with special thanks to SD1
I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood which these books arouse in a genuine collector”
Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library” Illuminations
I am not unpacking my library, but I am unpacking my past. I’m taking everything I left in the twelve boxes we packed two years ago and looking at it again and I see more of the life I left behind. There is no regret, no wish to forget, no reason to keep the boxes locked in storage. I do not expect to see anything from then as less or more important and I can only appreciate everything for what it is now, not what it was and not what it may be in a further two years.
Almost two years passed since I got married and left Korea before I had finished blinking, off to Ireland and then to England to study. I am unpacking what we left here. The panicked packing and shovelling of belongings into boxes and wrapping them repeatedly with wide tape went on over a long hot June day. We counted twelve relatively large boxes with a few other assortments that were collected together and gradually covered with the dust of the warehouse they sat in the corner of.
The boxes themselves were our lives, our belongings and our possessions, many of which we forgot about and had lay waiting for us to come back from Ireland to unpack and return them to their place in our home. There was plenty of stuff that was never meant to have been left behind that we waited anxiously to be reunited with. But when we peeled back the tape on the first box we unlocked an old forgotten eye into the past, a time capsule, hurriedly put together in anticipation of our return.
The feeling I had when I looked in the first box was strange. It was at first one of curiosity; I didn’t know what was in the box as I hadn’t a memory of what each box held, but I knew what I could expect and was excited at the prospect. Still I worried that what was left behind was still as we had left it and had not been damaged, just left waiting as if the world had not revolved one time.
Slowly all the boxes were unopened with therapeutic laughter and disbelief. Realising where we left so many things like a certain pair of shoes or a collection of photographs, even clothes and ornaments we were sure were left behind, all came out of the boxes with a sense of relief. Many of our things had come away safely.
These were moments frozen and intact as they had been left. But what significance did they hold now that they were all replaced? As we moved around we acquired newer clothes and shoes, different household ornaments and appliances, new photographs and books to cherish. This window on our past seemed as if it could be replaced and allowed to take a position more distant than previously.
Yes, it is true that time does this naturally with all possessions regardless of how important something might have been. We grow and we move on and we forget as we leave and replace the old with the new. Everyone does this. But here it was more pronounced, more vivid; the possessions of two entire lives had changed abruptly in a matter of moments. As our bags were packed we left so much behind that had been as much us as our skin and bone and we were left with nothing, only what our minds and hearts felt. We recreated ourselves over time; we repurchased the things we felt made us and came back with even more than before.
I have never lost everything in one instant. If I did I can imagine the violent effect this has, knowing that everything is gone and never to be replaced. All gone, but for the clothes on your back and only what is in your head and heart is left to help rebuild your life. We were luckier than that and can only hope that we are never left to such a fate. We can only look on this romantically and pretend that we were also banished to a world where the possessions we owned were only in the suitcases we took onto the aeroplane with us. But, if we were in such a position to lose everything, and I mean everything, and then found it again, I can’t imagine the emotion that would resurface perhaps as violently as when it came with that loss.
After rebuilding our lives we rediscovered everything that we had abandoned, and here is where the separation shows. By finding what was lost instantly after replacing everything all the value that has been placed on our possessions had to be reassessed. Looking at things from a sentimental point of view changed the importance of everything because we had taken particular care to keep these things that we had saved in Korea and collected in Ireland.
Comparing the two sets of things we took back and left here placed two different lives and time-scales in perspective, to the point that we could look at how our lives had existed separately from each other, one seemed to sit in a kind of limbo (well actually a pile of boxes in storage), the other seemed to revolve around the present with no hint of the past or the future ever playing a significant role. When they were reunited, everything seemed to return into its correct cycle. Or did it?
I can’t compare this experience of returning to Korea to what I’ve been saying because the change in our lives since we returned has been dramatic. I spoke with my wife and she said she felt some of these things but that we hadn’t been away long enough to really feel the difference. The method to my madness is coming from my previous experiences of returning to Ireland after being away for the first few years to find much as it had been when I left the first time.
In Korea, everything looks very much like it had been when we were last here. Most of my friends are still here, and all of my wife’s friends are still here. In Ireland, this was the case even more so as changes rarely happen quickly but still the years pass by, and every year that passes something happens that sticks in memories, or it alters the way people function. When I returned to Ireland and spent time with people and thought about this, I realised more and more that there is no time warp, there is no limbo in which you can escape from the present, because the present is always happening and will be waiting for you with all its twists and turns when you stick your head out from behind whatever rock it is you are hiding.
I am going to finish with a personal observation that for me is a clear example that quashes any notion that the world may stop when you’re not watching it. In Dunboyne, a small ‘town’ of less the than ten thousand people where I grew up and lived for over twenty years. Here many people know most of the people and most of the people know everybody else. I left in 2005 and came back twice in the next three years, once at Christmas for a few weeks and the second time for several months before I went to England to study. About a year ago I was sitting in Brady’s pub enjoying a pint of Guinness (here is one good thing that never seems to change), I saw many young faces and I scowled at the lack of law enforcement; surely these ‘kids’ can’t be over eighteen and shouldn’t be in Brady’s, send them over to O’Dwyer’s where that kind of stuff is more welcome. But the longer I sat frowning at them the more I started to frown at myself. Of course, these people were over, if not well over, eighteen, and had as much a right as I did to drink in any pub they liked.
I kicked myself for being such a snob, and I kicked myself when I realised that Ireland didn’t wait for me and it never will wait for me. Everything that happens now is finished and cannot be reversed. Running away from the clock in one country does not make it stop. Taking your eye away from it lets it run ahead of you and lets you lose the recognition that no matter where you are, the moments you thought could be frozen in time, will always be replaceable and can always lose their significance. Once something is the oldest it means that it has outlived those things that have died off; it doesn’t mean that it will always be the oldest and it certainly doesn’t mean that something may never be older. Time is one thing that cannot be stopped and I am going to use this as an incentive to not forget that everything that is happening will never happen again and that everything that will happen must be celebrated as an individual moment with no precedence given to memories. I suppose I could say that I am rebuilding my time capsule as something which I can always look back on, something I don’t have to travel half way around the world to realise, and something I don’t need to leave in storage.