Offbeat 01 April 2016
The far-off, high-up clouds to the north of my house are gun-metal grey and heavy with rain. To the south the clouds are lower, tinged with the early orange of street lights. Light aircraft are making their late take-offs and landings as fast as small birds with pressing appointments.
The lightning on that side is as vivid as anything produced in the pages of National Geographic and very, very dramatic. Perhaps, somewhere in some patch of veld, some lovelorn woman is crying out for Heathcliff. Perhaps a maniac in a cheap ghost mask is sneaking up on an unwary teen, nattering on the phone. Maybe, somewhere, some lightning-struck carcass is crawling back to life and the promise of terror. None of that matters to me. I’ve got mine: the high wind has arrived and the cooling rain will be here in a minute or two.
Perfect. Except perhaps I should play Jean-Michel Jarre’s Magnetic Fields. It’s my personal soundtrack for wet weather by night. The next few hours look like they justify the listening. I am content. I have what I want now, and I can want something else tomorrow, possibly dry washing, or I might want more of the same.
My friend in Europe wants something different. He wants an end to the snow and the cold. I suspect he wants to be back here, basking in the ugly-natured heat that everyone here has complained so bitterly about. People who are born here grow up wanting rain. People from colder countries want the opposite. It makes me think that we are defined, in many ways, by that which we do not have.
The clues to people’s desires untangle themselves in difficult ways. Perhaps George W. Bush lacked in the respect department, or felt a bit impotent. Perhaps my noisy party-by-night, party-all-night neighbours weren’t popular as children. Do the denizens of the gossip columns make up the stories about themselves because they feed on the attention? Too much desire can make fools of us.
And what of the people who have nothing left to want? I watched a documentary filmmaker portray his ultra-rich father. The setting was a dingy room. The father was painting a landscape, which didn’t arouse my imagination. His father said ‘you need to have a goal’. I wonder if I will ever be wealthy enough, bored enough, to want to be able to paint a landscape beneath a roof, within four walls.
Buddhism and Jainism have at their hearts, the state of Nirvana, the absence of suffering, part of which is the suffering which desire brings. These states can be achieved by the comfort of wealth or contentment in poverty, though I suspect the former is a more likely route. And, if you doubt me on that, ask a poor person.
I have lost or abandoned a lot of my own desires: not desiring something takes away a lot of the complications of not needing to go out and get it. I don’t want to be Tom Waits anymore. I am working on my envy of TS Elliot and the drunk who wrote ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’, whose name temporarily eludes me. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind seeking out Buddha’s Nirvana by becoming ineffably wealthy.
But I suspect that our desires are what keep us moving along. The will to live in itself is a desire, so the absence of desire must in some way be linked with death.
My betting is that even the hermit who sits on top of the mountain top probably has one last koan to get his mind around, and that people who have no desires whatsoever are not people at all.
The ability to look into the future, see something ahead and head off in that direction is what makes us what we are. The corruption of our spirits can probably be derived from the distance to the object and the speed of our progress, weighted by the level of desire. And so, perhaps, evil can become a mathematical expression.
In the short time that it has taken to write this, the wind, thunder, lightning and rain have passed, and I didn’t go and sit outside and watch it with Jean-Michel Jarre in my head. I know what I will want tomorrow, and I know that I am human.