A dry sponge has a limit to how much liquid it can hold, after which point it oozes out more than it soaks up thus rendering it, effectively, no longer worthy of its name: sponge. That moment, just before the hand instinctively forms a fist around the porous thing (is it even an object?) to relieve it of its liquid burden, is the apex for a sponge, the height of its reason for being. For it to have a place of use once again within and amidst everyday activity — for it to have purpose rather than exist as an impending chore — the sponge must be relieved of its contents, even just a little bit will do the trick. Last Monday night I reached this point of saturation wherein the extreme degree of porosity with which I started out on this journey just a year earlier — at which point, I felt literally squeezed dry having purged myself of every last word and interesting idea, and thus desperate to see and be taken in by the world again — was no longer discernable. The moment came when I found myself standing in a churchyard cemetery in Framingham Earl in front of the modest, neatly engraved headstone of W.G. Sebald.
There aren’t many people I know who could comprehend why this piece of the journey was vital. I’m not even sure I fully understand why I found my way there, why not completing this leg of what has been an extended pilgrimage of and for the dead was not an option. Nearly breathless after sprinting the last hundred or so yards of the mile-long stretch of gravely, dusty pavement that connected Loddon Road with the smaller country road on which St. Andrews sits, I stood still, somewhat bewildered and fully spent. That is to say that breath and words had escaped my person simultaneously, leaving me effectively paralyzed. How did I get there?
… is what I wondered, first to myself and then with a friend via short bursts of tweet-like direct messages through Twitter. Too quickly did I fall, willingly, into a life without obligations — or at least somewhat free from the daily urgencies that demand attention and care. It was early into this walk back into living that I thought about Sebald, particularly fitting as I had just completed an intense reading study of his works. How did he walk, I started to wonder. Aimlessly? With a small pack? A satchel like the titular character in Austerlitz? Was his pace brisk or studied? How far could he move without being overcome by the weight of what he saw and the scenes he passed? Did he enter into every church that crossed his path? Take notice of every stranger? Make a note of each plastic wrapped bale of hay or abandoned carriage along the side of the road? What did he make of things? What must the rest of us, all too willing to overlook or not see at all, actively notice with sharper focus?
A man, whose words caused me to sit up straight the very first time I read them, whose life had come to an end much too soon and not too far from where I was standing, had been placed at rest in the earth beneath my feet. To say the feeling was strange would be an inadequate description at best. So I will turn to Sebald, himself, who so aptly notes in The Emigrants: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.” He offers witness to devastating events in history by bringing forward their everydayness, their connective tissue that dissolves the gap of time between then and now, placing us — the readers, the audience — squarely in the midst of the action. It is in this way that a walk transformed into a narrated history of post-industrial devastation and isolation, or how portraits of eccentric characters and their seemingly ordinary concerns — polishing boots, a caretaker preparing meals, parents wishing their children well before a long journey — are in fact tightly woven layers of narrative that hold in them some of the cruelest moments in human history. With patience, Sebald braids together words into prose that unfolds in the form of stories that linger just long enough to be grasped, albeit temporarily, before dissipating once again and thus allowing the unfathomable nature of the lives of others to recede into our near distant memories. We are reminded by him, through his writing, about the passing of time: “The most disconcerting part of it, perhaps, is that life nonetheless always goes on, somehow or other.”
And so it was in Norwich, as it was in Kalpathi and Perinkulam, and Amsterdam and London, Nicosia and Paris — with each step a reminder of lives lived, too soon forgotten. And while ’tis true that I set out to seek a rebirth, a re-beginning, a chance to see anew, to reset some things, it was a walk across lands and back into and out of other times that I was taking. A pilgrimage in the footsteps of the dead, returning to the places of significance for those whose lives have left deep imprints in mine. This has been a walk around the world that has been animated with the stories of the once-alive.
That time has come. The flat’s been hoovered, the fridge cleaned out, last of the laundry finished, and bags zippered and ready for transport and I have settled into the sofa once more to compose a final London note. The hour is quite late but slumber is far from my mind, which is filled instead with a fondness for this town, this piece of land designated as nation for what it has allowed me to consider about home(s), belonging, and what we do between beginnings and endings. What stands to greet me upon my return is unimaginable heat and excruciating humidity, and a reminder that while we may carry the lessons with us, actual pilgrimages must come to an end. For the moment, anyway, this sojourner still has earthly commitments that need tending. Now, being fully saturated with stories, with experience, with words and images, the itch to craft and compose artifacts to put back in the world is slowly returning. And so, the slow squeeze begins…