A little while ago, I had a dream.
I was sitting in a classroom: ink-stained desks, rubberdust floors, light streaming through the high windows like memories. A dozen of us sat there in rows. Each of us had a sheet of paper on our desks. Our task was to draw a symbol in the centre; an original emblem, a sort of totem that was our soul-image. The others were hunched, and the sound of their scribbles hissed past me like wind as I sat at the back of the classroom with my sheet of paper staring up at me, white as teeth.
One by one, the others filed up to see the teacher. Delicately, they would hand over their creations. He would bring his hands together slowly, and the sound from inside them would be like cornflakes crunching. Then he would open his hands, magician-like, and they would be empty. The images were gone.
The line dwindled. I had made no progress. Panic made my fingers bristle and my fists close like hedgehogs. I felt a clean, empty terror. I watched as those whose images had been destroyed were handed rolls of new paper, printed in lines with the totems they had drawn. They had suffered death, and been reborn. But what sort of annihilation lay in wait for a boy with no image?
I struggle with my sense of identity. Sometimes I feel like a small moon, being torn to pieces by the gravity of a jostling host of planets. Sometimes my brain feels squeezed up against the inside of my head, it’s so full of other people. Sometimes I worry that if all those people went away, there’d be nothing but an emptiness at the centre. If I found myself in that initiation ceremony now, what would I draw?
If you know me, you might be familiar with my tendency towards long walks on the downs (a wide, green space that stretches up toward the Avon gorge in Bristol). Once a week or so, maybe after a period of mysterious sullenness, I’ll jump up: “I’m heading to the downs!”, I’ll say, “I need to get some air”. It would perhaps be more accurate to say something like:
“There has been a disruption in my psychic energy – I must return to the source”
Because while it’s true that I’ll often push on to the gorge and look down at the muddy river, or over at the suspension bridge with its tarpaulin bonnets, half hidden in the mist, it’s not the gorge or the bridge or the trees that pull me up Whiteladies Road – it’s the water tower.
All grey and rain-stained concrete, it’s like a cloud that got too heavy for the sky. It has a great, ponderous head, like the cranium of some interplanetary vessel, but the bulk of the spacecraft is buried underground, where it lies hopelessly intertwined with the roots of the trees that half conceal it. There it stands, tied to the world that it fell to, muddled in a protective embrace that keeps it from ever going home.
And it’s beautiful. It’s invincible! It’s weird, and it’s hulking, and it’s heavy, but there’s nothing violent about it. It doesn’t scar the landscape; it draws it up around itself, like a blanket, and I go there to listen to it sleep.
This blog has been like the blank paper in my dream for a year or so now. Right from the beginning the water tower has crouched, sleeping at the top there. I worried and I worried about what I should write, I thought and I thought, I moaned and complained. It turns out that all I needed to do was to listen. If I ever find myself in that classroom again, I’ll know what to draw.