Reading, Writing, and Vicarious Longevity


Sacrifice (copyright Paul Vreeland 2012) Scott Kelby 5th Annual World Wide Photo Walk — Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

Adding years to our lives is not a numbers game; it’s about living a thousand years of experience during the four score and ten we’ve been allotted. Is that you muttering, “Platitudes and philosophical pap”. Hold on. There’s scientific evidence to the contrary—evidence that also offers a valuable tip to writers. But before we get there, let me develop a theme.

There are, it seems to me, at least three things we can do if we want to extend and expand our lives. First, we can join the slow movement, taking the time to savour moments of our lives. Secondly, we can re-examine portions of our lives and re-live and re-create them. Thirdly, we can live the lives of others, real and imagined. We can be a confidant to earth-bound articulate people with exciting lives and experience the stories they tell us. We can be readers living through characters on the printed page, or we can be writers living through the lives we create.

You’re still muttering. I can hear you. You want the science, I know. Let’s take a walk.

October 13, 2012

The hard edge of a chilly and windy autumn morning pulls at my inadequate jacket, the end of summer sleeping in my eyes. A cold front paints a plain blue pallet on a clear sky. I’m walking the Confederation Trail through Charlottetown with a camera, having joined 32 thousand other photographers in 1300 cities for the Scott Kelby’s 5thannual World Wide Photo Walk. It’s my first World Wide Photo Walk. It has a fixed term of two hours, from 10 a.m. to noon, and a couple of kilometers of fixed locale. And given a dozen other photographers, there is a competitive aspect to the event. How much can we “see” while strolling along a well-trafficked urban path? How much can we “see deeply”? We start out together after a group shot, and the pack soon disintegrates.

Some promoters have billed the Photo Walk as a social event, yet every photographer shoots alone. A hundred meters down the trail another photographer joins me. He chats, I listen, all the while my eyes wanting to be engaged elsewhere. He stops to take a photo, and I leave him. Grateful for the tips he’s given me, I’m happy to be alone again.

Setting out I am overly self-conscious, overly sensitive to a self-imposed pressure to “see” better than the others “see”, or to see what they don’t. And as much as I hate to admit it, I’m self-conscious about my entry-level gear.

My expectations are low and this event is challenge. I’ve walked this trail before. I know where it goes and I know the major landmarks along the way. I wonder if others have scouted the trail in advance, lined up pre-shots. After a few minutes I spot a collection of orange pylons in front of a red storage shed, and I slip into that slow zone where imagination and creativity take control of the clock. The two/three kilometer walk may as well have been fifteen or a hundred and fifty; so much was “seen” during the two hours that passed as two seconds. Cold coffee syndrome: when I take my eye out of the viewfinder, the day’s half over and I’m at the end of the walk, grateful for the lesson.

World Enough
Christian McEwen opens her new book World Enough & Time: on creativity and slowing down (Bauhan Publishing, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 2011) with George’s story—a story about another exercise, another walk, another lesson:

Twenty-five years ago, I was teaching a creative writing class in London. Some of my students were young mothers, relieved to find themselves in adult company again after the unremitting demands of their small children; some were middle-aged, with modest private incomes, and the rest were older people, recently retired.

There was a man in this last group whom I’ll call George, a creaky, lanky, doubtful sort of fellow, perhaps in his mid-seventies. I don’t remember his real name. But I do remember his response to one of my assignments. It was the sort of lesson, at least for me as a teacher, that I hope I will never forget.

`I had asked the class to take some ordinary task—washing the dishes, tidying up the children’s toys—and to tackle it at less than half the usual speed. “Look at the bubbles on the knife-blade as your rinse it,” I told them. “Feel the hot water on your hands. Enjoy that moment when the room is clean, and every single toy is put away.”

The point behind all this, of course, was slowing down: slowing down enough to be there in the present moment, enough so they could notice and describe. I didn’t know much about eastern religions in those days, but what I was proposing was in fact a very basic exercise in what Buddhists would call “mindfulness.”

Several mornings later, everyone gathered around the long oval table to report back on what had happened. George was one of the first to speak. He had a part-time job, he told us, even though he was officially retired. It was a job he had been doing for a great many years. He always walked home along the same few streets, taking the shortest possible route. But the previous afternoon, fulfilling the assignment, he had walked home from work a different way. His face creased with pleasure as he described what he had seen: the pink geraniums in someone’s window-box, the unfamiliar houses. It had taken him perhaps half an hour longer than usual. But he had enjoyed every minute. For the first time in thirty or forty years, his journey had seemed fresh to him.

I read the first chapter of World Enough & Time, and then did something unanticipated. I went back to the beginning and read the chapter again. I’m still reading the book. I wish I could say that about all the books I have opened. Now it seems that when I say, “Oh, yes. I’ve read that book,” stressing the past tense and the act of completion, I’ve missed the point.

I sit in the kitchen drinking my first cup of coffee waiting for dawn’s light to overtake the house. I sit long enough for a memory to board the train of my thought, take a seat opposite me and wait for recognition. The memory is of my father trying to show me how to draw perspective using vanishing points. He tries to show me how to shade letters so as to make them appear to lift off the page. I’m a child of seven, eight, and the letters are curve-less chunky blocks with hard angles like they used to appear on cheerleader sweaters, airplane wings and high school year book covers from the 30s. I resist his instructions and want to squirm away.

I imagine that when my end comes, I will see the tape of my life rewound, the events that defined me flashing before my eyes. I imagine that I will be scored and the score will be measured by hits, much like a Google search. How many hits will be measured when the tape is rewound? How many memories will I have processed and worked into some genre of writing? And by so doing, how much of my life will I have lived at least twice?

