A pressing, distressing narrative this is not. It’s 1570 Spain, and I’m a missionary building a church in the middle of the forest. It’s 1960 southern United States and I’m a policeman shining the beam on a tree, and its leaves, as the sky shines bright with stars and people sing in the distance, a new music. The new music.
But really it’s just today, and I’m in a cab. I’m sleeping against the window. Drifting. Outside, people are walking about in suits and dresses, with laptop cases over their shoulder. Umbrellas ready just in case. And people are selling food along the asphalt, puffs of steam erupting when they open the lids of their devices. Typically, I’m with them, emerging from the underground into the light, then rising into the sky via a tower to watch it fade. I can see it all from where I live: the city, the mountains in the distance, the ocean beyond, the fault lines underneath us, the air currents that circulate above. All of it.
I lean on the window. Drift. It’s 1482 Japan, and I’m sitting on the ground. Sitting on the ground. Today is a time for tea, and under a tree, that’s what I have before me. My father is sitting next to me, pouring tea into cups as my mother walks towards us over a bridge. There is some story about the shogunate pinned to the tree, and it’s flapping above my head, where I can’t read it. Can’t imagine what it says. My father is talking to me about troubles, and war, a whole hundred years of war that is coming, as though he knows these things. As though he could possibly know.
My mother has crossed the bridge and is kneeling in her robes. I’ve never seen her like this.
“You have to be calm,” she says. “To close your eyes and to sleep in peace.”
“Otherwise what?” I ask her.
She is sipping tea. The note above my head is flapping. On the mountain in the distance rises a tower and from it glimmers a light that sweeps the horizon filled with villages and streams. Mother touches my knee, asks me to drink, and then she says: “Do you know what Zen is?”
On the other side of the bridge, the daimyo’s men are marshalling. They are trampling the ground. There are too many to cross the bridge, so they are wading into the stream as they come forwards.
“We have to go,” I tell Mother and Father, rising.
“No, sit down,” they tell me, as the shogun warriors approach. Swords are raised. Eyes glimmer.
“This is crazy!” I tell them, pushing back against the tree, as though it will save me and my parents too, maybe get me home, wherever that is. But then the soldiers are here, as my parents kneel. Swords rise. Swords rise all the time. But I’m not there. I was never there. So I drift, and that is all that I seem to do anymore.
The tire is flat. Exploded into bits of rubber on the grass, underneath the heat. I have a gun, a long barrel over my shoulder.
“This is rather startling,” says the woman in the jeep. I blink at the image of her, and shake my head of sleep. “We’ll be late for the banquet, and you’ll not have any stories about your catch to tell. What a shame. What a damned, terrible shame.”
“Emily,” I tell my wife, “why don’t you shut up?”
She smiles. “Because that wouldn’t do, not after you dragged me out here for your sport. So I’ll continue to talk, and you will continue to listen. We’re alone on this savannah, forty miles from anyone who can help us, and the last I knew of it, my husband has no idea how to change a tire.”
I look at the short grass of 1890 Nigeria, so fertile, so endless. So British. We own this land, I think to myself. It’s ours, and thus it can’t hurt us. But in the distance, something is moving in the grass. I catch a hint of it and turn towards it, but it stops. Every time I look away, it moves.
“Emily, bring me extra cartridges. Right now.”
“Oh don’t be so dramatic,” she says, reclining in her chair. The length of her beckons, and she knows this. “This is so tremendously romantic of you, my dear, that I fear I must dedicate an entire section of my journal to it.”
“There’s something in the grass.”
“Of course there is, my dear. There is always something in the grass.”
But it’s hot. I’m so hot and here I am, on the savannah, the rifle over my shoulder. I stare at a spot of taller grass, yellow and quiet but for the wind that makes a throne on it and feasts as music plays and the clown tumbles. The grass moves. The clown tumbles. Then the grass erupts, and a shape is hurtling towards us.
“Emily!” I cry, as I raise the gun. “Cartridges!”
The beast is fast. I never saw it coming, don’t know if it has been stalking us as we stalked it. I shake my head of the weariness, the hints of the dream.
Emily is next to me, breathless. “Here,” she says, putting bullets into my pocket. I take aim with the gun and fire. The savannah, this land that I own, hears me. I fire again and again, but the beast comes on.
