When I was cleaning out my room after grad school, all set to move to a different city with a new job and a new place, for the first time in three years, I moved the huge wooden dresser from its near-permanent place by the wall to clean behind it. The dresser was there, left from the previous tenant, and I had just kept it where it was. When I looked behind it, I saw something shiny wedged in the carpet and picked it up. It was a small silver colored pendant, intricately carved in the shape of a direwolf – the Stark crest from the Game of Thrones. I kept it in my small jewelry box instead of tossing it. Maybe the girl who lived there before me was a Game of Thrones fan. Maybe it was a gift to her from someone. Or perhaps this was from before her time even.
Every time someone lived there, the room was host to a story. And then someone came along, erased the previous story, and made one of their own. In two years, I had many sleepless nights there, many deep conversations, many evenings trying out and discarding outfits, many laughs and many sobs. And all the while I was writing my own story over the faded remains of the girl who lived there before. The room was a palimpsest. It had my characteristics, but others were buried there somewhere – like the direwolf pendant in the corner, or imaginably a tiny hole in the wall where someone had hung a portrait of their family, or traces of tape marks where someone had a Beatles poster up.
A palimpsest is a sort of slate or tablet on which the original writing has been removed to make room for new writing, but of which traces still remain. After my serendipitous find of the direwolf pendant, I realized that the world we live in has a lot of palimpsests. Someone had the job I have now, someone used the same subway seat I am sitting on now (yes, ass prints on train seats are also technically a palimpsest), someone was in the land my family and my species inhabit now. Thinking of our life and our surroundings as a palimpsest, gives us a perspective that we are neither unique nor alone in the things we experience, places we visit, jobs we do, or houses we buy. That checks hubris and builds compassion. Sometimes it is just fun – like to think someone used the same gym treadmill to reach their goals, someone walked on this same small alley humming to themselves as they ambled home. Maybe people who believe in rebirth actually believe in a metaphysical palimpsest – that we are born in a new life, but faint traces of the previous one still come with us, and we pay for our sins and get to redeem cashback on our good deeds.
Until recently, I didn’t think I could shrink all my quirky musings into one word. Then I read a fantastic book called The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, and that was when I learnt to describe them in 10 letters. I look up new words often as I come across them in my books, but I also forget them just as often. But this time, this word was something I already felt, remembered, and pondered about, and Schwab had just painted my feelings out for me – in one word.