Boxes by Rob Young

It is one of those strange things in life, a wish which seems absolutely weird and, to some, a little arrogant but is said and thought only with the best intentions: welcome to a world outside the box. I don’t believe I am twisting your words in any way, or that I have taken them out of context, but I came out of my little-world box several decades ago, and discovered that there is an alternate universe out there, filled with fascinating things besides the daily nine-to-five grind or, perhaps even better, despite it. It is as if, to quote Lucretius:

When the vaults of heaven meet our sight,
Infinite worlds above, ether with stars alight

We live in different prisons today, compared with those of a few hundred or even just sixty years ago, but are still trapped to a certain extent, still slaves to a routine we have either sought out ourselves, or been forced by work, by society, by circumstances beyond our control, to accept. Not that the majority of people cannot live with their choices, or their lot, but now and then someone does step out of the line, take a look to left and right, and discover that there is more to their existence than what they’ve experienced so far, many more possibilities and opportunities which need to be explored to the full. Some go back into the line, thinking that what they have seen is too overwhelming, to intimidating for their nervous constitutions. And some take a further step, then another one, until they have left the ever-moving, monotonous line of a dreary life behind them, and begun to follow a new road. I’m probably overplaying it all a touch, sometimes we simply leave the line without realising it, through an interest in something different or the influence of another, and then look up from what we are doing and it is all simply there.

I think it is the realisation that you can change things, that you can branch out from the normal and explore, which makes life so worthwhile and exciting. Or, if not the realisation, then at least the knowledge that the chance is there, and if we do not take it someone else will, and we will watch them living our life. Can you imagine what it would have been like for the secluded Emily Dickinson, living her weary life in the second storey of her father’s house, if she had not penned that simple line to Thomas Wentworth Higginson on 16 April 1862:

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?

It must have been a great leap for the young woman who, often plagued by illnesses, was already thirty-two before she trusted her poetical works to an outsider. A time when writing, when poetry and literature from the hand of a woman was still rare. Her box was, of course, the house in Amherst where she was born, grew up and, finally, died at the young age of fifty-five, and she never really left this isolated existence in any other form than through her written words; through letters and poetry. Strange poetry, admittedly, not to everyone’s taste, but out of the line, out of the box, a different path through life countless others have never experienced. But her enclosing walls were also created and held together by society and the mores of her times. We, today, I am pleased to say, do not have the same restrictions as she must have been accustomed to then. Our world has changed drastically, for the better I would hope, but still has its walls, its enclosures, its restrictions, even if many of these are in the mind of those who do not want to glance left and right from the straight and narrow line of their preordained lives. I am sure even these people have dreams:

I come and see you a great many times every day, though I don’t bring my body with me, so perhaps you don’t know I’m there

even if they are not brave enough to live them to the full. You can possibly tell that I am on an Emily Dickinson run at the moment, but that will change quickly enough: I received a copy of her letters in the post on Monday, and so all is fresh in my mind as I write.

Still talking about personal boxes, which is probably going to be the theme running through this entire letter, I have come across many people who are interested in, if not demanding, a chance to step outside their own personal boxes and learn something new about the world. They are looking, I am told and I read for myself, for people who are interesting, educated, capable of writing long letters, and not just one or two before giving up, and who have a wealth of experience in the world. Providing that person is not older than, say, seventeen, all is fine. I wrote to a few of them; I don’t expect any replies.

My thing, if you wish to call it that, is writing letters, reading books and collecting old photographs. On the side I do a fair amount of travelling and, over the years, I’ve visited a fair few countries, lived for longer periods in some of them, and then returned to Europe enriched through these experiences. I have been living in Germany for several decades – or, better, based here since I have travelled out so often – partially because it is fairly central in Europe, and partially because I was clearly told as a youth that Germany was the last place anyone would want to live. Yes, I am old enough to have gone through an educational system where the Second World War was not just an historical theme, but a fresh and living memory of several of my teachers, and especially of those who were of the right age, but had never been called up or otherwise involved. These same educationalists had an exceptionally condescending attitude towards the French, and it was this country I visited first – at the age of fourteen – to gather my own experiences. I had been to France before, on family camping trips, but you know what such excursions are like: we’re from this nation visiting a foreign country, so we’ll go where other people from our own nation are just to feel at home and so that we don’t need to mix with the locals. Such were my camping trips – although we did have red table wine for lunch a few times, because we were in France and that’s what the French do – a home from home, just in a tent somewhere else.

