Beautiful light-reflective bubbles. I am up to my elbows in fairy liquid rainbows – washing-up the pots in the deep stainless-steel campsite sink. 52 years ago, in 1968, I stood in exactly the same spot engaged in just the same routine.
Things tend to change slowly on a farm. Back in the late 1960’s the toilet and shower block with a utility area at either end was a ramshackle lean-to attached to a cow byre full of the steamy restless sounds of milking cows. Proctor Stead used to be a working farm. The farmer earned a few extra quid – beer money really, from tents and caravans camped in a small adjoining field. Little by little things changed so that now the cattle byre has no cattle in it at all. It has become the campsite rubbish and recycling area. In fact there are no animals anymore on the farm. It seems that the most productive crop for a Northumberland farmer is a field full of caravans and tents!
The basic footprint of the utility block has remained the same as it was over 50 years ago. My recollection was that the utility area with two washing-up sinks was covered by a Perspex canopy and the wall above the sink lined with a sheet of stainless steel, burnished so that it reflected – almost like a mirror.
It is strange how some moments in life stand out as if they somehow escape time. I have a clear recollection of looking up from the task of washing-up on this spot in 1968 and looking up at my 20-year-old face. Staring back down into the bowl of suds I began to think: how it would be if I was to look up again and see my face as a 70-year-old face would look. An intense leap of imagination can create something close to an hallucination.
I have returned to this same campsite for a week or two for most of the intervening 53 years and that moment stays with me as if it escaped time. Today there is no longer a magic mirror – just a blank breeze-block wall.
I mooch around in the soapy suds and wonder:
Did they bricked over the stainless steel magic mirror?
What if it was still there?
Would I want to look up and have the reverse experience and see my 20-year-old face staring back?
We often talk about a leap of imagination. There is something youthful, lithe and sprightly in the creative imagination. Reminiscence is curiously different; more the older man’s preoccupation. Right now the reminiscence feels so heavy that I can’t seem to lift my head up. I remain looking down instead: into the Oracle of the Soapsuds.
It is as if another urgent question elbows aside my heavy concerns:
“Why isn’t then now?”
A lightness fills my being as the Oracle of the soap-suds quietly answer:
In that leap of my 20 year old imagination 50 odd years went by in the brief space of time that it took me to lift my head. But that is precisely how quickly those years have now gone by – while at the same those years have etched lines and wrinkles into the contours of my face.
52 years is an arc of time that can sometimes be the set of brackets that includes the opening and closing of an entire lifetime. But 52 years is an eye-blink of geological time. The rugged granite hard landscape of Whin Sill that I run over every day is a reminder of that bigger time-line.
My 52 years is a trajectory- an arc of time: It has a start: me looking into a mirror of 52 years ago in the same spot. It also has an end point: me in the same spot staring down now into the Oracle of the soap suds. From out of such beginnings, middles and ends we build narratives. What enables a human life such self reflection freedom is a locus, a centre for the narrative structure: a sense of “I” that is so important to human beings.
In the intervening 52 years life has delivered ups, downs, highs and lows, bliss and devastation. Things change in a life because life is existentially imperfect. In an ongoing way Life perfects itself through such joys and sorrows and leaves their traces in the face. Look. Change is manifest, controvertible: Where 52 years ago there was dark glossy brown hair there is now wispy white hair. Where the skin was once springy and elastic, it is now saggy.
So…How could “then be now” in the stark face of such manifest change?
There is something behind the mask, something beneath the persona and beneath a sense of ‘I”, of self identity and narrative story webs. That crucial something is not present in these fictional webs.
A presence was there in the mirror 52 years ago but it was unrecognised by that young face.
Same spot on the globe, same routine every day activity. That presence has never changed. The key difference now is its recognition. When I set out this morning with a pile of pots in the washing-up bowl in hand I had an intention. This particular intention had no place in my 20-year-old psyche. The intention was to presence the activities of carrying the bowl, of walking, of reaching in the action of washing-up the breakfast pots. It is a particular tricky challenge to maintain that level of attention. Things, like for example, reminiscence get in the way. I forget. All around there are always oracles – reminders. They do not have to be at Delphi or in soap sud rainbows. They are anywhere and everywhere: By definition presence is ever present. Frequently I lose attention and turn my face away from presence but presence never leaves. Presence never changes and it never ages.
After I put away the pots I took out my notebook and made a note to myself: to spend more time with nimble loops of the imagination and less time with reminiscence!