Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Beast in the Basement

So the eighth month of the eleventh year of the new century is almost over.  Eleven years in to century 21, and I'm just learning to fill in the date blank on my checks with a number that begins with two.

So far, the 21st century has been a blur.  Tempus has never fugited at such speed.  It seems like I've barely had time to feed the dog.  And there's a new year coming and a new year after that, and they'll come faster and faster, and I'm finally forced to accept the idea that sooner or later, one of those new years will arrive without me in it.

There comes a time in everyone's life when it becomes impossible to continue to ignore the Beast in the basement.  We may have persuaded ourselves that we'd be young always or that middle age now lasts longer than ever, or even that 60 is the new 40, but at a certain point you hear the Beast bumping around down there.  Once in a while it scrapes its nails against the door at the top of the stairs.  It's getting impatient.

If I belonged to a religion that promised either resurrection or reincarnation -- some kind of post-mortem dance card -- I'd probably feel a little different.  But I don't.  So that leaves me in the position of asking all the usual questions: why, what for, where to now?

One of my favorite films (if I've written about this before, forgive me) is the Japanese movie "Afterlife," written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-Eda.  You die and you find yourself a member of a group of new arrivals at a rundown facility that looks like an abandoned high school: drab corridors, linoleum floors, drafty rooms, the tea never the right temperature.  You're there for a week, and you have only one thing to do: through a series of interviews with the staff', you're going to choose the moment from your life in which you will spend eternity.

We follow one group of interviewees through the film, and we watch them, one by one, sift their lives for meaning or happiness.  Most of them start with something big and gradually refine it into something tiny.  A high school girl killed in a car crash begins with the night she and her friends went to Tokyo Disneyland, but she finally chooses a moment when she was four and she was resting her cheek on her mother's knee and she could smell the freshly laundered linen of her mother's apron.  One man chooses a moment in which he himself was miserable, but he had just freed the woman he was to marry so she could be with the man she loved, and she was ecstatic.  He decides to spend eternity in the moment of her happiness.

When everyone has made a choice, the memories are filmed in a wonderfully low-tech studio, and then the interviewees all come together in a small theater, and as a person's moment in screened, poof, he or she disappears.

When my wife and I saw this film for the first time, it changed the way we look at our lives.  We made a commitment to try to acknowledge good moments, however tiny, as they arise.  And for eight or ten years now, we've worked to keep the commitment fresh.

So, as the Beast gets bumptious, I guess what I need to do is keep myself open to the richness of those moments while I'm in them; love more and love better; write more and write better; and try never to go numb to beauty.  And to have as good a time as I can, because the only god I could ever believe in is one that regards joy as the highest form of worship.  In other words, I should live as I should have been living all along.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. This is lovely, Tim. While I hope that the Beast in the Basement stays there for as long as you want it to I do appreciate how the Beast has a way of teaching us to savor the sweetness of life. I am not sure what moment I would choose to capture eternally. The first thing that comes to mind is when my daughter was an infant and I held her in my arms and just watched her tiny face as she slept. Would my arms and neck get tired in the Afterlife that you describe? If that's the case I better choose more wisely!

  2. What most individuals don't realize is that we all need to be conscious about the journey we are destined to make. Conscious of our lives, what we do that brings meaning to our existence and how we can prepare to take that walk through the curtain that separates life from death. While I am in no hurry, nor should you be, I am curious.
    Anonymous #2

  3. I do believe in an afterlife but that doesn't mean that the Beast in the Basement isn't a concern.

    Since I read this post, about six hours ago, I've been thinking about moments that matter. One of the moments can be anyone of the Christmas Eves since my three children were, suddenly, all adults. They exchange their gifts to each other on Christmas Eve. These gifts are carefully considered, somewhat off the wall,and generally obscure, DVDs and books. They are awake almost all night watching the films. I can hear them laughing. One of the things I wanted for them as they grew older was a close relationship that would last their whole lives. Christmas Eve film fests prove to me that they know each other so well each knows what will please the other and they care enough about pleasing each other that they troll websites, second hand bookstores, and charity shops for the perfect thing; the choices are made with great deliberation and the gifts are really appreciated because they are something they would never receive from anyone outside their circle of three.

    Another moment that means so much to me occurred when my second daughter was in the third grade and my son was in kindergarten. The school had a talent show and my daughter signed up to play her violin. My son was sitting on the floor with his class and I was fortunate to be in a position where I could watch both of them. When she started to play, he got up on his knees and he never took his eyes off her. I can still see the expression on his face - he was so proud of her but he was also concerned that she would make a mistake. He was so afraid she would be embarrassed. She played it perfectly and when she was finished she looked at him and smiled. She knew he was willing her through a perfect performance. He put his fist in the air and then he sank back to the floor. He could finally take a deep breath.

    I doubt that either of them remember that moment but it is mine to keep.

  4. Thanks to all who wrote. This one is a little difficult for me to reply to because it's a lot more personal than most stuff I post, but here goes.

    Anonymous One -- You're exactly right, and I suppose that was the (unmade) point of what I wrote - that our knowledge of the Beast should sweeten the time we have and make us more conscious of how we use it. Your moment sounds perfect, and I doubt that muscle strain is much of a concern in eternity. My moment would certainly include my wife, and it would probably be one of the times we literally could not stop laughing. When all is said and done, writing and laughing are my two favorite things.

    Anonymous Two -- Yes, I think the whole thing is how we lead the lives we're given, which is the point of some of the world's religions, many of which I'd be okay with if it weren't for their insistence on God. That's why I'm more Buddhist than anything -- because it's really a path of life, not a theology. And reincarnation in Buddhism (remember, the Buddha lived in a Hindu world, rich in reincarnation doctrine) is not of the I-was-an-English-prince-in-an-earlier-life nature; he says that nothing that could conceivably be called "I" survives reincarnation. I'm in no hurry to meet the Beast because I love my life, and life in general, and I have to confess that I'm not so much curious as, um, apprehensive.

    Beth, that's a beautiful moment, and like you to choose a moment in which the happiness you feel is caused by the happiness of others. One of the things so interesting about "Afterlife" is the journey people take to identify their moments. I think Kore-Eda is currently the greatest writer working in film.