Travelling alone to France at the tender age of fourteen was an experience: sleeping rough, often in the stairwell of the car park next to the Gare du Nord; exploring the seamy side of the city; revelling in the antique shops and art galleries when I could no longer afford to visit the museums, of I wanted to eat for the rest of my planned visit; being astounded that, despite everything I had been taught, these French people really were remarkably similar to everyone I knew back at home, just with a different language.

How great a change the slightest motion brings

as Marcus Manilius tells us, and I agree with this thought in more ways than one, as you can undoubtedly tell from what I have written so far. I daresay his thought is as close to the idea we have that when a butterfly flutters its wings in the Amazon, we feel the results here in Europe at some stage. I suspect there are many other versions of the same idea, some of which might not be suitable for polite company, but I’m sure you know exactly what I mean!

This personal alienation from that which is different, that which is unknown, has been bothersome to my mind for many years. When I first came out to Germany, long before I decided to remain here, I asked colleagues who had been here three or more years what the town we were in had to offer. Theatre trips and the cinema were out of the question at that stage, as with not deciding to live here, I had also not made any effort to learn the language. That isn’t quite true: I had wanted to learn German and signed myself up for the basic and intermediate German courses at my school, but was refused permission to join the class by the French teacher, who happened to be head of languages. I’ve always wanted to go back and thank him for his foresight, in German, but the chance has never arisen. Returning: I discovered that none of the people I was working with, no matter how long they had lived in the town, had the slightest idea what was in the town itself. I wanted to eat in a German restaurant, preferably one with at least a slight recommendation from someone else, and instead I discovered just how strong the walls on these individual boxes were. Three years in a large town and you don’t know which shops and restaurants are on the High Street? As a certain high-ranking American politician would undoubtedly comment on his Twitter feed: Sad!

So ants amidst their sable-coloured band
Greet one another, and inquire perchance
The road each follows, and the prize in hand.

Not that I would necessarily want to follow the road Alighieri Dante laid out for mankind in his greatest work, but this one hits the mark, I think. We seek our own experiences, but need the aid of others who have been there first in order to take that first step into the unknown. Once we’ve taken that first step, the rest of the world is open to us, should we decide to venture further. On the day I discovered that my colleagues had no notion of their surroundings, I put on my best jacket and trousers, and ventured out into the wild unknown, to uncover the delights of a small German restaurant where I learned, as one of my very first real German words – apart from Bier, or Ja and Nein – when the waitress brought me a handful of diced onion to show what was optional for the meal I had chosen. And by far the greatest surprise I had that evening was that the restaurant closed at ten. Having travelled to so many countries where opening hours tended to be a touch longer – British pub times excluded – having my plate cleared away before I had quite finished, although I had paused for a moment and laid down my knife and fork, was an eye-opener.

So, having come this far and out of pure interest: how do you intend breaking out of the box you fell yourself confined within? Will your escape be limited to the occasional letter to someone in a foreign land, or did you have bigger plans before your mind’s eye? Perhaps sailing around the world singlehandedly? I would have suggested climbing Kilimanjaro, which I have heard has a marvellous view from the top, but you do need to climb up the mountain side first. Judging by the way our society is going at the moment, it won’t be all that long before there is a lift and you can ride up comfortably, send a postcard to all your friends and relations back down at sea level, and then ride comfortably down once more. The photographs of a fitness studio in the United States with two escalators leading to the main entrance from the car park are not faked. No, a postcard is too much to ask: send a status update on Facebook and a few selfies for Instagram and it will almost be as if all your friends are there with you. At least, they will have that impression, be jealous of your adventurousness and, ten seconds later, have moved on to the next interesting subject. The famous fifteen minutes of fame (Andy Warhol), which dropped down to nine minutes at some stage, has become the memory, or attention span, of a goldfish, which is not very long at all.

The sad thing is that experience brings things with it that you don’t necessarily want to know, which ruin an impression or a belief. I, for example, was devastated when the Smithsonian Magazine, back in April 2014, claimed that Andy Warhol probably never said anything about fifteen minutes of fame, and that it could have been one of two or three other less famous people who coined the famous phrase; although fame is relative, they could easily be famous within their own circles, within their own social boxes. Sometimes experience in the world is good and breaks all barriers, sometimes you wish that a few of the walls, at least a small, sheltering wall, still remained. Or, perhaps, just a little box that you can creep back into when coming out of the big box, the box of your former secluded, sheltered, everything-as-it-should-be life is too much to handle.

There are only two boxes which remain important in my life: the boxes my books are delivered in; the post-box I slip my letters into at the end of the day. Do we need more than that to make life wonderful and worth living?