“Oh God,” says Emily. “Oh God please let us survive this, in whatever fashion you deem. But let us be so that we may be better.”
But I don’t know what she means. What better is there than this, I wonder? I fire, and the savannah ravages itself with heat as the beast approaches. Then I’m out of bullets and turn to my wife. She’s pale, beautiful, determined. She urges me to drop the rifle – and then we run, streaking over the savannah. In the distance, there is a stand of trees, wide flat-topped acacia. A wind is sitting in their branches, lounging in a chariot with a broken wheel, the horses grazing on the leaves.
It’s too far, I tell myself, but I don’t say those words to Emily. I have a knife in my pocket. A knife and nothing more. Nothing else or less. I’m holding her hand as we run. But then I’m not next to her. I don’t know her. Never did. And I drift.
I’m awake. It’s a subjective term, but a real one. This is something we all do – awaken to the world in which we actually live. Outside, it’s raining. Thank God for umbrellas. Thanks the Lord that we have them, otherwise what would happen? Raindrops obscure the city through the window of the cab. The car lets me out at a tower, and I’m in the lobby. I’m soaked. I’m dry. I’m bleeding, and dead; I’m alive, but barely. And now I’ll go up, to the high place, and tomorrow… That’s just a thing, a notion that possibly I’ll do something wonderful tomorrow, with all the grandeur that I didn’t expend today, with the might and wonder I was ready to put forward today but somehow didn’t.
Somehow I just didn’t.
I shake my head.
The elevator takes me up. And I drift.
I’m sitting on a hammock in the shade of a column. It’s risen as high as it will need to go, but others are being erected. I can hear the work being done on them. I can feel dust in the air.
Next to me, Father is pouring tea. He’s wearing rags, and his head is bald. “Thank you,” I tell him, as he hands me a cup.
“This will be a notable temple,” says Mother. She’s holding a ledger, writing in it. “We are quite within budget on materials, but there’s a certain matter of money for the laborers that we will have to discuss.”
“Mother,” I ask her. “How did you get here?”
She writes in the ledger and then her eyes come up and look at me, as though she knows how absurd this is, as though to say that we’ve slipped too far this time – that 470 BCE is too far, and we should not be here. But she writes in the ledger as I drink my tea. The columns are going up, the main floor of the Temple being laid. In the center are three sculptures, one for each of the Gratiae, and it seems to me that Splendor looks so much like a woman I have known, a wife I never had, a name I never knew. I shake my head of the dream.
Mother keeps talking about numbers and figures. I watch a new segment of a column go up. “We can requisition forces from the coast, but it will take five days for them to arrive. Better to conscript men from nearby villages, in order not to lose time. We cannot lose time.”
“No, we really mustn’t,” I tell her.
“A schedule must be kept, if we are to progress.”
“Yes,” I agree. “We must progress.”
What do we have to say for ourselves today, though? Here I’m building a Temple for gods that have granted our human creativity. Thank God for this. Thank the Lord.
“And we will need stronger men to deal with the inlays,” says my mother. “We require those who have true strength, and that can climb the columns. Do you know what Zen is?”
I look at her. “No, that’s wrong. It’s wrong.” But she just stares at me, as the Temple grows larger. I shake my head of the dream.
But I’m a policeman, and it’s night. And a black man is hanging from a tree, and I want to cut him down but I don’t. So I stand there and watch him swing, and I want to shake my head of the dream. I want to pray and I want to create, and I want to make it better but I just stand there with the flashlight as my car hums behind me, and in the forest not far away, I can hear people moving as they sing. Fleeing, just as the lion pounces and rips me to shreds. But the church is not finished, so I survive. I kneel, and bring the word of God to these people before me, just as the shogun warriors reach me and cut me to pieces. I want to shake my head of the dream. I do.
But it’s actually today, and I’m in a tower. Looking on the city and everything beyond it. From here, I can see everything. I can see exactly what it is that I can do. I can see everything anyone has ever done, I can read all about it, over and over again. I put my hands on the glass, and it pushes back, as the lion pounces and the sword falls and I shake my head of the dream. The words are written in the buildings, in the roads, in the scenery beyond, the very requirement saying that we must shake our heads of the dream in favor of this: in favor of the steel and the brick and the concrete and the asphalt of the proper way to live.
