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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, September 29, 2005

lover of wisdom

Yesterday a dense white overcast drew in around noon. It started to rain, slowly at first. It rained through the night and it's raining now, a residual pecking of heavy drops at boards, tarps, and leaves after the dark drenching of this morning.

I feel I want to talk about something, but I don't know how to express it. It has to do with thinking about life--one's own life. What are the core issues of my life? What are the values over which I experience my conflicts?

In 1982, when I was 23 and unemployed, working on a novel, and living with my mother and aunt after spending half a year abroad, I used to go each evening to a pub in False Creek called Stamp's Landing. Since I was broke, Mom would compassionately give me $5 which would buy me two pints and get me out of the house. I would drink alone at the amber-lit pub that looked out on the dark water, watching other people talking and laughing as though I were invisible or an alien, and only occasionally would get into a conversation with anyone. (Most memorable: an older man who had just been released from prison for robbing a bank. I astonished him by knowing the definition of floccinaucinihilipilification--the act of estimating as worthless--when he said none of the lawyers he had asked had known it. Since the word was in the Guinness Book of Records, where I'd learned it, I didn't think it was a big deal.)

One night I was sitting at the bar itself, drinking one of my two pints. The woman sitting next to me started talking.

"Is that what you'd call a leather jacket?" she said.

She was referring to my coat. She was small and wiry, wearing pants and a light sweater. Her hair was cut short to her head. Her eyes were very deep-set, her cheeks hollow, and her nose had a strong hook. She was drunk.

"Yes," I said, "I would."

"What makes that a leather jacket?" she said.

"Well, it's leather," I said, "and it's a jacket. So I call it a leather jacket."

She nodded. She turned toward me.

"Are you a philosopher?" she said.


"I'm a lawyer," she said. "You seem like a philosopher."

"Not really," I said.

I slipped away. When I told my mother the story she said, "That was very perceptive of her."

"Does it really take a philosopher to know that something that's leather and a jacket is a leather jacket?" I said.

Of course I was a philosopher--and still am. When I found out a few years later that the word philosophy itself was supposedly coined by Pythagoras to mean "lover of wisdom," I felt myself even more a philosopher. So are we all, to the extent that we ever wonder why things are the way they are.

Hence my remark above about the search for the core values of my life. What matters most to me? There was a long time in my life--from the age of 20 to as recently as 43--when I would have said "enlightenment", meaning it in the Buddhist sense of complete realization of the nature of existence. I suppose I've given up on enlightenment as a goal.

I had this thought as I strode into the rain this afternoon to dump the little plastic bucket of kitchen compost into the big black compost-barrel at the side of the house. I unscrewed the lid to see the usual sight of wet worms huddled together, little frenzied flies, glistening slugs curled under tabs of plastic: a profusion of life that will all soon be dead--as will I. The ambitions of youth crumble away, and one sees instead only a short length of trail leading to the door of permanent absence from life, this life anyway.

As I screwed the lid, glossy with rain, back on, I felt calm. In some way the burden of success is lifted from my shoulders. There's no use struggling. I should enjoy myself.

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