Writer in Residence · 09/01/2012

Movement is the Meaning of Life

I’m no sage, but I think I’ve got the meaning of life. I could be wrong, but I’m probably not. The meaning of life is movement. Not momentum, not progress, nor pacing, not souvenirs or memories gathered. It’s not distance travelled. It’s not the brave battle against inertia. It’s not the variability of movement, although essential variability is inevitable. It is simply movement.

At the most basic level, a living body requires food, drink, and energy moving through it. At an equally basic level, a human mind requires interaction with art or animals or nature or other people – of at least occasional intensity to be “moving.” Is there any better compliment a writer hears than “your words moved me”? The Greek philosophers walked while they debated – Aristotle and Socrates both claimed to do their best thinking and their best lecturing while on the move.

As writer-in-residence, I didn’t impose any theme, per se, but I asked the writers to think about bridges. Not building them, but finding them. Encountering stepping stones or connection points that crop up uninvoked or uninvited but allow a journey to progress. Fallen logs across streams. Transitions. Stories, photos, images and metaphors that might move a person in unintended new directions. Kismet – to use one of my favourite words from high school. Carl Jung.

Bridges make further movement possible, and coming upon unbidden bridges can expand a journey unexpectedly. Each fallen log invites a crossing over. Necessary Fiction, not just fiction, but necessary fiction, is the story that permits and indeed requires those leaps from one point to another. Sometimes a writer intends to create that invitation for the reader, and each stepping stone is strategic and well-placed. Frequently though, invitations are unintended, and authors, like all artists, open new pathways to their readers entirely by accident.

Even at a person’s most reduced state — all meaning seems lost, the man or woman is distilled down to absolutely nothing — the only essence of hope remaining is the journey itself, the search for something better, the physical movement toward possibility. Consider The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The journey becomes the whole post-apocalyptic point, the movement towards something, and also away. All hope exists in that continued movement.

Consider too the centuries-old tradition of religious pilgrimage, a celebration of one’s deepest spiritual convictions — by no means a thing of the past, relegated to English classes on Chaucer. A Dutch flight attendant describes her important job on the chartered Mecca route after the Hajj – taking stock of the return-flight body bags before departure. Sometimes, very elderly passengers who’ve held on to life past all expectations make this important journey, but then expire before the return flight makes it home. The plane has to be appropriately outfitted for a respectful conclusion of this important pilgrimage. If the journey itself is so important that a person’s state of being alive is extended in its honor, there’s undoubtedly something sacred going on. And it’s worth noting all journeys may hold similar importance for the traveller.

But is it the journey itself — the gathering of experience and souvenirs, exposure to new friends and cultures? Is it the learning, the bringing back? Or is it just the movement? I think the souvenirs, physical keepsakes or emotionally broadening moments are the bonus. The movement itself is often the point.

In fact, the journey doesn’t have to be physical. Consider Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of French Elle who suffered a stroke and lived for two years with Locked-in Syndrome. His vibrant mental journey permitted his movement even while his body was completely paralyzed. The progress he made by blinking out an alphabet and writing of his experience (which Julian Schnabel then beautifully produced in film) moved Bauby from one point to another, from one intense day’s experience to the next. All his hope, as well as his despair, lay therein. If you haven’t seen it, check out The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

For an adolescent’s transition to adulthood, or rite of passage, the actual passage is often essential to the rite. In Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, an American boy takes off on horseback for Mexico – another country, culture, and language — and there his adulthood will be confirmed. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, same thing… the transition to adulthood doesn’t happen till the young man makes his way from point A to point B. And generally, he slays a dragon or a ferocious Native American warlord on the way. And in all likelihood, he also experiences unimaginable loss — a requisite lesson. The rite of passage journey is a pilgrimage like the Wife of Bath took in the 14th century, only her quest was to meet up with God (or St. Thomas Becket at the Canterbury Cathedral) whereas the boy’s quest is to meet up with his own potential, his very manhood, God within, you might say.

And we’re starting to miss that. Today, we get from A to B very quickly. In Russia, the Christian tradition of pilgrimage dates back to the 11th century, with destinations extending as far as the Holy Land or as near as the icon in the nearest town’s church. Tour operators today can arrange for a pilgrimage in Russia from anywhere in Europe. A journey that once would have taken months (and perhaps cost the lives of the weary travellers) is now a three-hour flight on EasyJet. Four hours, if you count security. The journey is an inconvenience now; it is no longer the purpose. And souvenirs (from any type of journey) are likewise devalued. One tulip bulb from Holland was worth many thousands of dollars in 1637. Today, you can fill a suitcase with tchotchkes, tulip bulbs from Holland included, plus a wheel of Edam, for less than a tenner. These things cost very little, and they are worth even less. And yet we keep them, to mark our experience by them, and devalue them even more, in the clutter.

A personal example: when I was 17, a French guy named Patrice took my number in a Parisian disco and later called my house in Kansas City, 5am local time. Occasionally my parents still talk about it. A two-minute long-distance call consisting mostly of awkward identification of caller and call-ee and confirmation that the call-ee had all but lost her French disco fluency. One phone call. New awareness of time zones and the earth’s geography. It was a big deal. Likewise, my English family would call on Christmas, do a round-robin conversation, naming each person and asking of their health – maybe five, ten minutes for the total call, and we’d hang up until the next time, 365 days hence, when it was my American family’s turn to call back. A big deal. It cost a fortune. And we valued those calls. Now, technology has made it all easy and cheap — with email, even the earth and its time zones no longer matter. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I do recognize the old values in precious things, the heightened significance of long-distance connections, people we’ve known, exceptional moments we’ve met along the way.

We do take false steps as we move along. Sometimes, there are false hopes in the footsteps, making progress like a tide does, one moment rushing in, the next retreating, but always moving… the point is if we are alive, we keep doing it. People who suffer and despair are often people who are stuck, who believe they are walking forward and yet they’re not moving, versus those who are moving, perhaps not even through their own steps, but who keep going. But in any journey, with any form of movement, the bridges must be there, the connectors between the last step-stone and the next, or the last person or the last story and the narrative of the next. The eternal connectors exist, whether they’re noticed or not. Sometimes they’ll lead a journeyman astray for a while, but always, they allow for more movement. And it’s that movement — whether linear or looping, condensed or protracted, calling loudly or whispering its secrets — that is the foundation of our being alive.

In every case, this month’s stories at Necessary Fiction invite the reader to jump — take a leap of faith, if you don’t mind the cliché — and they grant the reader permission to pass, to explore further, and to expand the journey of discovery. Enjoy. And by all means, if something moves you, leave a comment for the writer. Writers like that.

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posted by Nancy Freund