, and very much in love, and I was shattered by her decision. It made no sense. It was illogical. It simply could not be. Later that day, she agreed to see me again, to hear me out.

I poured my heart out to her, more than I’d ever done before. I was still an effusive teenager, and a lot of what I had to tell her wasn’t really relevant. I simply needed to open up and reveal myself and tell her I loved her.

When I had told her, she sat stunned. “But you don’t know me,” she said, and I asked her how that could be. She shrugged, and I could see that I had won. She took me into her arms and told me she could see more of me.

I clung to those words for months, even though I saw her very rarely for almost a year afterwards, while she finished her Master’s. I gave her the time and space she needed, or thought she needed, and I waited, remembering her words as if they had been a promise.

But then doubt began to set in, and one day it occurred to me that she might not actually have meant that she could see me more often, but that now that I had opened up and revealed so much of myself to her, I was more clearly visible to her. I can see more of you. It seemed like such a strange thing to say to somebody, and I began to think she can’t have meant either possibility. Surely a person would have phrased both sentiments differently. There might even have been a third meaning, which I could not determine. Had I ever understood her at all?

The more I thought about them, the more her words changed. I tried to remember the tone of her voice, the expression on her face. I searched for clues, but each time I revisited the scene, it would be a little different. And now, when I recall it, so many years later, the only things that present themselves when I try to remember are the couch she sat on across from my chair, the coffee table between us, the darkness outside the window, the framed print of Monet’s waterlilies on the wall. She and I are not there at all — just two manikins that would probably resemble us if I could see their faces, if their faces didn’t melt away every time I tried to look at them.

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Kinds of Forgetting (recalling memory)

I often wonder how a memory dies, how we forget something, more often than I wonder how we remember. What’s more, I’ve been considering lately if these two things are more closely related than they seem at first, that they’re not so mutually exclusive as we think they are.

There is one kind of forgetting that seems to be nothing more than misplaced information. We see a face and can’t remember the name, or pick up a telephone and can’t remember the number we want to call. This is simply a failure to remember. We know we have the information, it is somewhere in our mind, but we don’t know where in our mind. In a similar manner we lose things, or can’t find them. We know the object is still somewhere in our house, that it hasn’t disappeared or ceased to exist, even though we look everywhere for it.

There is another kind of forgetting: when we abandon a memory, do not keep it alive in our mind. This is temporary, because one day, perhaps even decades later, you remember it again, usually involuntarily. Once, for example, V. jokingly used a Greek expression that is often used with children, an expression I had not heard for many, many years, and as soon as I heard it, I realised that in the decades that had passed since I had last heard it, I had not even once thought about it. And yet, there it was, suddenly presenting itself, suddenly appearing, summoned before I myself knew it had been summoned.

(I find the experience of saying I have not thought of this at all in x years very strange, although I can’t quite explain why.)

I have a memory of walking down the hall of the apartment where we lived until I was two years old. I see the living room as I enter it. A small white television set is on the floor, a black and white football game on the screen. I think I remember my father lying on the floor with his head resting on the green couch. I remember another time, in the same apartment, being taken from my crib and being carried — probably by my mother, but perhaps by another woman — and being taken out into the hall, where a group of people are leaving. The light hurts my eyes. One woman has a sort of beehive hairdo and is wearing horn-rimmed glasses. I am the centre of attention, although I am grumpy and don’t want to be. I don’t know how much of this is accurate. I may be embellishing.

It once occurred to me that I was keeping these memories alive simply by thinking about them again, by bringing them to life again and again, by running these short films over and over again, and that I was actually remembering the last time I remembered them, the last time I’d brought up the images. Remembering may be like a relay, the passing of a baton: the initial memory may have died a long time ago. I cannot remember the event itself, as I did the first time I remembered it. I only remember the last few recreations of the memory, the last recall, and I don’t know how much the memory is embellished or how much it loses and becomes poorer as time goes by and I keep recalling.

There is yet a third kind of forgetting, similar to the second, where we stop thinking about something, where we forget that we ever knew something, but unlike the second kind, we never have any occasion to remember it again. The possibility of remembering remains forever unfulfilled.

This is the darkest oblivion, and I find it oddly frightening, I suppose because my mind cannot fathom it. How can I imagine something I have forgotten without also at least imagining that I have remembered it?

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