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?