The next day, the phone rings. The world sings. I stand in the same place, another day of nothing exceptional. Of just living, and that’s all. Of having shaken my head of the dream, even as I drifted through 1704 India and defended the Raigarh fortress, or built a hospital in 1148 England as people told me that human disease came from mis-alignment of the planets – and each of these a stone placed in the construction of our history, to result in this present date, to this life that I lead and with which I do what?
This story is not about God or gods. It’s not about history. Or mortality or existence. It’s not about race or colonialism or feudalism. It’s not a philosophical piece. It’s not even really a story. It’s a question. I know it’s strange and disjointed and doesn’t lay things out easily, but that’s the nature of the questions that are asked at times, the ones we prefer, more or less, to answer well or badly, but more commonly not at all. It’s a question. A long, strange question, and nothing more than that.
36 thoughts on “The Proper Way to Live”
Ignorance is bliss; you know the answer to the question; and no matter how beautifully you ask it, no matter how eloquently you aim to expound, you won’t find a route to another answer without selling your soul to faith…or it’s late and I’m just tired…
Ignorance is bliss, or “I’m too busy” or “it’ll happen next year” or “there’s nothing wrong with this life”… I wonder. I have faith in my writing, I hope that’s good enough, but somehow it’s not really… it’s just not enough.
Anyway, sometimes it’s fun to let the words go, Babbage. Just let them find their way, they can only let you down or elevate you. This piece elevated me.
Then that is good, and can be taken separately from all things else and other; and faith in one’s writing can work if you want…it’s faith…but you bring something good into existence, and that definitely is good regardless.
Babbage – I’ve missed you, man. Thank you.
we must go out for that drink…in the mean time – and I don’t want to sound like a whiner – I’d love to have your opinion on my gun post; I know your time is full.
I forgot – sorry. I will get to it hopefully today.
Bloody hell don’t apologise! I value your opinion, and it’s not going anywhere
You know Babbage, I didn’t get what you were saying here until all the comments flushed out and it seemed to be absorbed that indeed this will require faith of one sort or another. My answer was much more verbose than yours and less accurate – in fact what you wrote was profound and carries well into everyday activities much as General Relativity encompasses the case of Special Relativity.
Well I’m an existentialist at heart, and perception is everything; I do think there are multiple/infinite universes; whether we prove it or not isn’t of real concern to me when you can see a different universe in the person standing next to you. And thank you for the compliment! And I wouldn’t say verbose; words are there to use, and you use them well.
Paul, I think you will have to make that connection to General and Special Relativity. I have passing knowledge of what they are, but what is the specific connection? I am curious.
Sure Trent. Both were works of Einstein and he proposed Special Relativity first. Basically it involved describing the mathematics of predicting the movements of sub-atomic particles. This was fine but really was of little interest to the majority of the world for they had not yet foreseen areas such as nuclear weapons. Einstein figured – rightfully so – that he would get more physicists interested and strengthen his theory if he could show how it applied to the macro world we live in. The result was the General Theory of Relativity published about 15 years after. This was Special Relativity with the added component of acceleration – something not included in the first theory. The beauty of this math was that it applied to astronomical objects and first predicted black holes,quasars and background microwave activity. These were things that could be checked and verified and sure ’nuff once they looked, they found each and every predicted effect.
The math behind General Relativity was much more complex and at the time only a very few in the world could grasp it – and even now most is done by computers. That said it was clear how a specific application of the math applied to the quantum world and with added factors the same theory applied to the movement of and behavior of astronomical objects. Much as your development of faith in your work controlling your success is as critical as faith in general controls the workings of the general population. Faith of many kinds from the faith that each will drive only on their mandated side of the road that keeps you alive and allows freedom of movement to faith in intelligent organization in the universe to faith that when you pull the trigger of a gun, the force will not backfire and kill you. Or the faith that the piece of paper we call money can be exchanged for products and services. That used to be backed by gold but is now backed by faith – that is how strong and ubiquitous it is.
Or as Babbage so eloquently put it: “you won’t find a route to another answer without selling your soul to faith.”
