(Excerpted from my memoir, “The Flying Caterpillar”, ABQ Press, 2013)
As we get older and have more say in setting our own agendas, we may feel that we are not truly free to live our lives as we wish we could. Responsibilities, bosses who don’t appear to be interested in us as people, routines, habits, and a general numbness spreading in our psyches, can make our lives feel like a guided tour through some country we didn’t chose to visit. And it’s too late to go back to the travel agent and say, “I didn’t say ‘Gulag’, I said I wanted to go to Greece.”
However being in the middle of a life adventure of unknown duration has its advantages. Even if it’s not what we expected, it’s more real than obsessing over plans, which we may suspect aren’t likely to happen. Our present life is definitely more involving than being back where we started, like an unread book sitting on the shelf. Here we are, right now, drinking Italian red wine from the bottle, on the deck of a ferry that left earlier this evening from Brundisi, Italy, and which will sail all night to Patras, Greece. We’re in transit. As a metaphor for our lives, most of us probably aren’t in a screaming hurry to reach Patras, because in the passage of our lives, arriving at our destination means that our lives have come to an end.
In my writing, I seem to rely on what Henry James called the “Stream of Consciousness,” and it has worked best not to think about it until the moment I pick up a pen. About 6:15 a.m. each morning, I open my notebook, read a paragraph or two from the day before, and then, amazingly, the stream starts flowing again. And, like the boys in India and Pakistan, who follow the water buffaloes to collect their droppings for fuel, I follow this stream of consciousness around with my literary bucket.
It’s great pleasure to have one activity that isn’t tethered to my futile efforts to control the flow of time. Usually I rely on my plans so extensively that the question arises: do they actually weigh me down and prevent me from taking flight? If plans are like a spinal column then my plans protrude like the saw-tooth back of a Stegosaurus. I plan the month and the week ahead on lined legal sheets (and on New Year’s Day, I sometimes cast a net across the 12 months to come). I also have an engagement calendar with seven columns that I use to plan the current week in greater detail. Wait, there’s more. In a little spiral notebook, I write down my plans for each day in earnest, like someone who fears the unexpected knock of life at his door. Some of these daily entries are honest-to-goodness plans, some are reminders of things I don’t want to forget (11:30 A.M.–Dentist Apt), however others are neurotic boasts about what a full life I lead.
I’ve even caught myself writing down something that I’ve already done, then immediately ticking it off. For someone with so little interest in history, I sure am an eager chronicler of my own daily activities.
Spinal columns are useful, but the planning structures that I impose don’t always express the vision and intention that would make them vital and inspiring. My plans may have taken up residence in my head in some forgotten past. Some are reflexive gestures which insure that the same stuff continues day after day. Consistency, responsibility, and the energetic carrying out of the regular activities of our daily lives all seem like good things, but a problem arises when we not only do similar things every day but are on autopilot while we do them. If we can really notice the golden yoke of the egg, as it spills out of the cracked brown shell onto the sautéed red and green peppers, mingles with the mushrooms and shallots, then our journey for that new day is on a roll.
Perhaps our plans are like the trees in a forest, and if we get too caught up in their details, we lose the ability to see the whole purpose of life.
My impressive To-do-Lists don’t guarantee that a vision is present in my life. Yesterday will always try to recruit today, and this can become the story that will be told by all our tomorrows. Perhaps a better image than the role of a spinal column in a vertebrate body, for how our lives on Earth can be animated by a vision, is how a stream brings life to the land through which it flows. A stream is alive as it carries the past (rain falling on far-off mountains), through the present, toward the future (into that great ocean of unbounded possibilities); and we can either fight it or swim in it.
Our path into the future is the river of life, and time always leaves a place for us as the stream carries us along. Space grants us freedom to move because space is our constant companion, wherever we are. And we are always at home, because knowledge is always alive in our hearts.
This is my third book-length adventure in composition. I feel a bit sad that I seemed to have reached the end. I wonder what I am leaving behind. Am I losing a friend? Or have I merely reached a moment of completion, at which I should pause and acknowledge an enjoyable journey, before looking around for another?
When kids graduate, it’s probably the parents who feel, “Phew, we finally made it.” The kids are more likely to wonder, “Now what am I supposed to do?” I felt like a kid in my relationship to my morning ritual of writing, because it was the one thing in my life that was completely unpremeditated.
The past is a cold companion, like sleeping with a corpse, if we try to live there. The future is alive, but she will feel like a ghost if we try to commandeer her unbounded energy in a prenuptial agreement. There is life in all of time, in both past and future, if we just jump on board for the ride.
That seems to be my task now: to find a way of being open to whatever comes next. For the moment, my paddle is racked across the gunnels and drops of clear lake water glint in the sunlight as they fall back into the lake. My canoe is still gliding gently forward, and I am breathing in the scent of the pine trees on the far shore.
(Happy New Year everyone!)