In Vol. 1 of In Search of Lost Time, Proust describes "the shapes of things" unfolding sensually within
consciousness when he tastes a cookie dipped in tea. The "petite madeleine" awakens first fleeting sensations. When he places the impression of the taste of the cookie before his "mind's eye", he feels something start to rise, "like an anchor at a great depth". He hears the "echo of great spaces traversed." Describing the mind's resistance to revealing the source of those evocations, he illuminates our human tendency - or neurosis - to "brood painlessly" over "the worries of to-day" and his "hopes for to-morrow". Descending into in memory's abyss, he is an archetypal hero entering the deep waters. Maybe those waters are the river Styx, a crossing to Hades, or a lake, superior and deep. He has the sensation of leaning down over that abyss in order to overcome the cowardice "that deters us from every difficult task". He delays sipping his tea, and the "little scallop-shell of pastry" becomes his entry point into mind. He describes the cookie:
(...) so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness
The past, he writes, "so long abandoned and put out of mind" here lives and breathes in the sensations that are themselves like "souls remembering." The sensual world bears within it a "vast structure of recollection".
In my room, I sit at an antique desk used by my mother's. It echos images of her in the basement writing on an old typewriter. My mind's eye witnesses her in her purple bathrobe, her thesis on psychology half-written towering in a pile of manuscript beside her. The scent of the desk evokes sensations of her body. To enter through those sensations is to enter into a depth, to jump through the waves of the brooding mind is a jump into an abyss of memory.
Standing here at the edge of my mother's desk, I am uncertain if I am abut to jump or someone or something is about to push me over. I feel like Proust as he enters into the abyss of the cookie. Entering the unknown itself is like a death, a discarding of a persona. To enter into the past and to encounter memory of death is in ways like passing to an Underworld, through waters. Am I prepared to swim in these depths? Have I enough training? Through the gateless gateway of sensory perceptions, the mementos of this desk invite me to jump into memory. The descent into the desk is a muddy water, the pathway entwined with weeds, and the digging smells of fecund earth. It is an earth that is surrounding me, and I feel safe.
I've adopted the desk as my own; I cherish its weight and history, the etches of its pen marks and nicked edges. In its drawers I have filled with objects archived from my own life: a crimson, twine bound catalogue from the Premchand Roychand Gallery from Bombay, "Masterpieces of the Musuem." Inside, as I flip through, I see myself reflected in the terracotta "Head of a Damsel", whom the catalogue suggests was probably the sculpture of a dancer. Her long nose curves to the side, large bow-like eyebrows lift, her head bends slightly to the left and a circular torque ties a band of curls. Below the catalogue is an envelope filled with postcards. From the Egon Schiele musuem in one of my favourite Czech cities, Cesky Krumlov, Edith Schiele, Egon's wife looks with her left eye wandering to the left, her right eye looking almost forward, her curly redish hair piled on top of her head. She has the look my mother did as I remember her at times, a face that met fatigue with innocence. A postcard from The Phillips Collection in DC displays Georgia O'Keefe's "Dark Red Leaves on White". The image evokes an entirely feminine feeling, the emergence of life represented in crimson water coloured autumn leaf, evoking the first moments of motherhood, but paradoxically in its autumnal evocation of death.
There are photographs here of a concrete bed I slept at in a Thai monastery, one covered in a soft blue mosquito net, a picture of a lover, and a letter never sent.
Below all these filled "School Day Treasures", a keepsake my mother archived, filled with records of the childhood dreams of my brother and me: graduation photos, school report cards, crayon sketches and pencil-printed stories.
Ruffling through the pre-kindergarten file, I find brightly coloured circle skating badges that awarded me for "touching toes", "gliding", "standing", and "snow plow stop". Chippewa Day Camp gave me the prestegious "Enthusiastic Participant and Successful Achiever of Chippewa's Water Safety and Nature Programs". I was qualified as an official "Polywog Swimmer" from Lakehead University, having passed the required tests and performing the following skills:
1. submerge and blow bubbles
2. open eyes
3. front float
4. front glide
5. back float
6. back glide
7. control of flutter board
8. water safety knowledge.
I could "submerge and blow bubbles", but the certificate warns: "THE HOLDER OF THIS CARD CANNOT SWIM."
Perhaps now, I am now learning to swim, learning to dive into the desk.
Every year, my mother asked us, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Every year, I said the same things: "Teacher", "Writer", "Artist", and in grade three, I added, "Actress". Apparently, in my grade two report card, Ms. Dance observed, "a flair for the dramatic." In grade four I was an excessive talker, which may come as a surprise to some people.
I like looking at the drawings I did, perhaps signs of things to come, things I enjoyed, or of which I simply dreamed. In the grade one file, there is a picture of me dressed in pink sitting in lotus underneath an apple tree with a mushroom cap on my head and my hands outstretched to catch the apples raining from the sky. Beside me in the foreground is a blue dog, probably our collie Dusty. She standing and wagging her zigzag tail before her bowl of food. Above me, a three fingered hand floats beside a bright red sun.
In other pictures I drew, there are birds: birds walking, birds dancing, birds flying. In one picture, there is a bird with an elephant's trunk. Or maybe she is an elephant with a bird's body. Perhaps I was myth-making.
One of my favourite memories amongst all these things stuffed in "The Treasury" was a story I wrote in kindergarten entitled, "The Book". It was by far the most the most lucid of all memories evoked in this digging through the desk. I remember imagining myself becoming the book in order to tell the story, and feeling all a book feels as the character of Susan removed from me from a shelf and threw me away. I felt quite viscerally my kindergarten self with red crayon in hand, colouring the blood of the book when it gets crushed by a garbage truck. This is the story:
I am a book. My friends are Mr. Diary and Mrs. Diary and Story Book. I live on Susan's shelf. One day Susan came and pikt (picked) me up and put me in the grbig (garbage). It smelled taradull (terrible). I paekt (peaked) out and saw a big thing. Someone pickt (picked) me up. The big thing sckwisht (squished) me up. All there is left of me is little bits and paes (pieces).
The tales of this book are to be continued ...