I do. I do want to be found. I do want you to find me.
– Kip in The English Patient (film)
I recently read this post by Oliver Burkeman about making life more mysterious.
Some of the suggestions included things like:
- Ask whomever you go to dinner with to choose your meal for you.
- Make friends with people twice your age.
- Start remembering the faces of strangers who you live and work near. When you see them again, make a mental note of when and where they were, what they were doing. Soon, you will have an abstract picture of who they are that becomes more fascinating with each encounter.
The point is to reduce the sludgy feeling that time can sometimes accrue when you’re not diligent about breaking routine – the piling up of day upon day, week upon week, and the resultant existential heaviness.
I decided to start small by riding a different way to work. I had a vague notion of where I was going but London is the place where vague notions go to die. London is all about the decision, the result, the viewpoint: those who “don’t know” are the embarrassing tumbleweeds of the city. The point of the exercise, though, was not knowing. So, inevitably, I got lost. I was somewhere between Loughborough and Kennington on the little tangle of roads and potholey pathways and alleys and I think I was somewhere near this forlorn park called the Charlie Chaplin Park – actually, it really did look like somewhere the Tramp might hang out. I saw two squirrels eating out of rubbish bins and a driven-into lamp post that had flopped over and actually uprooted itself out of the concrete. Even though this was a nowhere-ish suburban neighbourhood, there were cars everywhere. (One thing that still disconcerts me about London is how every place that should be lonesome is in fact full, or at least dotted, with people. Dodgy store selling irons and lint-rollers – people. The ladies’ loo in an independent cafe with minimal signage – people. Corner of Ruskin Park at 6.30 in the morning – people and their retired greyhounds.) I had the sense that we were all circling aimlessly, because we had all read that post by Oliver Burkeman. We all thought it would be great to kick off the day with a mystery, and now we would all be late for work. Very possibly this would be the last straw for our managers and we would be issued with formal warnings. At one point there was another cyclist ahead of me who obviously knew where he was going – fluoro bum flap, bulging backpack, etc. – so I followed him for a block or so, but then he turned down a narrow path that didn’t look right. (Another thing that disconcerts me about London is that all too often, the path that looks dubious is in fact right. Read into that what you will.)
When I saw a red bus in the distance I rode towards it. A red bus is the sign of a main road, like a seagull is a sign of land (unless you are very far out to sea, and the seagull has gone there to die, as The Simpsons have taught us). Lo and behold, I was soon on the hallowed blue strip of Kennington Road! (The blue strip is the Holy Grail for cyclists because it makes the road very smooth.) I joined the thick stream of cyclists hoofing it towards Elephant and Castle, a major road intersection I’ve never ridden through. A friend has warned me that this place is “irredeemably shite” – and there is something irredeemably empty about it, something gaping and grim. If there actually was a place where buses go to die, it would be Elephant and Castle.
Oliver Burkeman says that mystery can have the effect of triggering awe, which is “a vital aspect of happiness usually overlooked by positive-thinking types, who crave guaranteed good outcomes instead.”
I’m not a positive-thinking type, but I do crave good outcomes with a slavish hunger. When I’m lost, I want to find my way or to be found immediately. When I’m ordering some food I’ve never eaten before, I want it to be nice and not take ages to arrive. If I attempt to make friends with someone twice my age, I want them to not be a cantankerous old bastard and I want it to be a meaningful friendship based on more than what we “did” on the weekend. And when I see two people who are very angry with each other, after I’ve felt the required awe at the degree of their public rage I want them to shake hands and say it was all a joke to keep the rest of us on our toes, and I want the police to then go away.
Stopped at a set of red lights were a very angry cyclist and a very angry motorist. The motorist and the cyclist swore at each other. The cyclist’s bag and all its contents were strewn across the road. The motorist grabbed the cyclist’s bike and threw it onto the road. The bike clanged and its wheels wobbled around. This elicited more swearing from the main cyclist, and a gasp from the cyclists around me. Apart from the gasping, our platoon was paralysed. We knew that we were witnessing a serious incident. But we hadn’t seen what had happened before this and we had no idea what was going to happen next. It really did seem as if time had stopped. (Time passes more slowly when we have to absorb more information, as Burkeman notes in a Guardian piece on the relativity of time. The basic idea is that unfamiliar experiences, given that we use more of our faculties to make sense of them, will seem to us as having lasted a long time. Any high-concentration or high-adrenaline activity has this effect.) So it was a surprise when the lights changed and we had to ride past, looking back over our shoulders as the police, who’d duly arrived at the scene, handcuffed the motorist.
I got to work late, but I did feel different when I arrived, somehow. I felt very tired but also quite nervous and jumpy, as if I was on the brink of something. So I guess this is like the annoying ending of that Raymond Carver story “Fat”: “My life is going to change. I feel it.” But the thing is, I get the feeling that if one were to wait long enough doing nothing, this feeling would go away.