On Time Capsules

9 May 2016

My uncle built me a bookshelf for my fifth birthday. Huon pine with miniature toadstool carvings, it towered above me and spanned the entire bedroom wall. My grandmother filled it for me, everything from The Fairy Realm to The Chrysalids; Rodda and Wyndham perched beside one another, unlikely neighbours. Each manuscript contained a different persona for me to take on, another place for me to live, a new voyage to undertake. It was perhaps for this reason that at five years old, 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 and stared up at the rows of miniature worlds that had been collated for me, running my little fingers up and down their spines.

Now, with eighteen years under my belt, I sit at the base of the same bookshelf, running my fingers up and down the same spines – cracked now. Pristine pages have become dog-eared and wrinkled, ripped out and floated like paper ships down lonely rivers. Like sand trapped between fallen leaves, parts of myself have been captured within these books; severed and chronicled for me to return to later. The adventures held between the covers are no longer just the ones written out in print, but also the ones I took them on – where flicking through To Kill A Mockingbird would once have taken me on a journey to Boo Radley’s front door, now it has become a way to be ten years old again, traipsing through the streets with the cover proudly facing outwards; my first grown-up book. So my suffocating sentimentality justifies my hoarding tendencies and no matter how entirely ruined a book becomes, it remains, like a boarded up old house in my city of volumes, refusing demolition.

Reaching up amongst the rain-swollen memories, I pull down Strike Sparks, riffle through the pages and suddenly I am thirteen, hiding under the covers in the sweltering midsummer heat. Crickets chirp outside my room as I skim through the obscenity of the outlawed book. I pick out The Handmaid’s Tale and I am seventeen, swaying seasick in a train carriage, the Austrian countryside flickering by like the pages of a flipbook. With The Secret History, it’s July of 2012 and 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.

It is without a doubt then, that this is why I grew into a writer: I had always been engaged in storytelling in some way or another – when I was seven and my sister was five, we would sit together 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 behind. We’d fly above lush green 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. My sister and I would glide home just in time to hear mum calling us for dinner.

But one must truly understand the Written Word if they are ever to become an author and in spite of my overactive imagination, it was only after years of insatiable reading that I realized I wanted to write – that I wanted to build the time capsule for someone else to fill with memories. Of course, in the beginning, my creations weren’t so much “books” but rather half empty wads of paper that I had stapled together in an overly 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. Finally, I was producing something that contained more depth than a scribbled depiction of a purple horse and simultaneously, without meaning to, creating another vessel within which I could capture myself.

French novelist Anaïs Nin once said “we write to taste life twice”, and for me, that was true. Writing became a new way for me to document my existence – some kind of reservoir of past selves I had killed off; eleven-year-old girls in stripy knee socks, fourteen-year-old girls with black hair and dark eyeliner. The plot holes and the shoddy writing didn’t matter. What was important was that these were material manifestations of all the personas I tried on through the years; these were my diary entries.

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 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 what it signifies, the person I was when I read or wrote it. When I imagine myself gnarled and grey, I am always tucked away in a rickety old house, sitting in a velvety armchair surrounded by rows upon rows of heavy books; a museum of my past, 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.

Covered in sunspots and wrinkles with a coffee stained copy of The Little Prince sitting open on my lap, I will perch my wire framed reading glasses on the tip of my nose and I will be eight years old again; blonde hair and freckles bathing in a pool of sunlight. A field of yellow grass dancing around me, my fingers will be sticky with the juice of an overripe mango, the air pulsating with midsummer heat. I will stretch my brown legs out before me and lay back, staring up at my section of electric blue sky. A string of orange flesh clinging to my cheek, I will be eight years old again. The feeling will never go away.


Image Credit: Stewart Butterfield via Flickr.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *