It’s not so easy to live in the moment.
You can’t just take your shoes off and snuggle down into the fold between today and tomorrow, no matter how comfy-cosy it looks. It’s an illusion, a thin line, faintly etched, where what-was hands over to what-will-be like a game of pass the parcel, only instead of a kid in a party hat, it’s the very essence of Being we’re talking about here, the big capital B, daring you to grasp it if you can. Most of us reach too wide of the mark, one way or the other, clinging longingly to the past or grabbing eager-beaver into the murky future, too impatient or too full of regrets to just sit back and smell the sweet scent of now.
I’m trying to, I really am. I’d like to stop at this particular now, now, and let the world go on without me for a day, or maybe for a month or a year or two while I sort out why it is that I’m persona non grata in the past and why the future doesn’t look like it’s going to be very much more welcoming. But there’s a knack to living in the moment, and, truth to tell, I haven’t got it. Maybe I’m just a young soul. Or maybe in my other life I was a shonky second-hand car salesman. Who knows? The truth is, like most of us here on suffering Mother Earth, I can’t stop thinking about me, where I’m going and where I’ve been, what I’ve done and what I’m going to do.
Or not do, as the case may be.
In particular - and by particular I mean today, now, at this very moment - I can’t stop thinking about Simon Sturrock. Him and his bloody pearls of wisdom, none of which did him much good last night, after I swung a drunken fist into his jaw in the driveway outside my house and sent him sprawling onto the asphalt.
Simon Sturrock is a Buddhist. He spends a lot of time living in a cave in a forest somewhere near Bundanoon, communing with snakes and god-all whatever else you commune with in those parts. Sturrock says he can live in the moment, easy-peasy, whenever he wants to. He used to be a friend of mine and maybe he thinks he still is. Maybe he thinks that last night and all that led up to it has already been forgiven.
But it hasn’t. Not by me. I do forgiveness no better than I do the moment thing. I do seething, ranting, raving and now, apparently, blind violence. Followed by running away. At this particular moment, I just don’t care. Sturrock would say otherwise, that I care too much, that I have to detach myself from my longings, that human suffering is rooted in baseless desire. Really, I should ask him more about that, and about Joni and how detached he is with her.
And anyway, how am I supposed to detach myself from this?
‘This’ is two things. Number one is the indisputable fact that last night, in front of my wife and daughter and assorted neighbours, I punched a man of peace on the jaw, calling him several choice names anathema to the Buddha and to every other religious school of thought with the sole exception of the Disciples of Satan, and sent him on his way bleeding from the mouth and feeling, no doubt, very much in the moment.
Number two is the material opposite of my spiritual inability to experience momentlessness, and proof positive that life, in the final analysis, sucks like a leach with a very long straw; even as all these thoughts, deeds, lingering bitterness and the throbbing in my right hand serve to keep me from Nirvana, the reality is that I’m stuck, now, in a different kind of moment; a traffic snarl-up on the F3 south of Gosford. It’s Saturday morning - the wrong time to be on this road - and it’s squelching hot. All northbound lanes clogged fore and aft for as far as this particular eye can see. Drivers and passengers fuming impatiently or quietly resigned, arguing with each other or starting up yet another round of ‘what animal am I. Or throwing more lollies to the kids in the back in a vain attempt to shut them up. There’s a lot of bad Karma out there.
If Sturrock was here now I’d tell him that. He’d smile his enigmatic smile (all Buddhists learn this early), and give me some crap about waiting for life to come to us. Maybe he’d make a joke about how we’re all living in the moment, whether we want to or not. I’d tell him that I’d be more than happy to miss this particular here and now if only I could get over the next hill and he’d tell me that’s exactly why I’m unhappy. At this point I might just pull over and throw the smirking sod out into the nearest ditch, and then make myself even more unhappy trying to get my car back into the queue.
All this busy thought is of course, quite academic, as my car, hot and sweaty and labouring as it is, is blessedly Sturrock free. Not that I’m proud of beating up a friend, not a bit of it. I’m ashamed. Deeply ashamed. Nevertheless, I’m glad as hell he’s not here with me, reflecting calmly on our lack of progress down freeways real and spiritual as if it were all a manifestation of the great impermanency of life itself. Believe me, the last thing you need in a traffic jam is a Buddhist, even if they do add something indefinable to a game of eye-spy.
The traffic stretches to infinity, bubbling and boiling in the rising heat from the road, a long train of hopeful going-nowhere-ness. There is something philosophical about it, as if the grinding procession of metal boxes crawling one behind the other is a symbol of how we live in our world, trapped in little sub groups of humanity, isolated and vulnerable; in perpetual states of anxiety, jostling and squabbling for position in a queue that has no end. I could go further with this kind of codswallop, I’m more than capable of talking any amount of crap - even to myself - but, as if to prove a point, at that very moment a large, black BMW about half a dozen cars behind, pulls out to the left and comes roaring up the hard-shoulder, headlights at full-beam. The driver is a shaven-headed guy with wrap-around sunglasses, no neck, and a grim look that says ‘Fuck off you bastards, I’m too important to wait with the rest of you’. Not a good advert for BMW you might think, though as far as I can tell, they do pretty well for themselves out of the wanker market. Me, I drive a fifteen-year-old Corolla with duff air-conditioning, but that’s another story. There are leaders and there are followers, I think, sinking back into cod philosophy mode, my shirt sticky against the scuffed vinyl of the car seat. But the problem is that few lead solely for the good of others, and few follow out of respect for their leaders. That’s my view on it anyway. Life according to me, Callum McLean, one-time journalist now second-rate academic, husband, father, beater of poor contemplatives guilty only of trying to stop me making an arse of myself.
