The Be­liever


NOW THAT I HAVE GONE TO A DIF­FER­ENT WORLD, it feels as though the world is con­tin­u­ing with­out me. Which it is, ex­cept that I am still here. I go into the places I fre­quented be­fore and the peo­ple there are in­tensely busy, do­ing what they do. I used to be like that— I used to be this in­volved, look­ing nei­ther left nor right. But I have moved away in my mind, and I look at them all from a dis­tance.

I have come to a sea­side va­ca­tion in the ac­tual world—the one I in­habit with every­one else. Where all those peo­ple are. It has not been as warm as I thought it would be. I am rent­ing rooms in a com­plex on the beach. I can walk out­side and sit among the drift­wood on the beach. The beach is full of peb­bles and rocks. There is an es­planade where peo­ple walk, leisurely, hand in hand, or with dogs on a leash. Of­ten they are in deep con­ver­sa­tion. Of­ten they sit on a bench alone. Some­times talk­ing into a cell phone. Some­times just think­ing.

It is ex­pen­sive here. I buy a cup of cof­fee at the café on the cor­ner, and it costs six bucks. I hope I can af­ford my life. But I am not think­ing about that very hard. It does not bother me that I might run out of cash. I ac­tu­ally do not know what would bother me any more. I seem to be im­per­vi­ous to nor­mal things. I have a sense of amaze­ment when I no­tice peo­ple pinch­ing pen­nies. Try­ing to save ev­ery­where. I do not know ex­actly how I slipped out of that kind of world. How did it hap­pen? It is a ques­tion I know I will con­tinue to ask my­self. But did it hap­pen to me? Or did I do this my­self—with­out re­ally try­ing?

This is the day the en­tire Pol­ish gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary lead­er­ship died. It was shock­ing. I have never heard of an en­tire gov­ern­ment

ac­tu­ally dy­ing be­fore. Maybe one mem­ber of it, or at most two, in an ac­ci­dent or a shoot­ing. If it is an ac­ci­dent, it be­comes sus­pi­cious. Peo­ple de­velop con­spir­acy the­o­ries. Some­times they are right. But in this case, one can hardly imag­ine such cal­lous­ness—to send an en­tire gov­ern­ment to its death. It hap­pened in a plane crash, with eighty eight peo­ple on board. Plus the crew, which makes it over ninety peo­ple. They say the vis­i­bil­ity was bad.

What is shock­ing to me is, why did they let so many im­por­tant peo­ple onto one plane for one flight? Do they not watch out for these things?

It seems to me, if you live long enough and are around enough, you will even­tu­ally have seen and heard ev­ery­thing there is for a hu­man be­ing to see and hear. About those things that con­sti­tute the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence, mainly. But also other things.

For ex­am­ple, I heard they have spent fifty years look­ing for signs of ex­trater­res­trial life now. Fifty years. It is, ap­par­ently, some kind of an­niver­sary right now. While there was at first some­thing that is re­ferred to as the “Wow!” sig­nal re­ceived by the first ra­dio trans­mit­ter aimed into the gal­ax­ies, the rest of the story is blank. As­tronomers, I un­der­stand, have been met by what they say is com­plete si­lence.

But why did I go away? Why am I here, at this sea­side va­ca­tion place? Sur­rounded by strangers? Look­ing at wave af­ter wave, gen­tly com­ing onto the peb­bled shore? Ad­mir­ing the white­washed drift­wood?— be­cause I do ad­mire it. I think na­ture is an ad­mirable sculp­tor. If I started tak­ing those drift­wood pieces into my rooms, I know I would have to keep do­ing it. There would al­ways be an­other piece to take in. So I let them be.

To tell the truth, I have never met a ques­tion that was not, at bot­tom, too com­pli­cated to an­swer. The an­swer could only be given in a series of frag­mented ob­ser­va­tions. And even then, the ob­ser­va­tions would have to be oblique, and not ex­actly rel­e­vant to the ques­tion. You would only be able to make your con­clu­sions cu­mu­la­tively. But any con­clu­sion you came to would have to be tem­po­rary. It would not be a con­clu­sion at all—only some sud­den but brief rev­e­la­tion, like that “Wow!” sig­nal from outer space.