Hmmm, neat. I’ve personally had knowledge that comes from those around me, from ancestors, from my future and from my past, from places outside this existence -i.e. not known by anyone or anything when it became mine (the info), dynamic info that could have come from nowhere but an all-knowing entity ( https://cordeliasmomstill.com/2014/11/22/the-teens-guest-post-by-paul-curran/ ). All without a word, sign, or any other communication. The knowledge was just there. These instances do not populate my mind but each instance has occurred under undeniable circumstances as if I were being deliberately shown (in some cases why became clear within seconds and in some cases it never became clear).
That said you and I both have enough knowledge of physics to realize that not only can our universe NOT be proven to be unique, in fact many factors point to there being an infinite number of universes existing concurrently.
Your knowledge of other times and places could easily be a result of universes touching each other and the other person seemingly unique per universe, sharing an existence with you temporarily. Your info in each space/time continuum is unique to one person who seems to be travelling in time in their own universe as we are.
Scriptures strangely do not address reincarnation. They are careful to list what we should and shouldn’t do and go so far as to say don’t seek out the dead but none mention reincarnation – a very strange omission. That said there are those who swear they remember previous lives and can remember verifiable details. It is entirely possible you got all those memories because you (your essence that which defines you and lives beyond this physical world) lived them.
I could go on Trent but you see my point – you could have this info through many different channels. Because I believe, I usually go looking for a reason why I have been given this. Many would say that was unknowable but I have known at times in the past. it could be something as diaphanous as info you will need to become the world renowned writer you are. In other words, trust that you will have the ability to create worlds as you please for all that is known is yours to be seen. Or maybe not – yours to choose.
I don’t know if it’s information, Paul, or knowledge. I think some faiths do talk about reincarnation (Buddhism, right?), but that’s not me. I haven’t lived but in this life, but I figure I can see other people, hear them, even if I don’t know them. I’ve known young kids on space stations, looking for angels; old ladies who throw darts in their kitchen; a handicapped young girl caught in a dam break; a cavegirl coming up for love; the remains of Mesopotamia… all of it just made up. Just imagined, and I’m glad for it. Very glad.
Very true Trent – the bit about knowledge.Typically a memory has a past, for instance where did this desk come from that I am currently using? But the knowledge you are speaking of is just there – I know the feeling. That quality is actually one that I use to differentiate between knowledge I have discovered and knowledge that is given to me – i.e. is just there. Otherwise I cannot tell the difference. I was on a plane one day on a short hop from New Jersey to Boston. Suddenly I was feeling extremely agitated and afraid of flying.In those days I flew regularly and loved it. I was confused as to why I was suddenly very afraid but sweat was pouring ff my face, my heart was pounding and i had a sweat covered death grip on the seat arms. After some consideration I came to the conclusion that the fear wasn’t mine for it had no basis in my past or present – even though otherwise it felt real as if it were my own fear. I looked around and discovered a woman sitting two rows back who appeared scared shitless. There were few passengers that day, so i got up and went back and sat close by and began to talk to her. We talked about her and her fear and as the conversation went on she calmed down and was almost normal – I could feel my own fear dissipating. By the time we landed both of us were calm.
I am speechless. I don’t know how you write this. Open and close your eyes… So happy to have met you in this universe, even though our physical bodies will never meet.
But maybe one day, Jaded… I feel like I’ve met you now, in all the ways that count.
The last paragraph, the “long, strange question,” helps me understand how to understand this piece, which as you said is a bit strange and disjointed. But I think I get how it settles in with the greater oeuvre of Trent Lewin. I appreciate what you said there, in that last paragraph. What I understand to be true about Trent Lewin, who is someone I really know very little about, is that occasionally he will pause his daily routine and become a funnel for words or thoughts that are out there, in need of a funnel. This piece sounds like Trent Lewin, or the thing that the entity I know as Trent Lewin tends to funnel, and that’s a good trick for someone who’s funneling, too make it sound like the funneler, with consistency. There’s a consistency to your funneling, which is a word I’m using too much in this comment. But you’re simpatico with something, consistently, and I like it, even when it’s strange and disjointed. My impression, and it may be wrong, is that the funnel is still mainly in charge, like it is the firehose and it’s whipping the fireman around with it’s high pressure. I’d like to see you in control of the high pressure, with your feet firmly planted, firehose clamped in a death grip. Or maybe a life grip. Either way, really. And either way, man would that be something. Carry on, good sir.
