I had been in Israel for more than four months. From the moment I set foot in the country, I had begun to feel that I had no idea who I really was…
Well, of course I knew! I had a clear picture of my childhood, growing up in the southern United States, training horses, teaching astronomy, and working toward a degree in physics. I had wanted to work in field theory and my sights were set on the University of Texas at Austin, home of John A. Wheeler and his school of gravitational theory.
My closest friend was now a graduate student there, and regaled me with stories of his internship at the observatory in the Davis Mountains. “Once, a madman with a shotgun broke into the observatory and opened fire at the 80-inch telescope mirror.” Apparently the mirror, despite its wounds, still retained enough surface area to reflect starlight into the waiting cameras. Starlight became time–photons had traveled for thousands of years across empty space, only to go “splat” on a photographic plate, and deliver a message from the distant past.
Story of my life.
Yes, I could remember all this; I knew it intimately. The trouble was: it was not my life story; it was not my past. It was as if it had all happened to someone else, and in its place was another past entirely. This one I knew just as intimately. Except that I could not remember it.
It swirled around in my mind, sometimes rising close enough to the surface that I could almost reach out and touch it. At other times, it would send out tantalizing hints, a random smell would trigger a flash of… what? An image, a momentary recognition of something, a glimmer of memory, just out of sight. Spices in the market in the Old City, the sound of an oud drifting from the back room of some Arab restaurant. I would stop to listen, momentarily transfixed, as the multi-colored crowds of Middle Eastern shoppers, tourists, and pilgrims parted to go around me. For those moments I was unreachable. I was home.
And then it would hit me: a sense of loss and desolation so overwhelming as to leave me speechless and sightless. Always the same pattern. Where was that “home” that I seemed to have lost so completely that no memory of it remained to me? And how had I come to lose it?
For lost it I very obviously had. But I did know where I had lost it. More to the point, I knew when I had lost it; I knew the exact date. That date would be the starting point of my quest for my vanished past, whose light still glimmered, like the light of long-dead stars, reflected by the wounded mirror of the present.
And are we not, all of us, in some way damaged mirrors? Are we not constantly engaged in focusing the light of thought—memories out of the depths of human experience—onto the photographic plate of each moment? The image captured in this instant is a snapshot of all eternity, subtly altered by our own brokenness. And who’s to say that the image formed by the damaged mirror is not a truer picture of the universe?