I do not think we can un­der­stand each other that eas­ily. We are worlds apart. Even when we think we are close, and we know each other, I think the truth is that we are still worlds apart. Gal­ax­ies away.

We can­not re­ally know why some­thing is hap­pen­ing, or why it did hap­pen, or how we should think about it.

And here is the be­gin­ning of my an­swer, which is only the be­gin­ning of the be­gin­ning of a ten­ta­tive an­swer. I simply wanted to take the time to pon­der my life.

Some peo­ple ac­tu­ally write au­to­bi­ogra­phies or me­moirs to do such things. But I am not a writer. I do not spin sto­ries. And if I did— if you did—your mem­oir would not be a mem­oir at all. It would be a story. Hope­fully a good one, so there would be some en­ter­tain­ment to be had from it. But I am very open-minded when it comes to sto­ries. Per­haps my bar is set too low? I ac­tu­ally think al­most all sto­ries are good. Even the bad ones have a ker­nel of a good one there. So the whole idea of bad and good needs to be thought through as well.

About that café on the cor­ner. The Nuts & Berries Café, as it is called. I bought a sand­wich there for lunch and ended up be­ing poi­soned by it. Af­ter eat­ing it I had real trou­ble, which lasted two days. I won­dered about the peo­ple work­ing there: they are, ac­tu­ally, all un­der­age. We are in the era of child labour—un­flinch­ing, un­re­gen­er­a­tive, hir­ing of chil­dren to do jobs that used to be done by ac­tual adults. Adults are peo­ple who can tell whether you should sell a sand­wich that is old or not. But I let it go. Af­ter all, I got bet­ter and then it did not mat­ter any more. The only con­se­quence to this is that I do not buy sand­wiches there now.

This is what be­comes part of get­ting to know a place. You learn where you can and where you can­not go. Or should and should not. You learn to rec­og­nize cer­tain in­di­vid­u­als. The shop­keep­ers be­come fa­mil­iar. The other peo­ple at the rentals you are in—they too be­come fa­mil­iar. You walk past one of them on the side­walk and you re­mem­ber: that was the man who stopped to com­ment on the big paint­ing you were car­ry­ing from the door to the van.

“I like that!” he said. He was talk­ing with an­other man, but he stopped the con­ver­sa­tion and stood glar­ing at the paint­ing. Pos­si­bly be­cause it was so large. It was eight feet long, in fact. I stopped and looked back at him.

“You like it?” I re­peated—just to make sure I heard right. Af­ter all, if you are the artist, you want to know what peo­ple say about your art. It is called feed­back. He nod­ded in a friendly way.

“It’s very bright,” he said. I agreed. It was, I thought to my­self, too bright. Which is why I was tak­ing it down from the wall and out to the van. I also rented a stu­dio, where I have brought some blank can­vases, and I al­ready have a cache of paint pots and other tools. You could say I am tak­ing a paint­ing va­ca­tion. Not just a think­ing va­ca­tion. But all in all, I feel they are one and the same. So I was tak­ing the paint­ing to the stu­dio to paint it some more.

I have now done that, in fact. I toned down the bright­ness of it all. I took out all the blue patches. I added some can­taloupe yel­low and peb­ble grey. Smeared it on with a sponge, ac­tu­ally. Then I made some wa­tery black con­coc­tion and drew a line through the mid­dle of the can­vas, and started drip­ping the black paint from the line. I added a sec­ond line on top and did the same. I rubbed some straight black paint in be­tween the cloudy ar­eas of grey, sal­mon and can­taloupe. Then I was happy.