The firehose is sometimes in charge, Walt, because it deserves the chance to whip around in the air. Sometimes you have to let it go, in order to grow. Sometimes, I step on the damn thing and choke off the water supply until the fire hydrant bulges. But where’s the fun in never having fun?
Your impressions are pretty awesome. Yes, a funnel for words, and for the lot of us on here who want something better, who don’t want sameness. People who create, but what are we doing about it? What really are we doing? Hard question. The best ones usually are.
Thanks for reading, Walt – I appreciate it.
Well said. Looking forward to the next gusher.
I agree. I don’t know how well, or if, this would’ve worked without that last paragraph. It provides vital information. I noticed you tagged this ‘ennui.’ No kidding.
Yeah I know. But if I’m going to fail, I’m going to go down guns blazing.
Is there any other way?
Speechless, like Jaded… How do you return to your regularly scheduled programming after this? How do we all return to it?!
This was like an existential crisis in words. Extraordinary, Trent.
Crisis, command, call-to-arms, a movement-towards-order, I don’t even know what it is, Kelly. But it blazed when it came out, and I’m proud of this piece even if it’s mad. So thank you.
You’re welcome. You should be VERY proud of it. You have a gift.
Umbrellas are overrated.
Or really really underrated.
… the savanna ravages itself with heat… I love that line… I loved the unanswered questions… I love you, man…
… let’s write together… let our words become one, intertwined with one another, sweeping us and everyone along on a cascading flood of emotions and over the endless falls of time to the endless wastes of the sea of unanswerable questions and unfulfilled dreams, where they quest ceaselessly to unravel the riddle of their origin and find lost solace and comfort in each other’s arms … or something…
No one on this planet (and probably all the rest of them) makes me “think” and ask questions more than you, My Friend. At times I read them before I go to bed and then find myself thinking about them while sleeping. I suppose much like the dozing in the taxi cab of this story. When I read them in the morning, they stay with me all day long. Thinking, asking, thinking… Do you realize how powerful your writing is to be able to do that to your readers? I have lots of questions. No answers. I’m not really sure I even truly know what Zen is.
Oh Michelle, that is such a high compliment I don’t really know what to say other than thank you!
It’s all true, Trent. I do love that I have actually left you without something to say, though. 😉
“to this life that I lead and with which I do what?”– I find myself lost and circling this very question lately– it is frightfully dizzying. You wrote it well.
being a parent quells the noise..but only for so long. Time is fleeting and being lost is dark, looming casting shadow unless you are one of the lucky ones.
and that is my ramble for the night.(probably not even on the mark)
Always a pleasure, Trent. Be well.
I think about this often. We have some time, don’t we, to do some things. Time’s going away, always going away…
Thanks for reading, Audra. I think you are right on the mark.
I need to think. You fully embody each character in the short amounts of time that you flit from one narrative to another that I can easily feel the overwhelming tension and their angst in each situation. To me this piece didn’t seem that disjointed (maybe that says something about my mind)! It takes me through time, with subtle historical references but more so through the dialogue and the transporting descriptions of the surroundings, but all narrators are connected by being on a precipice. Each one the verge of a defining moment in life, or on the verge of death in fact. All are one with the guy in the taxi. After my babbling on, I still have not worked out the question, I guess I have just described what your work does for me. It transports me seamlessly from one time to another and back again. I feel what each narrator is feeling, although everything is fleeting and dreamily moulding but not moulding. It reminds me somewhat of Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird but maybe that’s because it’s the only other existentialist work I have read! I appreciate this piece and your ability to write such a complicated free flow of emotion through several experiences and still make it readible! I will continue to think about this work and mull over what the question could be!!
I’m sorry, I totally missed this comment… but thank you. Especially for the comments about being transported, I hope that’s what fiction can do and occasionally, I hope that that’s what my writing can do. I feel transported when writing, but never know if I have the effect on readers.
Existentialist is probably right. Sometimes I get caught in the trap of going to unreal places, fully aware that it’s a bit mad. But that’s what life is, and writing a big part of it for me.
Honestly I’m not sure what the question is either… I just know it’s there.