In search of something “just so” to lose myself in as the reading matter of my next few weeks, over which I plan to make some considerable reading time, I am faced with a dilemma (having just finished Ted Chiang’s wonderful “Exhalation”, which has become one of my favourite reads of all time).
Part of me is drawn to reading Paul Scott’s “Raj Quartet” given how much I got out of re-watching “The Jewel in the Crown” last week. So many layers of thought came up for me, spurred by this other transitional era/generation (bearing comparison to our own); so much so that it is still feeding my dreams night after night. It is, and was the first time (when I was just 16 years old) what feels like an epic of personal relevance to me as my mother grew up “out there” in India during the rise of the Indian independence movement, as the daughter of a regimental sergeant major, and my fascination has only ever been the greater due to the fact she was always so very reluctant to talk about it. That curiosity led me to pour over novels and adaptations relating to “the raj”, to study the life of Ghandi as a special project, to take up social, political and moral philsophy at college and, in my spare time (and, really, ongoing), to wrestle with all the messed up confusion of empire and social responsibility, of how people of different races come (often clash) together and then pull apart, leaving so many tangled or abandoned threads for generations to come. That curiosity is still alive in me sufficiently for me to feel that same urge I once had to dust down Paul Scott’s hefty tombs and re-read them (I can recall reading some, if not all, of them the first time).
Quite a portion of my young life was spent pouring over such questions as an era “in flux” give rise to and its a habit in me that dies hard. I also dislike, when something provokes my thoughts to that degree, to leave it all to the abridgement of a TV or film adaptation so there is that hanging over me. My inner geek (I see her clearly when she pops up these days, still wearing the furrowed brow of the college student with exam deadlines…) thinks she wants to take a deep-dive because, retrospectively, it seems like it was once a happy or at least a comforting place to be, making it a beguiling place to return to.
However….the novels are verbose and they are long. Relatively flowing reading-matter, from yesterday afternoon’s dive into the first chapter, but still long-winded and of their era (written in the 60s) and I don’t feel I can give myself over to such a brick of a book for as long as it will take to get through them (or the distraction of it for as long as it will inevitably take, dragging me into its mindsets as reading will always do; impossible to dive deeply into a book and not have your every thought, yes as I said dreams, coloured by it for weeks or months). If I had a dozen lifelines the same as this one, and access to them all, as though I could skip between them as I might between sparkling rivulets meandering across a water meadow, then maybe in some of them I would go ahead with reading the Raj Quartet (or War and Peace…) to see how that contributes to my life. However, in this one I feel as though time is of the essence and far too valuable to squander; which all comes from having such a strong sense of life purpose, one which has always been with me and shows absolutely no sign of abating as I grow older!
I could describe it as, I always feel distinctly as though a future end-point me is drawing me towards itself along a timeline that has to be far more direct than that, to get to where it is sitting. When I come to a choice point it will either sagely nod or shake its head (really, more of a gut feeling) and I have to, sometimes, over-ride quite compelling forces of nostalgia or other compunction that would have had me dally off the path. I now get this “unnecessary diversion” feeling around much of the “old” literature that used to feel like home to me, back in my literary days…and, though I try hard to be guided and courageous, moving forwards not back, I am frequently left with a problem; what do I read next, who is writing the kind of material that feeds me in this progressive, evolutionary way (other than all the many non-fiction writers I already engage with)? Where is the contempory fiction that looks forwards, not to the topics of war, or cancer, or horror, or divorce, or past-trauma, or dsystopia, or kitchen-sink drama, or fluffy romance? Where is all the optimism, combined with new thinking and the sheer force of imagingation that is fiction?? (By the way, suggestions are very welcome.)
This is why I am drawn to Ted Chiang. Per the quote on the front cover of “Stories of Your Life and Others” (one of two short-story compendiums, “Exhalation” being the other and I only wish there were more) “Ted Chiang’s stories are lean, relentless and incandescent”.
Yes! They are lean…that is the right word for me…no surplus words to frustrate my Asperger’s, no long-rambling descriptions for the build-up (in fact, very few at all that aren’t utterly poised and essential to the narrative of an idea-delivering plotline – I wonder if he is also an Asperger’s…) Yet these stories are far from devoid of feeling, or nuance, or ideas so colourful they explode in your mind like a drug bomb of repercussions; quantum thoughts, now unleashed into the fabric of your mind, concerned with the now and the future, THIS lifetime, this point in our evolution (not some long-winded retrospective about a messy cultural shift that occurred more than 70 years ago and which has still failed to settle down in all its repercussions). If such retrospectives are like inheriting a Victorian house stuffed to the brim with artefacts you have to sort through, to ascertain what is of any use, what is just old bric-a-brac destined for landfill, his writing is like Ikea, everything clean lines and built to a purpose. He is relevant and he is provocative but, as the quote says, his writing is also incandescent…like the brightest of bright lightbulbs going off in your head, to illuminate all the corners where you almost peered into the dark at least once in your life (maybe…) but now there is no avoiding it, there on the page, familiar yet so-recently tucked away under deep layers of distraction, now exposed for anyone to see. Your paradigm is shifted because that thought is now unleashed and you will never look at things quite the same way ever again.
