What ties all the disparate strands of your life together? When you look back upon all that you’ve loved, obsessed over, sought out, what do those things have in common? What were you longing for?
Take a bird’s-eye look at my life, for instance: from sitting upon hallowed grounds, whether the foot of the Little Buddha in Afghanistan or John Keats’s grave in Rome; from apprenticing myself to the craft of acting to rooting through archives of eighteenth-century performances of Hamlet; to walking through the lower site of ancient Delphi in the misty morning with only stray cats for company, what underlies these experiences? What have I been seeking, been longing for?
Not fame, certainly not fortune, and not sites to check off some bucket list. No, it’s been presence I long for–those moments of feeling stopped in time and yet swept into an all-time; of being, it seems, present to the past; of having a suddenly vastly expanded inner space, or, perhaps more accurately, of feeling a breaking down of the walls between interiority and exteriority.
Let me tell you about one of these times. It takes place when I’m in college, twenty years old, and is one of those so-called “momentous events” that my cognitive psych pals like to study, the events that stick in our minds because they’re coated (and coded) with rich detail. It haunts me so vividly, all these years later, because it is, I think, the first time I was conscious of such an experience of presence and was moved to actively seek them out, however I could, whatever it took, for the rest of my life.
After several weeks in the outskirts of London, studying The English Novel in its Environment, we were given a 10-day break. Ditched by my school chums, who decided to hang out with some blokes they’d just met, I decided to follow through on my own with our plan to check out Scotland.
Somewhere down in the vault I must have photos of this journey but I’m afraid you’ll just have to imagine me: clad in a pale-green Pringle men’s sweater that I’d just bought (oversized; it was 1985) atop peg-legged stonewashed jeans and white Keds sneakers. I carried a backpack with clean underwear, white t-shirts, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but otherwise needed little for my adventure.
From Edinburgh I headed west on a somewhat arbitrary circuit of Scotland, taking the next train or bus in the station, looking for a room when I arrived in a town. I’ve never traveled so lightly. Oban, Mull, Inverness, Perth (for reasons that escape me) and back to Edinburgh. Glasgow I was scared of; in 2005 I would spend a glorious semester teaching there and cluck at my former self.
Oban is the port city where you board the ferry for the Isle of Mull. On the boat I was visited by a flock of seagulls. They swooped so near, their fat oil-slicked bellies close enough to touch, their wings beating hard against the wind. Have I always loved seagulls or was it this moment that I became entranced? (Note to self: ask your mother. As a child you did have a Jonathan Livingston Seagull t-shirt that you wore to shreds.) You see, they seemed to be calling to me. They seemed to be saying, We see you, we know you’re traveling alone, you’re all right.
And that afternoon as I explored Mull it was as if I saw myself from the seagulls’ point of view while simultaneously feeling a part of all. As if I saw through two different sets of eyes at once. Probably I didn’t speak a word to anyone–my silence not a desire for monasticism but a consequence of shyness and reserve. I walked around a castle–it was for sale, I remember, which struck me as odd–and drank a cup of tea on its lawn.
That experience never returned during the rest of my little jaunt around Scotland, however much I longed for it to. It’s remained a Wordsworthian “spot of time,” a charged moment in the history of my imagination that can be conjured up for inspiration and that returns unbidden, from time to time…
Especially when I see seagulls.