While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Chronology of Travel, Part Two

(This is the second part of a two part essay... read the first part here.)

The Spiritual Side (and an Extended Basketball Metaphor)

I am very concerned with the progress of time, mortality and all that. Time has moved too fast for me since I was small. I am almost 25, and feel like Adam Smith in Tom Fitzsimon's poem:

Oh, I meant to have done more. …

Oh, I meant for more to be written;
I meant for all
to be well.

Being so caught up with time—its inexorable progress, the You Can Never Step In The Same River Twiceness—is a full-court game. At one end you play defence: you are the Washington Generals playing the Harlem Globetrotters. Time toys with you. There is no way you can stop it from scoring, but you are compelled to try, to tire yourself out. At the other end, you are on offence, but now there is no opposition. The game has ended long ago and you are playing in the moonlight which floods in through the windows high up near the gymnasium roof. The squeak of your sneakers on the hardwood sounds like street racers on a Friday night. The slap of the ball against the court is as loud and constant as you imagine your heart beat. There is no one else, but this is still a game. On your side are memory and imagination. The three of you can summon up the Harlem Globetrotters, but permit you to have the ball, to take the shot, to win the game.

To care about time, and your use of it, is to maximise one attribute: memory. And, with a healthy imagination in tow, you can achieve anything, alone in the gymnasium of your mind.

This is what it is like living a life pressured by time. Time will frustrate you, but in those time-out-of-mind moments when you can recall and cast forwards, remember and imagine, there are small victories. You will never win the championship, but if you cram your life full of unique events (and therefore memorable memories) you may just break .500.

This is why travel—ah, he returns to travel at last—is intoxicating for the hurried, those down on the rocks of time, those with alarm clocks falling on their heads every day, because it leaves you with more memories, more remembered time. And, with a little leap of faith (or a lot of stomping down the intellect) you can see that time is limitless. All you need is memory and imagination.


The thing is, though, time isn’t limitless. Sure, it jumps and spits and hiccups, and you can live on fast forward and rewind and pause, but ultimately: you die. Time’s up.

In Part One I said that travelling didn’t stretch time physically, but it did spiritually. Spiritually? I just said that time ends when you die. Well, it’s true that I am not a member of any organised religion, hardly ever think about the existence of a higher power, almost incontrovertibly doubt the possibility of an afterlife (though I fancy reincarnation would be a lark), and, if I’m honest, think what is commonly called new age spiritualism is a load of bunk. But there needs to be a word for what is not physical, and what is not intellectual, and spiritual is the best band aid I can find.

Just as Christians believe in the existence of God beyond logic and reason (the intellect), memory, for me, exists beyond the intellect. I’m sure memory has logic to it, but its own logic. How memories are recalled, the strange, seemingly unconnected stimuli that bring a memory back, is not science. Why some events stick in the memory instead of others cannot be represented by a formula. [Well, maybe it’s a Poisson Distribution, like in Gravity’s Rainbow—I never understood the maths.]

When you stop travelling and look back, it feels like you stretched time. This feeling is spiritual. It is outside of logic and reason. Outside of the physical world. With very few spiritual experiences waiting around the corner these days, travel is an easy fix. And like other fixes, travel is addictive. When you stop, reflect, and compare those times to your life while not travelling, the natural reaction is to plan your next trip.


There is another readily available spiritual experience that needn’t involve churches or needles: fiction, preferably good fiction. Sure, there’s a physical side to reading: holding the book, the optics involved in transmitting light rays into thoughts. And there’s an intellectual side: comprehending the words and sentences using the rules of a given language that accrete daily. But something else happens when you read a good story. You are invited into the moonlit gymnasium of someone else’s mind. Beyond the paper and words, there is a spiritual experience.
Writing fiction is to inhabit your own moonlit gymnasium, and, with memory and imagination (and an intellectual knowledge of spelling, grammar and Microsoft Word, and the physical ability to type) you people this space.

The aim of fiction is to squeeze more into life, to permit people to experience more, arm them with memories and massage their imaginations to distort time.

Bad fiction makes you feel like you are standing in Anne Frank’s house as a tourist attraction in 2007: there are four walls and the address is the same, but the heroine feels far away and unsubstantial. ‘Fictional’.

Good fiction gives you memories which are indistinguishable from those acquired from your own experience of the world. The view from Arthur’s Seat and the view from the Marabar Caves.

Footnotes, disclaimers and admissions
1. I know Tom Fitzsimons, but it’s not unusual for young wannabe NZ writers to know each other.
2. Adam Smith lived and died in Edinburgh. I stumbled across his grave, as if guided by an invisible hand.

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