December 09, 2009

Be Here Now

I often wonder how many people in their sixties or seventies have had this experience: you awake one morning and realize that forty years went by in the blink of an eye. You can barely remember them; it all seems like one big blur. What stands out is the suddenness of this passage of time. One day you were a young adult, and the next day (seemingly) you are a Senior Citizen. What in the world? you ask yourself. Where was I all that time?

As Proust told us, the past can only be recaptured kinesthetically, as a somatic memory that is largely fragmentary in nature. Much of this is intertwined with desire. But since desire pursues a “moving target,” so to speak, our personal history seems like an illusion, or even a hallucination. It is for this reason that the fantasy of wanting to return to an earlier point in our lives and “do it over again,” but with our present adult consciousness intact, is a common one–the subject of a number of films, in fact.

All this has led me to think of how I might avoid repeating this feeling that I wasn’t present for most of my life. Proust’s solution to this conundrum was what he called “intermittence”–submission to the “great turning wheel of experience.” It has an obvious affinity with the Buddhist concept of awareness. But it poses certain problems. First, how can I get myself to be aware of my experience as I am having it? It seems more likely that I shall forget to remember. Second, even if I were to become successful at doing this, there is no guarantee that on my deathbed, I won’t experience the past twenty or thirty years, once again, as a blur that went by like a speeding train. Either way, life will have passed me by.

Recently, motivated by some odd form of nostalgia, I searched the Internet for my first love, the girl I dated during my sophomore year in college. Much to my surprise, I found her: she was a successful architect, living in a small town in Virginia. Ironically enough, I had worked in that very town for several years; she and I probably passed each other on the street, or sat in the same cafés together without realizing it. The picture that came up on the screen, of a woman in her early sixties, confronted me with a parallel universe, as it were: had things “worked out,” this person could have been my life. Not that I had any regrets, or sadly missed that alternative possibility; but that she had floated out of my life, only to reappear as a virtual image forty-five years later, was a weird sensation. I thought of writing her, but finally decided against it. What did we really have to say to one another, after all this time? That relationship was someone else’s life.

Truth be told, I have found my “actual” life to be not very different from my dream life. I recall one dream I had when I was thirty...I was taking a bus to a different city, ostensibly to begin a new life, and, having gotten on the bus, discovered that my luggage was sitting out on the curb. I told the driver I needed to get it before we took off, but he told me that as this was a Sunday, the rule (for some strange reason) was that I had to travel without it or not at all. While I was trying to decide what to do, I looked just behind the area where the bus driver was sitting, and noticed a large circular badge or button, made out of metal, on which the words were written, in Spanish, “Doctor of Bone Medicine Aboard.” (This was particularly odd, because at that point in my life, I knew practically no Spanish.) I told the bus driver I would stay on the bus, and leave my baggage behind; whereupon he started the engine, and the bus left the station.

When I awoke, I had the feeling that the message in Spanish was related to a then-popular tune by Simon and Garfunkel, which goes like this:

Never hides your broken bones
And I don't know why
You want to try
It's plain to see you're on your own.
Oo-ee, spare your heart
Everything put together
Sooner or later falls apart.

One thing that I felt the dream was telling me was that in order to undertake a journey of freedom, of unfolding consciousness, I had to leave my emotional “baggage” behind. The second message seemed equally clear: nobody could heal me but myself; I was the “Doctor of Bone Medicine” accompanying myself on this journey. I would mend my broken bones, and I would not use “peraphernalia” (gimmicks or substitute satisfactions) to do it. And finally, the notion that life was fleeting, impermanent. We want things to last, but they don’t.

Some years later, I ran across a poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez that seemed to echo this existential reality:

I am not I.
I am this one
who walks beside me, without my seeing him
whom I sometimes see
and whom at other times I forget
who is quiet, serene, when I talk
who forgives me, gently, when I hate
who walks where I am not
who will remain standing, when I die.

Perhaps this is the “intermittence” that Proust was referring to; I’m not sure.

In any case, I find myself thinking about death a lot these days, and wondering what that will be like. Since I don’t believe in an afterlife, I imagine it as a letting go into nothingness–not a pleasant prospect. The Zen idea of being fully present in every experience doesn’t have much attraction for me, in this case, and I always admired the total honesty and simplicity of Zen master Shunryu Suzuki’s last words: “I don’t want to die.” When all is said and done, none of us escapes the human condition.

Last words, of course, say a lot about the person who utters them. “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life,” said Wittgenstein, as he slipped out of consciousness and into the Great Void. I can’t imagine I’ll enjoy the same peace of mind. My guess is it will be more like, “You mean, this is it?” All those fragments–the girl I dated in college and found decades later on the Net, the dream about the “Bone Doctor,” the time I was seven years old and sat on the beach at Lake Ontario, playing in the sand with a pail and shovel–what, finally, did it all mean? Quite obviously, there is no forcing things to make sense: either they do or they don’t, and there is no guarantee that they will.

I recall, in 1973, visiting Prague (I was living in London at the time), and being politely accosted, in English, by an elderly Czech gentleman sitting on a bench on a street just off Wenceslas Square. He was wearing a suit, overcoat, and hat, and explained to me that he often hung out in the touristy sections of the city so that he might get a chance to practice his foreign language skills–French, Russian, German, English. His name–I remember it to this day–was Jan Horna, and there was something very dignified about him, very self-contained. We chatted for about half an hour, after which I asked him if I might take his photograph. He agreed, on condition that I write down his address and send him a copy of the photo; which I subsequently did. The picture captured him exactly, sitting on the bench with a look that was both wistful and questioning. I assume he is long gone by now, buried in some cemetery in Prague. I think about him from time to time, and wonder how the rest of his life turned out.

©Morris Berman, 2009