Thursday, January 01, 2009

Remember To Live! a Cautionary Essay by Michael Pastore

Happy New Year 2009, fellow human beings. May we all prosper this year, with health, and wealth, and loyal friends, and untold happiness.

Enclosed is a slice from a dizzying old life, and a glimpse of my cheerful new one. As Mr. Emerson so optimistically reminded us:
"We are very near to greatness; one step and we are safe; can we not take the leap?"

Remember To Live!

by Michael Pastore

Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life,
when a glorious existence is possible for you?
-- Henry David Thoreau

Late! Late again!

Minutes before the deadline I send the two-megabyte file, and now -- mere moments after finishing an exhausting project -- I am reminded about an urgent meeting, thanks to ingenious life-planning software and its relentless symphony of emails, jingles, and beeps. The countdown timer reveals a fleeting 1200 seconds to prepare.

I laughed at the stress: It is more important to be well-dressed than on time. Glancing at the online calendar -- “Colleagues at the meeting: conservative” -- I remove my “Obama 2008” T-shirt and then turn it inside out to match the zeitgeist of my belligerent audience. In bold letters, the shirt’s front delivers the message: “My Messiah can beat up your Messiah.”

Swiftly now, I convert some pertinent articles from formats text to mp3 then move them to an audio player. These are read to me aloud, as I grab dinner (one energy bar) from a bookshelf filled with hundreds of these bars, sorted by the chewy decimal system: by protein-content, flavor and size. In one click, I pay three bills with online bill pay. Now to my wife’s phone message (“Do something about the leak in the bedroom ceiling, and water the plants.”) -- with hurried poise I place a potted philodendron underneath the leak. Still listening to the mp3ed articles, I snatch four ice cubes and drop them into clay pots to water my thirsty plants.

Timer tells me there is one minute, one precious minute, of time free. I toss some old books on top of a beautiful wooden desk in my living room, the desk which I call my “cemetery of dreams”. Here I deposit sacred heaps of notebooks, scraps of paper notes, someday books to read, CDs of music to listen to and languages to learn, photos of friends to contact, titles of books to write, quotations from classic novelists and philosophers, names of charities and causes to learn more about. All the impassioned projects I would tackle wholeheartedly, if some great cosmic power would eliminate the necessity for money and work.

Haunted am I by information in never-ending waves.

Crossing the doorway threshold I hear my computer beep-beep-beep the wild cry of an UNA: an urgent news alert. Is it another wasteful war? The immanent economic meltdown? Some indispensable innovation in one of the fields of my expertise? ... Thinking about my profession -- where to be uninformed is hara-kiri -- I rush indoors to the giant screen. The news alerts me to the fact that a gust of wind has blown a giant inflatable dog turd beyond the bounds of a Swiss art museum, where it flew 200 meters, broke some windows, and took down a power line. The work of art had been equipped with a bad-weather safety system, which of course had utterly failed to perform.

Walking, walking to the meeting, I watch a squirrel make a breathtaking leap between two tall trees. The motto of Goethe strikes me: “Remember to Live.” You see, every day during my working hours (which is almost all my waking hours), I entertain the faraway feeling that I have forgotten something. Something essential for me to understand.

I turn off the audio player in the middle of an article about trends in electronic publishing. An old man is walking -- slower than snail --- in the middle of the street, bent in half like the Greek letter gamma. He drops his cane; and when I pick up the cane and hand it back to him he shakes his head and says: “You work your life away. And then this.”

And then he squeezed my hand and I remembered.


Some years ago I traveled around the world with a backpack and a bike. I had been wondering what would happen to me if I turned off the incessant noise: the computer, the phone, the television, the advertising propaganda, the terabytes of trivial facts, nonsense, and news. I hoped to find cultures, peoples, and individuals who were living a more natural life, a life vastly different from our comfortable — and some might say vicarious, buy-crazy, over-refined — existence in the West. As a traveling Thoreau, I lived simply: sleeping under the stars, eating whatever I could forage or buy inexpensively from farmers or shops, and cycling or hiking to undeveloped places that the guidebooks would never recommend.