This is the difference between reading something like this…modern to the point of futuristic…over something nostalgic, backward-looking, combing over our mistakes and foibles of the past (useful, to a point, I agree…) but when you get into these new thoughts, new ideas, a lot of that raking-over of dead leaves becomes, instantly, superfluous…all gone, along with the paradigm that once held such thinking together into structures, now flaccid and without animation, the relics of a museum past. There is a feeling of cutting to the chase when writing gets into its futuristic groove and it draws me much more, now, than the comfort of nostalgia…but, by its very nature, there is very little of it about. It leaves the literary part of me hungry, all the time, for something to read!
For sure, some remnants of those structures played with in The Raj Quartet are very much alive and kicking today…to do with class and race distinctions, etc…but, when we look backwards, even to pick apart, we somehow strengthen those very ideas, giving them more energy, as though to breath life into a near-corpse lying on the ground when, really, we just want it to roll over and let us start over again, without all the contortions of a bygone era, when we didn’t know any better (we know better now).
When we give that energy to brand-new, paradigm-shifting “what if?” kind of thoughts, we don’t just feel we are some sort of slow-rolling transitional generation trundling in 3D slow-motion along a cause-and-effect route towards change, with all its inherent pitfalls and disappointments (as we, our parents and grandparents have been doing for the last century) but we KNOW we are a transition generation with every vital nerve of our rapidly evolving quantum biology, making instantaneous leaps of neuroplastic significance with every new thought that sparks into life inside our ever more receptive and unlimited minds. We know because, like the caterpillar having turned to mush by the eating of its own flesh, we can now sense the growth of butterfly wings. If only we turn out attention to those wings, not the mush…
So, I vote for wings and continue to look for writers, like Ted Chiang, who feed that imperative for future-looking growth (and flight…) over retrospective. Its more than possible to halt our own metamophosis with some mere twitch of an old habit, those places we allow our minds to wonder off to, our old fixations and our familiar comfort-zones…if they are going nowhere new…or we can halt the process of eating our own tail and call for those wings, right now. This is where the matter of no more time wasting comes into it. And we can tell the difference between one choice and another because of the lighter frequency we can feel coursing through our bodies once we make the more progressive choice; as though we are no longer creating a lag-factor against the very impulse of the universe to keep expanding and accelerating.
Once you get into this mindset, it percolates into other aspects of your life. What else don’t you have time to waste doing, thinking about, ruminating on? What part of your routine, your health, your perceived limitations has taken you backwards to rake over past mistakes, old piles of leaves, in case somewhere in there is the answer to all of your conundrums? How could it be far better spent, feeling into new potential realities that question the very boundaries of dimensions, seeking answers that can only be felt via the gut because, for now, there is nothing empirical to “prove” their validity, although that “proof” will surely come along as a brand new reality morphs into being before our very eyes (because we believed it would, with our ever-fertile imaginations). Never forget that reading is how we sow seeds in the fertile ground of our minds; so, as any gardener knows well, be mindful of the quality of the soil but also of the kind of seeds that you sow, and that goes for our viewing time too!
Yet I am also reminded of a wonderful quote from the mouth of a colleague of my husbands on a remote training course he once attended, who had cancer, and who said with complete lack of pathos “I don’t have time to rush”. This was in response to all those people on the weekly calls who would ask her why she wasn’t spending more time rushing about fulfilling some sort of bucket list and yet what she had to say in response became one of the most powerful things my husband ever heard spoken, and from him to me the same. Because it is so very true; just as relevant to any of us here as to her or indeed anyone else on “limited” time (though, of course, none of us know how much time we have left and we should always live that way).
However much time we have, none of us have time to charge through life as though we are on some sort of conveyor belt, never once stopping to smell those roses, to take it all in…what a waste.
Yet the wonderful paradox is, the more we slow down and pace our days, the more we hand-pick exactly what is right for us in this moment (not, out of habit, simply making the choices some earlier format of ourself might have made because we have decided that this is what we like to do). When we question what we really like, what really draws us, excites and engages us in this very moment then we are free to re-choose in every new minute of our lives, a rebirth impulse that propels us directly onto our highest timeline, towards our highest evolution…no more wasted time, no unnecessary detours or replays, just directly back home towards the wholiness of ourselves.
So many interesting thoughts here Helen. I don’t have a bucket list – yes there are things I’d like to do, but I often think if I had a short time to live, all of that would become pointless, better just to enjoy each small moment. I’ve found myself heading the other way at the moment. I’m having a clear out of my books – something I do occasionally – so I’m re-reading many of them to consider whether they should stay or go. It’s interesting that some that I was passionate about not so long ago I don’t even have the desire to re-read, whereas I’m being reminded of some writers I’d forgotten were a formative influence on me, like Colette and Anais Nin. I wonder if the recent attempts to increase diversity in publishing will result in some more forward looking literature about India.
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Iteresting to hear that Andrea, I wonder if we are all in this state of flux regarding what we want to give our time and attention to. Anais Nin is already on my list of people to dive. And I hope you’re right about more filtering of diversiity into our reading matter, I continue to keep my ear to the ground for inspiration.
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