This week the producers of the Calvino series are in LA working to put together a deal. Maybe they will or maybe, as in the past, it will come to nothing. This kind of work reminds me of a gravediggers shove—it can be used to build or to bury.
It is a devilishly difficult business. Film. Books. Life.
A friend shared the thought of a Danish author who toiled without moral support and against the wishes of husband, family, friends until finally she succeeded in having her novel published. By that stage all of the people who had been negative shrugged off her success and let her know that was nothing special. They, too, were now writing a novel. It seems many people are feverishly writing books.
The Danish author’s insight illuminates a core problem. The vast number of people have led fairly predictable, organized, safe and ordinary lives until one day in their 50s or 60s an alarm goes off inside their head. Maybe someone close to them had a novel published, reviewed, admired, loved. Or someone close to them died on the way to the funeral they started to ask: What is the meaning of life? Have I wasted my life? The thought arises that I can confirm and signal the singularity of my existence by writing a book. Preferably a novel, a work of art, and I pour my heart and soul into this enterprise as if the demon of a new religion had seized hold of me.
There is a slight problem. Writing is more than sitting behind a keyboard, imagining a world as if tapping into a magical pipeline and typing the script of what you’ve discovered. All writing, in the larger sense, in travel writing, notes from the frontier of a journey, which has been unpredictable, unsafe, disorganized, and from that web of uncertainty patterns emerge. It is in the assembly of those patterns after observation and thought that makes us turn the page. When your worldview is turned upside down, you flee or you find a way to restructure, evaluate, modify your factory template of constructs that defined your home reality. You begin to see the context as an aggregation of symbols, patterns, ethics, or morality shaped by forces outside of your own experience.
We acquire an array of weapons and shields when we go into the world. You sense when someone’s shield logs in a speedy reaction time until the psychological or emotional threat passes. Or when they deploy a weapon to defend themselves. Our culture and language equips us with both shields and weapons to go forth in combat mode. Along the journey you learn the art of reading when shield are activated, what they are protecting, and understand it is our vulnerability that makes us human and expressions of that vulnerability differ in substantial ways around the world. We react too quickly. We shoot to fast. We try to hold our ground even as it moves beneath us. What is universal is how people’s shields locked into defensive mode in light of contractions, inconsistencies, disagreement, and disapproval. We have little tolerance, it seems for those who disagree with us or dislike us. We cocoon ourselves in groups that like us and agree with us. They validate our value. We strive for validation at the expense of tolerance and co-operation with those who don’t like us or agree with us.
In my case, I was lucky as taking this journey has been a way of life since I was young. The need to break free of the known and to explore was something that happened to me relatively young. Can it happen in your 50s or 60s or later? Anything allowed by the laws of physics is possible. Of course the door only has to be opened and you walk through. Easy to say. But how many people open that door and close it behind them? That’s where the stories are buried. Mountains of them are waiting to be unearthed by you. Whatever the age you happen to find yourself, there will come a time when the door to new adventures and experience will be closed. You have passed a hundred times, rattled the doorknob, but the distractions of life pulled you away. People can write all they want, but the bank of experience, exploration, wandering, searching, listening and observing only comes easily in one’s youth. Or to the young at heart.
Pull back for a moment and look out at what is around you. It is theatre. You’ve been assigned a part. You’ve played it. Learnt the lines, know your cues, where the chalk marks are for you to stop on stage. Some have become stars and that has made them wealthy and famous. Don’t envy them. They, like you, are a mere shadow, and locked in their roles as securely as any high security prison. Take the red pill and look again. People have been killed in the slaughterhouse of modern consumer online life where they are turned into living sausages and processed and packaged and eaten on elite buns. And that is hugely important to know. They opened a door like in Monty Hall and thought they’d won a prize with credentials, status, position and power. These all prove to be a poor substitute, an illusion of life. You may be a late starter who never had a chance to take the journey, opening the door, which appears to have nothing inside. Strangely, that is the right door. Take it and you can escape the non-living of the past.
Writing won’t recover lost lives. Breaking out of the grave that they dug all those years ago isn’t going to happen at the keyboard. There is the panic, the envy, the jealousy that winds through the system. It’s not so much about money or wealth, it is about the handful who lived their lives and wrote about that experience to be shared their memories of finding the less traveled path that leads to the same edge of darkness. Facing what we all face is within. There is no government change, program, or TED Talk that can act as a time machine and send them back. That makes them bitter, frustrated, angry and vengeful. They are lost. Writing and getting their book published is their way of finding out the scope of that loss.
I feel compassion for these people. I know how very hard it must be to wake up too late. All the appointments, schedules, and meetings that atomized their lives have left nothing of substance behind. That empty hole can never be filled. Compassion, yes, as much as I can possibility deliver to the world. Whether Calvino makes it on TV or as a film, whether new publishers come along, none of that matters against the larger reality. I took a chance. I never gave up. I found friends like you and that has made all the difference in the world. Better than a film or publishing contract. I don’t share the panic of the others. Nor do I deride them. This is the way people are. They don’t wake up soon enough. A couple of minutes before midnight opens a brief moment in time to do a few things that are unscripted. Just do them. Improvise. There is life all around you, hungry and with wings. Don’t waste a moment behind a keyboard, I’d tell them. The shadow merges soon enough. Don’t turn your back and think you can escape. It has your name.
I know these things and share them with you. I was recently in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay where there is an iconic clock. This is ‘me’ in front of the clock. It is my shadow. I am looking out of the window at the skyline of Paris. The picture tells in an image the story I’m seeking to reveal in this essay and throughout 30 plus books.
We are a mere shadow on the clock face of time, facing outward, watching as the darkness closes in to joint. Does the shadow merge with that large darkness and extinguish it? Or does the shadow find its destiny by rejoining the darkness from whence it came? I don’t have an answer. I don’t really need an answer. Let me tell you why. In that space between my shadow and the failing light, I took a journey of exploration, knowing that one-day a void would be lingering on the horizon. There was no reason to fear the coming darkness. The absence of light doesn’t mean nothingness and this is the main lesson from taking the journey. All of our lives we stand at this crossroads watching the flow like a river.
Along the road we pass people whose lives seem to be invisible to us. Often they are beautiful souls seeking a connection with life. As life has often rejected or ignored them, they find other ways to perform small acts of grace. These are people just like us. These are the beautiful people we pass without seeing.
I find elegance and beauty in this image. It touches and moves me. No shield is raised, no weapons to attack. This simple human act of reaching out is where I’d like to find myself as the darkness enfolds my shadow.