When I went to register at the doctor a few weeks ago I had to, yet again, fill in various forms and record all of the past addresses I’ve lived in within the previous five years. Dutifully I filled in the form, retracing my steps, not forgetting to add the exact months and years of departures and arrivals. And as with all bureaucratic processes, this also was a tedious one.
The final result was not at all a representation of the many ghosts and shadows of previous lives that might still lurk, who knows, in all those corners where I’ve shed so many chapters in my life, I thought, as I looked at the list of addresses and dates lying lifeless and stagnant inked in black on white.
We live in an age where we are under constant surveillance, an era in which secrets seem hard to keep, a time in which our wanderings become trackable from leaving one doorway to crossing the next threshold, moving from one border to the next frontier. How many forgotten clues to our lives do we leave behind, how many lived-through secrets, are left behind those doors and windows and walls? I thought to myself. And just like that, caught inside the dull waiting room of the surgery, my mind started wandering.
Some red-tape filled episodes are more painful than others. One of the most harrowing bureaucratic experiences I’ve had to live through was applying for a British passport. Only people who have had to apply for citizenship to another country will understand the misery involved in achieving this.
After years of applying for visas and work permits, the last hurdle was about to be overcome. Every time one set foot outside the UK border had to be written down and attached to the application form. One A4 page was not enough. I had to keep documenting my travellings on another and produced more than one A4 page of all the times having trodden across the border. Tracking exits and entrances, recording all the time spent for the previous five years before the date of the application. No more than 450 days could have been spent outside the UK during those five years and no more than 90 days in the previous twelve months.
As a child, numbers scared me. They were unforgiving. So unlike words that were multi-dimensional and forgiving in their fluidity and hidden depths. And, yet again, the old fear took hold of me.
Nevertheless, I meticulously noted it all down. The inflexibility and mercilessness of the red-tape rigidity started tying me in knots: I started feeling guilty for traversing so much. Nonsensical thoughts kept on popping up in my head. Was all this movement and instability and fun illegal? Did I have too much of a good time too often? Was this too much freedom for the system to allow? And most importantly: will this offend the queen? And if I do get to swear my allegiance, will she accept? In my temporary insanity I could feel her sceptre coming down hard on my head, ousting me from her kingdom.
And finally, with a clenched jaw and sweaty palms, I calculated the amount of days I had not spent on the Isle. I just made it. By the skin of my teeth. I could see myself hanging onto the UK (such a little island in the vastness of the world map) like that sabre-tooth squirrel from Ice Age. I swear I stopped breathing during the whole ordeal. My yoga teacher would have been appalled. I felt breathless for days after.
If it wasn’t for my obsessive travel writing and scribblings in various diaries and all those boarding tickets lined up in a scrapbook (an endless factory belt of departures and destinations) I would’ve had a hard, if not impossible, time figuring out the dates and times of my processions during those carefree days of travelling whenever the opportunity arises. How people make out head or tail from all those entry stamps and visas haphazardly scattered on the pages of their passports, I don’t know. But stamped inside those passports lie your passage through life as if a microscopic time machine zoomed into the life lines mapped out on one’s palm. The border stamps swirled like tealeaves on the surface of the green pages of my South African passport. Dates and the names of countries brewing inside the waters of the past in all its haphazard splendour, rooting the future.
Years later, when I found a copy of my passport application form with all those journeys documented, every trip separated like a convoy of soldiers, arranged in straight lines and columns, labelled and dated, I didn’t recognise any of it at all. Could that have been the meandering pathways that I’ve taken? All of my crooked, roundabout routes hammered into some kind of order to gain bureaucratic approval.
How odd they looked. Not at all resembling the spontaneity of life, the frantic, messy scrawling of true experience in diaries and letters. Suddenly a part of my life was all straightened out and neatly contained for officials to pore over. Turned into an apt wasteland for an official, it lacked heart and soul. There was no truth in it.
But I imagined lining up all of those previous doorways and looking through their keyholes simultaneously. If we could do that each would hang inside each other like a multi-layered stage set. Every chapter of our lives set within a certain abode, opening up to reveal layer after layer of multi-dimensional scenes like interconnecting panels. Each threshold revealing the next, taking the eye on a journey into the theatre of our lives.
If one could indeed turn those glaring lists into multi-planed visions of the layered narrative of one’s existence, it would be a beautiful, concrete representation of our lives: a picture of an individual’s rites of passage; an ongoing opening and shutting of doors; an inward and outward journey.
The officials can, after all, only guess at what had taken place inside all those addresses, but you carry all your personal stories and the characters, pivotal to those scenes, within yourself. And how fortunate to be able to travel out through and sometimes back into all those doorways.
When my passport was delivered to my door I could feel normal breathing starting to tunnel through me again. I could kiss that courier’s feet and, as I watched him turn around and leave, (the prefrontal cortex of my brain temporarily deactivated) I wanted to call him back, to ask why this seemingly unimportant little book wasn’t delivered to me on a silver platter. Just in time I reminded myself that there are no frills attached to the way of the bureaucrat: only hard facts and figures. And so, as I watched the courier zoom down the road, I curtsied to the queen, closed the door behind me and locked my new passport in the safe. The bureaucratic system knew where I lived, they knew my new passport number and my national security number but they had no key to unlock the door to my heart and all the stories within stories I carried inside of me. My secrets were safe in me.