One Day You Will Say – “Yes, I Was There”

Notes on the Sunday address by Dr Francis Macnab, December 14, 2014
John Abbate

“The place around us, in this city, can be a place of great inspiration, though it can be a place of violence and fear.”

– Dr Francis Macnab

Howard Arkley Australia 1951-1999. Family home Suburban exterior 1993 synthetic polymer paint on canvas

This is an unusual address for Dr Macnab, loose in structure, and free of practical advice. By means of story, anecdote, poetry and metaphor, Dr Macnab treats us to his thoughts on the human relationship to place, and to the flow of time.

For better or worse, the places of our lives shape us as individuals. There are some places of the past that we recall with affection, nostalgic for the people and events that expanded our world and that gave us meaning and identity.  Other places, no less formative, we would rather forget.

Dr Macnab makes the observation that we exist in various places at once, in reality, in imagination, in memory and in dreams. Our unconscious mind has the power to keep us moored in the past, in a place we would not consciously revisit, where fear and trauma, perhaps long buried, can manifest in the present as anxiety and any number of nervous symptoms and physical ailments.

One of the key messages of this address (so eloquently conveyed by the Wheelis quote below),  lies in the knowledge that, while our particular experiences of place can affect us very deeply, it is not a one way street. It is just as important to consider that we have the ability to leave our own deep impressions, to change and hopefully to enrich the places we come to occupy, for ourselves, for the people around us, and for those yet to come.

Another prominent theme concerns the relative permanence or impermanence of place. While we sometimes have the illusion of being fixed in one place, the flow of the river (of time) carries us on. An old house in a familiar neighbourhood, perhaps a family home rich with history, can disappear overnight, replaced by a parking lot, an apartment block, or a vacant paddock.

I will end these “Notes” with just a few select quotes by Dr Macnab and the authors referenced in by him in this address.

“So briefly do we raise our heads, so quick sink back. For a moment we are lifted by a wave of time, are tossed up into the sunlight of consciousness… We cannot see so far as where this wave began, but maybe we have waited some thousand years for it to come, and now it is on us. This is our moment, the wave is breaking. The crest which passes through us now in tumult was shaped by the past, and we in this moment are able to shape the crest which is to come.”

—Allen Wheelis

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.

—Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

“We carry from our different places the memory, the experiences, perhaps the trauma and the tales, and we say (if someone will listen), ‘I was there.’”

—Dr Francis Macnab

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