I thought about roles in guardianship, companionship, and just generally hanging around on the outer edge of consciousness making accidents not happen. [How do we survive? Think about it. Life is dangerous even if – especially if, statistically – we stay at home.] I like a world in which there’s more than just a prosaically visible reality, and sometimes that means, er, showing up. Or not showing up, exactly. Being there. Wearing the sheet. Breathing the wind. Occasional thunderbolts as an expression of emotional release.
But that’s too easy. Solving problems from inside the problem is always the real challenge; to be a participant observer rather than some kind of ex-machina uncredited assistant. There’s a parallel universe in which I went that way, and yes, I had a lot of fun until I was challenged to try it for myself, but in the world on my screen right now, I chose a quiet, uneventful life inside the walls of a sunlit hill town in what we now call southern France.
Weren’t you going to say something about Brexit? I was content. Nothing happened. I was never bored, because boredom hadn’t been invented back then, and I lived a life that I accepted as my due (to the extent that I thought about it: like so many of us in those times, I avoided the religious debates while taking a deity for granted). I was married to the second daughter of my patron, and the achievements of that life were two children, girl and boy, both safely married by the time I died, a widow left financially secure, and twelve carved faces high up in the soft stone of the cathedral that my daughter lived to see completed.
They’re gone now, those faces, worn away by time and the elements, but there were descendants from that life, and they prosper. Have to tell you, though, that I came away from that deathbed unfulfilled: a habit of caution so often builds to an avoidance of life. I spent time outside thereafter, handling the serendipities of everyday life for a group of artists, and then I began a period of decades in which I shadowed a similar life to the one I had so recently lived: he was one of the artists, but a follower not a leader. You’ll know his works, if you’ve studied the art of the period.
Come on, what about Trump? And when that was over, we talked. A completed life, however long and however fulfilled, is only ever part of a greater whole, we agreed. This meant, we told each other, that working together would bring us more quickly to … we both hesitated; he said “enlightenment”; we both smiled. For our own amusement, we conducted our conversations in the library of a not-yet-ancient university, where we were taken to be scholars by those who could see us. Laughter would have been out of place; smiling it had to be. Life, so-called life, is an opportunity to engage as well as to experience, we agreed; its meaning is outside itself.
In time, we went back into life as believers, heretics in each other’s eyes, on opposite sides of an argument about the specifics of belief. My town, my beloved walled town to which I had returned, burned around me. We were unaware of our true selves, of course, because true experience requires prior ignorance, and in the end, his was the signature, his the seal, that gave me over to the fire. I waited for him at his end, and after a moment of fear that purged that life's lingering enmity between us, he laughed at last, at the loss of constraint, and I laughed with him. We had found our way to “enlightenment”.
What is this post going to do to your brand image as a writer of predictable but sometimes amusing blog posts on Brexit, Trump, gender issues and all the rest? But we had started a new cycle now, twisted around each other like two helices, and we both realised that this could not be an end. We were born again, died, were born again. We hated each other, loved, loved again. In time, the balance between us defined what we were: partners, brothers, twin souls, one. We – I – wrote it all down. The manuscript, rolled tight in a jar in the old way, properly sealed, awaits discovery. It is the seed of another cycle.
Okay, that’ll do for today’s post. I did have something insightful to say – promise – about Brexit, or maybe it was Trump, but on the evidence of what I’ve written so far, I’m really not in the mood. Read the opening passages of John Irving’s A Prayer For Owen Meany (1989). Pick up the tone of the narrator’s comments about Reagan and the Contras, and apply that to whatever’s in today’s headlines.
And I never have. Not for publication, anyway. I worked out for myself that giant, mutant wasps can only be deployed at the start of articles about giant, mutant wasps – there’s such a thing as too arresting – and learned also that if you just let an opening sentence take you where it wants to go, you’ll end up with something far more interesting than if you’d stuck to your first idea. You can always go back and edit, after all. But if the spontaneities aren’t written down as they occur, they’re lost.
Reading the wall. “Never take notes,” said a friend of mine, and I ignored that. “Always carry a notebook,” said another, and I try to do that. My notes tend to be phrases, sometimes sentences and very occasionally paragraphs, but when they take the form of things I have to do – I’ve noticed that the things I’ve written down are the things I’m least likely to do. They’re illegible, a lot of the time, and when they aren’t – well, they’re safely on the list, so I can stop worrying about them.
Yes, I do possess a waterproof notebook, and yes, I have made a note to put it within reach of the shower. When I find it again. Yes, the best ideas invariably turn up just after I’ve applied a generous helping of shampoo, but one of the disguised gifts of aging is a pre-occupation with mental function – and holding onto a phrase (sentence, paragraph) for the time it takes to reach a flat surface and a writing implement can feel like a real achievement. Yay! I’m still alive. Now, where are my reading glasses?
Yes, I know. Technology. Gets in the way, doesn’t it? What? Oh, sorry. Like so many people, you’re younger than me. Or perhaps, less stubbornly set in your ways? But you’re right, of course: technology’s wonderful. If it standardises our responses, well, okay. Idiosyncrasy is a small loss in a mechanistic society concerned only with what it can measure. Imagine Lewis Carroll trying to write his “nonsense poem” Jabberwocky (1872) with auto-correct – there is a spellchecked (and wholly, flatly nonsensical) version online, along with various analyses and explanations. We’re not going to let it just be its rhythmical, portentous self, oh no.
What we've lost. I’m of an age to be nostalgic about some of the old ways – although I wouldn’t want actually to use a typewriter again, I like to see all the images of typewriters and typewriter keyboards used online to suggest writing. Because it’s a grown-up activity with a history, perhaps; laptops edge into the category of modern things that advertise themselves by evoking directly what we’ve lost: airline seats in which people are sleeping soundly; new cars cruising along empty country roads; property developments named for the landscape feature that they’ve destroyed. Oh, and smartphones that bring people together.
Enough of this gloom. What I meant to say was, I’ve reached the third age: I was covetous of more bandwidth and a faster processor and the lifestyle advertised in connection with the latest silvery gadget; then I was grumpy in a whole range of mildly self-indulgent ways (feel free to boast about the performance of your self-driving car, if you can – ha!); now I think I’m preserving not-yet-ancient skills like handwriting, note-taking – and come to think of it, writing a blog post to express an idea rather than as a vehicle for whatever’s the latest incarnation of SEO.
Do we still talk about SEO? I’m finding new ways to be old-fashioned. My local tablet-mending shop has a Commodore 64 in the window – I had one of those; used to play Elite – and next to it a PDA – there was a game on mine that involved lining up coloured blobs. No wonder the birds are angry to have lost that one. Memo to self: when you get wheeled off to a nursing home, take lots of graph paper so you can teach the nurses to play the pre-tech version of Battleships. Or, if their minds are too evolved to grasp that, you can challenge your contemporaries.