I’ve posted before on sacred geography—the idea that a place is holy for some reason or other. That holiness is very personal, and although some locations seem to draw national, or even international, veneration, special places are intensely individualized. Edinburgh is one of those places for me. I haven’t been here for 21 years, after a stint as a post-graduate that lasted for three years and three months. Walking into Edinburgh from Waverley Station yesterday was overwhelming. Of course, it helped that the sun was shining (somewhat a rarity in these latitudes) and that my daughter was seeing it for the first time. Edinburgh is one of the truly beautiful cities of the world, but in my case, it is also invested with my personal history here. Once I called this city home.
Wandering about, noticing the changes—Edinburgh has always drawn tourists during the summer—it was clear from the many languages and accents that people from all over the world were exploring the main touristed areas: the Royal Mile, Greyfriars Bobby, Princes Street Gardens-for me the experience seemed to run deeper. They will leave, I hope, with only positive memories of this mystical town, for a fair bit of medieval magic still hovers about it. For those of us who experience Edinburgh as sacred, however, there is good and bad mixed. I not only laughed here, but I cried, I worried, I was frustrated, sad, elated, depressed. I poured myself into a life here that I knew was ephemeral, temporary, destined to pass in the short hours that define one’s young adulthood. How could I have ever left? How can I ever leave again?
Away from the tourists, we wandered back to the places we used to live. How is it even possible, I wondered, staring up at the windows of our old flat, that I was ever bored there? Even the sacred, with constant exposure, becomes profane, I guess. And it requires an absence—perhaps two decades is far too long—to bring it back into focus. I am bursting open here. Some tourists are, I’m sure, busy falling in love with Edinburgh for the first time. For me, it is returning to an old friend. Twenty years of being heartlessly bounced about from job to job make the place I was born seem far less inviting than the streets and alleys that inspired Harry Potter and Waverley. This is the Nunc dimittis of my soul at this very moment. It comes to mind, Faust-like, whenever one enters paradise, knowing it will last for a few moments only.