During lockdown, we all had to find ways to pass the time. For me it was Lego. I had dozens of old Lego sets, sitting untouched in large, dusty boxes in the garage. Even though these boxes had not been moved in years, the Lego inside them slowly fell apart, becoming a jumble of half-built Star Wars battleships, Lord of The Rings landscapes, and various Lego City buildings and vehicles. At the height of lockdown, when I felt my most tired and isolated, I opened these boxes and began the long, painful process of puzzling out how to reassemble everything. For most of these old sets, I had lost the instructions, so I would just have to guess where things went. I would sit on my floor, in a Zoom meeting with my microphone and camera off, with technicolour bricks sprawled out across my floor in front of me, the outflow of my fevered reconstruction process.
Eventually, when restrictions eased, I remember having dinner with my family and some friends. My dad told this story—one that I have heard him tell many times—about how he met my mother. They were both studying at medical school in Johannesburg, and after some kind of class, my dad lay down on the floor, his head on his lunchbox to take a nap. A short time later, my mum, realising she left something in that room, walked in and tripped over my sleeping father. There was something reverent about watching my dad reconstruct this story, the way he stumbled through his remembering. It reminded me of my long days spent rebuilding Lego, how he put his back together piece by piece and placed it back in the box. It’s hard to know how much of this story is true—it is unlikely that this moment was the relational turning point that my dad made it out to be, but I don’t think that’s the point. It’s a microcosm of their relationship, an idealised reflection of a moment that changed both their lives.
I think these kinds of memories are beautiful, the ones where we rebuild them over and over until doing so almost feels rote. One of my strongest memories is how I made my first friend in Australia; I ran up to him and said, ‘pirates hate ninjas,’ to which he responded, ‘I’m Indiana Jones.’ After that we both ran around the playground, me fighting pirates (because obviously, I was a ninja), and him shooting people and hunting for the holy grail. I’m not sure that this strategy would work quite as well nowadays and even if I somehow had the confidence to try it, I’m not certain I’d have quite as much success with that opening line. I don’t know why it’s so important to me that I hold onto this memory, but I find myself putting it back together whenever I feel it begin to fade. About seven years later I would crash tackle this friend into a desk, in what remains to this day, the only physical fight I have gotten into. I don’t even remember what the fight was about. Memories are funny like that.
I don’t know if this is a normal level of dread to be experiencing as an adult. I know that the past few years have been unprecedented, but I don’t get the sense that we are going back to precedented any time soon. I feel a little like I’m stumbling in the dark and, though I’m not sure if I’m supposed to duck or jump, I know something is coming. In amongst this confusion, I find myself cross-legged on the floor of my friend’s new apartment, opening our memories and beginning the process of reconstruction. We remembered the time we all went on schoolies, and one night, after we got pissed and everyone went to bed feeling woozy, two of us stayed up and wrote a song. I don’t think it was a good song. It was dripping with teen angst and full of lines that barely made sense, but at least rhymed. It didn’t really matter to us, the next night we screamed it out; ‘burn at both ends, with my best friends, because it’s all that we have left. It’s all that we have left.’ I still have a voice memo of it, my phone sitting on the floor, me smashing three chords on a loop and both of us stumbling over words we had just written. This kind of remembering is vulnerable in a way that I can’t fully explain. You don’t have instructions for how these memories should go back together, so you need to trust each other. You give someone else the power to fill the gaps where your memory feels lacking, a transplant of blocks from their Lego set to yours. Now, when you look back on that memory, a small part of them lives in it.
This kind of remembering feels counterintuitive. As someone who has struggled with anxiety for most of my life, I am used to my brain bludgeoning me with unwanted memories, so to sit down and actively relive the past goes against all of my impulses. Everyone’s experience with mental illness is different, but for me, this kind of slow-paced, active remembering helps (your mileage may vary). I remember standing in a car park and talking for well over an hour after I originally planned to leave, I remember crying while playing Dungeons and Dragons, and I remember forcing my friends to sit down and watch Bo Burnham’s Inside. I remember board game nights where we got distracted and just spent the whole time catching up. After just a couple of games, we realised that the board games were probably a farce and all we really wanted to do was spend time in each other’s company. These memories are now fresh, reassembled—however clumsily—and placed on display. My high school history teacher said that studying the past is more about understanding the future, and while I don’t think this has helped me really understand what is coming up, I feel slightly more confident that it won’t suck. It’s an exercise in telling the dark that it won’t last forever.
After all of this, I’m not certain that my Lego set looks like it did the first time. These memories are fluid, so despite my best efforts to plug the gaps in my fingers, I’m going to lose something. But I’m not sure I mind; some of these memories are painful or unpleasant, and the ability to go back to them and rebuild them all these years later can take the edge off those emotions. The fact that these memories break down gives you an excuse to revisit them, and in many cases allows you to approach your past from the perspective of your current self. When I was a kid, I used to build Lego because I thought the completed sets were cool, now it is the process of building that I am drawn to. In the end, I’m not even sure what to do with all this Lego, but I don’t really think that is the point.
Author: Duncan Butcher is a writer and musician currently studying Fine Arts (Creative Writing and Business) at QUT. He tends to write about what he knows, which usually means mental illness, wizards, or some combination thereof. Though he hopes to eventually publish an epic fantasy novel, he is having probably a little too much fun writing non-fiction at the moment.
Artist: Anastasia Notaras is an emerging artist based in Brisbane. She is currently in her third year of BFA in Drama at QUT. Her work has been published in ScratchThat Magazine and can be found on her Instagram @anastasianotaras. Her creative work is multidisciplinary as she delves into painting, collage, script writing and performance.