The rest of the day I kept feel­ing happy. Any artist will tell you, it is not at all a sure thing whether your paint­ing will turn out, or whether it will re­spond to your wishes. Paint­ings are live crea­tures that way. Some­times they re­sist your ad­vances. They play coy. Or they get an­gry. Some­times they yield. I re­al­ize I am de­scrib­ing this paint­ing busi­ness as a love af­fair. Maybe it is. I would not be sur­prised if that is what it is.

The stu­dio I rented was pretty scary at first. I went in there with Grim­mel, the land­lord. He is a jovial sort of guy who spends his spare time in Palm Springs. I think he might as well stay here. This is also a va­ca­tion place, with ocean and ar­bu­tus trees and sea­side walks. But peo­ple are like that: they need a va­ca­tion from wher­ever they hap­pen to live. They even need va­ca­tions from va­ca­tions. Grim­mel is ac­tu­ally a nice guy. Ev­ery time I have asked him to deduct some­thing from the rent, he has agreed.

But we went into the so-called stu­dio then, and it was dark, the ceil­ing was com­ing apart, there was an old toi­let stored in the cor­ner, bro­ken. There was old wood on the floor. A lot of what seemed like mouse drop­pings ev­ery­where. But I took it. I fig­ured I could im­port lights and clean the place up. Af­ter all, I do not need the Ver­sailles to paint in. It does not have to be Buck­ing­ham Palace. What it does have is a door that faces the beach. You open the door, and there is the big ocean.

One thing I won­der about, which I wanted to won­der more about while away, has to do with peo­ple. It seems I have en­coun­tered an abun­dance of cruel and stupid peo­ple. I thought most of hu­man­ity would be the op­po­site: that most peo­ple would be good at heart and ba­si­cally in­tel­li­gent. When I started out in life, that is what I thought. So I was sur­prised to find this is not true. Peo­ple do stupid things and cruel things. Why? Is it more ex­cit­ing? Is it more dra­matic? And why do we need all that drama? What is it about drama?

There is ac­tu­ally a lot of drama in the uni­verse. You hardly need to add to it your­self! In fact, what­ever you think you can add to it is noth­ing com­pared to the mag­ni­tude of the cosmic drama. It is weird out there—by hu­man stan­dards. Which brings me back to the search for sen­tient life in the uni­verse. It could be there have been com­mu­ni­ca­tions, such as they are, ex­cept we do not hear the fre­quency and we do not see the light.

For one thing, sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered there are par­al­lel re­al­i­ties ex­ist­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously. That the cos­mos we live in is ac­tu­ally a shield that waves about, and there is an­other shield right by it. But the two can­not meet. There are many such shields. There­fore, many worlds. A myr­iad of worlds. Which is why those stupid and cruel peo­ple can only be de­scribed as blind. If you thought about the mag­ni­tude of ac­tual re­al­ity, you would be struck by the in­signif­i­cance of your lit­tle de­sires in the world you in­habit all by your­self.

This is why I wanted to think more about art. Art is a way of think­ing: art ac­knowl­edges the im­men­sity of ev­ery­thing. Tries to break through bar­ri­ers of un­know­ing, I would say. Some­times a work of art even makes it to the other side. Or to one of the other sides. Be­cause there are many.

There is a palm tree just out­side my front door here. It has been bask­ing in the sun and rain hap­pily. But the last few nights have been frosty and the palm tree has got frost­bite. One morn­ing I found it had white spots and then whole leaves be­came light brown, the colour of white cof­fee. There was a storm as well—three of them, which means we can ex­pect a fourth one—and many of the frag­ile stalks on the palm broke. I came out to a beaten-up thing with crooked leaves that were white and brown and dead.

We do have a gar­dener here. I see him oc­ca­sion­ally. To­day, in fact, I have seen him sweep­ing the side­walk out­side my win­dow. A

small­ish man in a check­ered shirt. I saw a lawn­mower parked out­side the front door. But he has not touched the palm tree. It fell to me to bring out a pair of scis­sors and start cut­ting off the dead parts. I do not know if the tree will sur­vive, and if it does, in what form its life will con­tinue. There will be scars, I can see that. But what will they be?