Ross Woodman, now in his 90s speaks of the power of imagination. He tells of re-imagining events of his live in such a way as to re-create them, going back to an argument that ended a friendship and imagining the relationship as he would have had it develop. Through the power of imagination, he lives another life, lives twice. (CBC Ideas with Paul Kennedy: Imagination: Part I

~ ~ ~

Several years ago I wrote “Awaiting Ziafo” (Long Grain of Truth Award, Grain Magazine, Volume 29, Number 2 Fall 2001) in which a student of mine dons the mantle of Holden Caufield and lives through The Catcher in the Rye, eventually running away from the school where I taught. I confessed in that piece:

There is another breed of memory dysfunction; some would say a pathology, in which reading plays a principle part. When I was an undergraduate in New England there were several weekends spent in New York City — great weekends. About this time I remember telling an acquaintance how I had lost the fencing equipment on a subway in Manhattan. I caught myself before going into detail — caught myself in time to avoid embarrassment. How could I have lost the fencing equipment when I have never been on a fencing team? I didn’t lose the equipment. Holden Caulfield did! The incident was unnerving. I had assimilated a fictitious event into my own life and was barely aware of it. How many fictitious events make up my perception of a life that I think is my own? (Sorry Officer. I didn’t really go through that red light. I read it somewhere. God, what’s the name of that book? Don’t worry… It’s not your fault you’re overweight. Blame the writer why don’tcha. Must be a conspiracy among writers. All you police types are on the heavy side. And, ah, just a word of caution Officer — pay a little more attention to your marriage…) There are stages and degrees of this pathology, if pathology is the proper term. That pathology is at the root of my dilemma and the question I would pose to you.

The narrative intervenes and I don’t offer the question until the end of the article—a question relevant to this discussion:

What book have you read that you would want to live? By extension of the Golden Rule, what book would you recommend Ziafo to experience? Pay attention here. I am not asking for a recommendation of a book to READ. I’m asking for a book to LIVE. If you had to be the benevolent warden of the prison of literary creation, what book would you confine the reader to? (Imagine Rod Serling with this question.)

In light of this discussion however, I would revise the question, for it seems that if we have read a book, we have lived it.

Now, here’s the science. You can look for Dr. Véronique Boulenger of the Laboratoire Dynamique du Langage at Université Lyon paper entitled “Interwoven Functionality of the Brain’s Action and Language Systems” (The Mental Lexicon 5, 2 [2010] 231-254). It’s accessible on-line. There are other studies better digested and offered up to us by Anne Murphy Paul writing in the New York Times Sunday Review.

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, en emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction—with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions—offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.


~ ~ ~

I ride with my wife as she drives herself to work in the morning.

“Wait,” you say. “Where’s the writer’s tip that science gave us?”

The article mentioned above references a more recent study by researchers at Emory University. They reported, “that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like ‘The singer had a velvet voice’ and ‘He had leathery hands’ roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like ‘The singer had a pleasing voice’ and ‘He had strong hands,’ did not.”

Let me get on with it. It’s morning. My wife is driving, her leathery hands on the wheel. She’s alert. “Should we paint the house? What did I get out of Kenny’s contribution at the study circle last night?” she asks in that velvet voice of hers. What do I think about this? What should we do about that? Seriously, my mind isn’t in the car; it’s not with her. I’m wondering how Mary-Ellen is going to react to Zach’s letter. Mary-Ellen and Zach–characters in my unfinished novel. Do they live through me, or do I live through them? Can I add the durations of their literary appearances to my own lifespan?

My wife and I have taken to watching British television serial dramas. We take out DVDs from That’s Entertainment, our local video rental store. Not being so up-to-date savvy as to log onto an internet pipeline and stream the bitsy signals into our downsized TV, we’re grateful for the store. We rented all of the available seasons of Foyle’s War, Downton Abbey, Wallender, and more recently Vera. And when we come to the end of the last episode, we’re disappointed. We’re hooked on the nuances of Michael Kitchen’s facial gestures, and the lines scripted perfectly for Maggie Smith. We’ve come to love the characters, and we’re ready for more. We want the series to continue, and when they don’t, we suffer an uneasy emptiness better known somewhere on a continuum of grief. We’re still living through them, still living other lives, not quite ready to bury their memories.

~ ~ ~

The End of Your Life Book ClubTonight I’m listening to author Will Schwalbe being interviewed by Anna Marie Tremonte on CBC radio’s The Current. In 2007 Mary Ann Schwalbe, Will’s mother was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and was given an idea of when she would be checking out. Will quit his job as a publisher and spent the next two years with her—her last years–reading and talking about books. In the interview he said,

“She always read the back of the book first. It drove me crazy. She couldn’t wait to find out what happened—she was one of those people who had to know what happened. She went right to the back of the book. She read it first.”

How odd, I thought. Why would she do that? Why would she short-circuit the drama and end the suspense? The book is over before it begins. I was surprised by what Will said next.

“…It really increased her enjoyment of books—that by knowing what was going to happen, she could slow down, she could enjoy the writing, the characters, the themes, and really relish a book.”

Will’s book, The End of Life Book Club, describes their time together. I’ll look for it.

3 thoughts on “Reading, Writing, and Vicarious Longevity

  1. This is the most beautifully written and expressed “mindfulness” of a human’s musings I have read in longer than I can remember. This is what I want to hear about in my life! Such things are worth sharing between humans. Dignified and compelling, I shall enjoy the literary fecundity of your efforts. From your efforts, I feel better about being a human alive at this time in history. Thank you.

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