Monday, October 29, 2018

A short, short Halloween Story

Nothing but Sunlight
It took place on Saturday, in the heat of the afternoon. There was a thin overcast of clouds, and a hundred or so people formed a procession behind the coffin. 
My perceptions kept changing. One minute I stood with the crowd, the next I seemed to float above it all looking down in a feverish daze. Friends and relatives turned up whom I hadn’t seen since my primary school days. I watched them with surprise as they gathered, and wondered at the depths of their sorrow as the lines began to form. 
There were half-draped flags and black banners. There was a hired drum corps with crepe-draped drums. There was a band of twenty instruments. There were no cars and very few flowers. 
It began as a slow procession and the band played sad, blues tunes. And when the band was silent the drum corps beat the time on drums with muffled heads. Up and down the street people looked out of their apartment windows, men stood on the sidewalks with boys on their shoulders, and men came out of barbershops with lathered faces, their neckcloths hanging. I marched in front of the coffin and procession, often looking back and wondering if all these people were really my friends or were they drawn by the music and the spectacle?
Directly behind me, a cheap brown coffin moved upon the shoulders of my friends. They bore it high and they bore it proudly and there was an angry sadness in their eyes. The coffin wound its way slowly, above the bowed heads, to the cemetery at the edge of town. The stead rolling of the drums grew louder, and all other sounds were suspended in silence. They set the coffin beside an open grave and people gathered around. There were tears and muffled sobs and many hard, red eyes.
Over the grave site a silence spread. Then in the band a single horn fumbled for a key and took up the air. Then a masculine voice arose in song, wavering, pursuing the rise and fall of the horn. And for a few bars the pure tone of the horn and the husky baritone sang a duet in the hot heavy silence.
As the song ended, the coffin began its descent into the pit. It lowered at the same rate I ascended. I floated over the crowd, and I could see each sun-swept face but couldn’t remember not one name. These had been by closest friends, my family, and yet they were becoming strangers. They stood and they listened to a preacher who spoke at the head of the pit, bible in hand, head raised to the heavens, as if he could see me up there. And then I couldn’t remember my own name. 
I suddenly grew angry, and I wanted to shout at them, “Go home. I’m inside the box and that’s the end and there’ll be no encore. There’ll be no miracles, no one rising from the grave. Get out of the sun and have yourselves a cold brew. Forget my name as I have done.” But I had no voice, and if I had, they couldn’t have heard it coming from the box.
But then I got a wild idea, and with all the willpower left in my being, I lifted both my hands inside that coffin and pounded like hell on the lid. Shock silenced the preacher, eyeballs bugged out, and everyone stood as still as if they all had rigor mortis. 
And then I started to wane until I was nothing but sunlight beating down.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

A Lovely Poem by Voltaire

While reading a volume of The Story of Civilization by Durant, I’ve spent the last week reading about the life of Voltaire. I came across a lovely poem he wrote to his best friend Lefèvre de Genonville, and Voltaire’s mistress Suzanne de Livry, who fell into each other’s arms shortly after Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille. As you can see, he was quite willing to forgive.

He remembers you, and the lovely Egeria (Suzanne), 
In the fair days of our life, 
When we loved one another, all three. 
Reason, folly, love, the enchantment of tender errors, 
All bound our three hearts in one.
How happy we were then!
Even poverty, that sad companion of happy days, 
Could not poison the stream of our joy. 
Young, gay, content, without care, 
Without a thought for the future, 
Limiting all our desires to our present delights—
What need had we of useless abundance?
We had something far greater; we had happiness. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Volume vs. Quality

Several days ago I exchanged emails with a writer I both like and admire. He talked about a fellow writer who he claims told him, “I’m not interesting in improving my craft. I’m only interested in churning out stories.”

This statement has stuck in my head, nagging me to the point of being annoying. I’ve read three novels from the writer who made that statement, and I feel there is ample room for improvement, even if he doesn’t. I felt after finishing each of his stories that they were creative and engaging, yet somewhat disappointing. I felt that had the author spent another four or five months refining the plot and the story structure, and polishing the prose, they would have been awesome reads, rather than being merely entertaining ones.

Please don’t mistake my meaning; I’m not suggesting that I am a better writer. I have my own issues I struggle with. And I’m sure that he sells many more books than I do. What I’m suggesting is that writing, for me, is a craft where one is always striving for perfection, always experimenting and learning more, delving deeper into the human experience and finding fresh ways to express ideas. Writing, for me, is like tennis. Even the top players spend more time on the practice courts than they do playing opponents. They never stop trying to improve.

Admittedly, this philosophy of striving for purity rather than merely for more carries into every aspect of my life. It’s an attitude I’ve learned through thirty years of practicing Buddhism. I am constantly trying to refine whatever I’m doing, and I find great pleasure in that. I look at life as art that is never finished, never perfect. 

It’s often a downer never quite being satisfied with one’s work. It is enough compensation, however, when I look at the body of my work, and realize that I’m slowly improving my craft. That, to me, is the most important goal.