I am think­ing of this be­cause the palm tree also has a life­span. They say what does not kill you makes you stronger. In the case of the palm at my door, I can­not say it has got stronger by this beat­ing. Maybe in the palm tree mind, wher­ever that is, there is a cer­tain strength of char­ac­ter now. But who can say?

Be­sides the door to the beach, there is one other thing I like about the stu­dio—which is other­wise so beaten up and di­lap­i­dated. In the back wing of the room, there is a sky­light. Not just one small sky­light, but a series of con­nected win­dows in the ceil­ing. Eight of them. To­gether they let in a lot of bright, sunny, ocean light—be­cause they face the sea as well. They are not ex­actly sky­lights, ei­ther, be­cause they are perched right be­tween the wall and the ceil­ing, so they are slanted win­dows. I like the light that comes in from them. I have ac­tu­ally brought in an old wooden chair and placed it un­der those win­dows. Some­times I just sit in the light. I close my eyes, but I still see the light through my eye­lids.

Per­haps I also like the stu­dio be­cause it is empty. I have a weak­ness for empty spa­ces. They re­mind me of re­newal, po­ten­tial, pos­si­bil­ity. They have a feel­ing of the fu­ture in them. They are silent and cold, and it will fall on you to make them warm and bring in hu­man sounds.

I some­times go to the stu­dio in the even­ing, af­ter every­one’s work­day is done and no one is about. The con­crete room is cold be­cause the sun never got in there. Even if I have been there dur­ing the day, I like to come back at night when all is quiet. I do not come to work. I just want to be with my paint­ings for a while. I sit with them, look them over. I do not have to think about it: they even­tu­ally tell me what, if any­thing, I should do with them. Some­times I feel they just want com­pany.

I have been for a drive to the end of the coast­line. It has been a sunny day and much warmer than re­cently. I had no spe­cial place to go—

one sel­dom does dur­ing a va­ca­tion—I just wanted to get out. Go some­where. The van I drive is old and both acts and looks it. But it suits me. I can throw all man­ner of things into it and it never fills up. I drove to a sea­side vil­lage to the south and looked in an­tique stores. Or retro stores. Not be­cause I wanted to buy any­thing. Just to see what gets col­lected in out-of-the-way places.

The sea was glim­mer­ing. It has been a few days since the Pol­ish pres­i­dent died. They took him back to Poland from Rus­sian soil. There were flow­ers. Peo­ple looked stunned. They had the kind of blank stare you get when the un­ex­pected hap­pens. I have no idea why this event is reg­is­ter­ing so low in the world press.

When I got back to my rental, no one was around. The place looked and felt empty. De­serted, re­ally. Where do peo­ple go when they dis­ap­pear like that? Are there spe­cial holes in the uni­verse I do not know about yet?

Even though the sun was gone and there was a wind blow­ing, I de­cided to take a walk along the beach. The walk­way is just above the peb­bled shore, and it winds com­fort­ably among ar­bu­tus and fir trees. The path is lined with memo­rial benches. Peo­ple in the past who have strolled the sea­side get this fi­nal gift. Per­haps, in death, they sit on their benches and look at the sea? Like me, they stare mes­mer­ized at the wa­ter rip­pling end­lessly?

I have heard that the Mor­mons feel they need to bap­tize the de­parted, so they too can be saved. They bap­tize peo­ple in groups, and some­one is dunked in the wa­ter on their be­half. With­out this bap­tism, the think­ing is, those peo­ple are for­ever in the mid­dle ground: never go­ing for­ward, and never get­ting to heaven. That is why the Mor­mons have so many lists; so many names to get through. It seems like such a big job, and it would re­quire such ded­i­ca­tion. Where does that ded­i­ca­tion come from? Or is it a kind of mad­ness?

And how do you know when you are mad and when you are truly a be­liever?

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