Mr BMW has disappeared into the distance, leaving behind a flurry of discontent that settles like an extra blanket on a hot night. For a very brief moment, I think of following him, if only to change the scenery a bit and stop myself drifting into stupid thoughts about this and that and the next bloody thing. But the idea of my little beat-up box of existence tootling aggressively past everyone else doesn’t sit well with me. It’s not my style. My style is to wait. Now, if I owned a BMW - or even a pair of wrap-around sunglasses - things might be different. Though probably not. You see, I’m a good guy really. Yes, really. I’m tolerant and peace-loving, and willing to subsume my desires for the greater order. I’ll wait in the queue, a model of patience and good-humour, with maybe only the odd ironic barb to those around me - just to let people know that I know it all sucks, but that we’re all in this together and, don’t worry, I can handle my part. I do my tax returns, I stick to the speed limits, I keep the bushes in my front garden clipped. I’m not going to jump the queue of life, unsettling everyone.
That’s not to say I don’t wish I could, though. And that’s not to say I don’t get angry at those who do. Or angry at myself because I can’t. And maybe sometimes, more angry than I should. Sturrock thinks it’s a problem, this anger, but then he would, especially now. But even before last night, he was always happy to waffle on about the essential nature of peace and love, and why it is we destroy it in ourselves. Anger, in his scheme of things, is an expression of ego, which is itself an illusion, a falsity which keeps us from truly understanding reality. And that reality is this; that we, ourselves, our egos - our greed and our grasping and our wanting and our pining - are nothing and nobody. Totally insignificant. And if we only knew this essential truth we could attain complete and lasting happiness as nothings and nobodies wafting insignificantly around together in eternity. Something like that.
The problem is, as I’ve tried to explain to Sturrock - and to anyone else careless enough to indicate a willingness to listen - I like my ego. I’m completely committed to the upkeep and maintenance of this precious kernel of the self, the vital motor that – as I see it – runs the whole show. Egos are the fun part. The bit that says let’s eat drink, fuck our brains out, stay up all night eating potato crisps and watching old episodes of ‘Star Trek’. The bit that helps you get that job, or date that girl/boy, or kick sand in that bloke’s face. You get the point. Ego is essential. I’m not giving mine up. Not yet.
That’s how shallow I am, sitting here in this greenhouse of a car, the fan whirring ineffectually, the air on my face sticky warm. Two dimensional, that’s me. This thought is accompanied by a slow settling of despondency which is the all too familiar accompaniment to thinking too much about myself. It’s the feeling you get as you start to go down the tube, this kind of nagging at the back of the head and the little voice that complains about missing out, but doesn’t spell out what your missing out on. What I think I’m missing out on (though I could be very wrong about this) is my chance at making things better than they are. Not punching Simon Sturrock would have been a start, but maybe even now I could make things better. Maybe even now, I could open myself to some kind of an epiphany, here, on this very road. A blinding light which would reveal the true nature of the universe, change my life forever, free me from the paltry obsessions of my small s self, open up a life of kindness and good deeds and lead me to working with the poor in Burkina Faso or something; my picture in the weekend supplements, interviews on Late Night Live, the respect and attention of a grateful world. Maybe even forgiveness from and towards a certain bruised and abused man of peace, formerly of my acquaintance.
My thoughts are interrupted by the sudden eruption of James Brown singing about how good he feels. The mobile is on the seat next to me. I pick it up and see that it’s a call from Joni. The traffic in my lane has stopped still, though the next lane is still crawling forward. A kid in the back of a large sedan is making faces at me through the window as he goes slowly past. I flick the green switch.
Her voice sounds tired. I imagine her still in bed, the curtains closed. On the bedside table a glass of water and the box of sleeping pills.
You didn’t come home, she says.
No, I stayed at a motel.
Where are you?
I’m on my way to Dad’s. Thought I’d visit him, maybe spend a few days there.
He’ll be glad to see you.
She sighs when she says this, a loose, empty sigh in which I hear the slow unravelling of everything between us.
I'm okay, she says, Simon’s not. We had to go to casualty to have his lip stitched up. Waited for hours to see a doctor.
I didn’t ask about Simon.
You gave Ellie a scare, too. Poor kid didn’t know what was happening.
We need to talk, Cal.
We are talking.
No, I mean really talk.
When I get back.
I’m still here.
This thing with Simon. He’s… he’s staying.
There’s a long pause. The phone crackles and hums. The traffic noise around me recedes to nothing, all of life reduced now to a pinpoint of static on the end of a phone.
Joni? We’ll talk when I get back. Okay?
But she’s gone. The line's dropped out. Or she's hung up.
The traffic starts to move again. I indicate left and pull off onto the hard shoulder, breaking to a stop. When I cut the engine, there is only the growing roar of passing cars as they pick up speed, their slipstream buffeting through the open windows, the smell of hot exhaust. I lean my head against the steering wheel and wait for the moment to end.