During this year-long journey there was only one time when I found precisely what I was looking for. I had gotten myself lost, thoroughly off the map, and had wandered into a small village in a valley between great mountains. On a dirt road, when I first approached the village, I saw enormous blue herons who made nests on top of telephone poles. As I wheeled past them they flew into the sky, flapping their wings awkwardly and ever-so-slowly, graceful reminders of a timeless world. From the pole-tops they would land on what first resembled pillars, thirty feet tall, like stacks of giant mudpies. Hundreds of these heaps surrounded me, all made of dung and straw: I soon learned that this was the preferred fuel for cooking and for heat.

Quickly I began to wonder about the people who welcomed the blue birds and created these practical and hilarious towers. The men in this village wore dark caps with gold sewing needles stuck inside, and spent much of their day yammering in the lone cafĂ©, and no more than twenty hours per week working in their fields. Though the women worked constantly they laughed more, and seemed even happier than the men. Early in the mornings I would watch five of these women — sitting in a circle around a deep earthen pit — talking and working together to make the bread for the day, the same way their ancestors had worked for centuries before. The first woman started the fire in the bottom of the pit and kept it burning; the second woman mixed the flour and water; the third rolled this mixture into round balls; the fourth flattened the balls into thin circle-shaped doughs the size of a small pizza pie; the fifth placed the flat round dough on the sides of the pit then took it out at just the right moment when the bread was done. There was no word in their language for ‘leftovers’ — the bread and all the meals would be made fresh every day. These simple people believed that food, like life, needed always to be made new.

As the village guest, I was treated with grand hospitality and kinglike esteem. In a week I was able to learn enough of their language to explain where I was from, what my life in America was like, and why I was a-traveling. And after the explanation a young boy, perhaps ten years old, took me by the hand and told me that he wanted to show me something, and that this sight would be the best and most interesting attraction that I would find anywhere in his entire town.

He led me to his great-grandfather, an old man working in a field. The moment the old man saw me he removed his hat and placed his hand over his heart. He called to his family to make a feast for me, and to chop wood for my warm bath. By Western standards he had few reasons to be happy, and yet all the time I observed him, in all moments, he was radiant with joyfulness.

I stayed the night in his best room, and in the morning I loaded my bicycle, pointing the front wheel to the west. I described my destination (a large lake in the mountains); I explained that although I carried a map I had become entirely lost. With a great smile, he told me some words which I carefully wrote down -- it would be months later before I understood. “My son,” he said, placing an arm around my shoulder. “My son, listen to an old fool who in his whole life has learned one thing alone. No matter how far you’ve traveled on the wrong road, turn back.”


My summer of unending labor continued, and nothing eventful happened until a certain Tuesday in the Fall, the fourth day of November in the year 2008. Gripped by my computer screen, I watched the early election returns. Those of us who had suffered over the past eight years felt that this night could change the course of history. It would be a revolution, a genuine revolution, an expansion of consciousness in America and the entire world.

My wife played a piano version of Sarasate’s “Gypsy Airs” as I tallied electoral votes. I had wandered to my cemetery of dreams, and unconsciously began to sort the heap of papers into project piles. I picked up a biography of Goethe, where long ago I had bookmarked a page with the gem: “As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.”

What would I do if I could paint my paradise and walk in? ... I would master the arts of loving and being kind. I would center my life about relationships: with family, neighbors, and friends. I would balance my life with Dr. Montagu’s prescription: “Health is the ability to love, to work, to play, and to think soundly.” I would use my encyclopedic knowledge and savvy about the latest technologies -- not to worship and improve technology itself -- to advance a sustainable lifestyle, a healthy planet, safe havens for all species, freedom, peace, justice, education, great books, and the creative arts. I would live more simply and wisely, and encourage others to do the same. Like Noah, I would start huge foolish projects, and not care a damn what other people might think.

“He’s winning,” I told my wife, after adding the prospective votes from Washington,Oregon, and California. “Let’s walk.”

The streets in our little town were quiet until an hour before midnight. Then, from the center of the town known as “the Commons”, we heard a cheer -- an enormous roar. What joyful freedom sounded in that colossal cheer! My wife squeezed my hand. Two young black teenagers, both female, came running down the street shouting “Obama! Obama! Obama!” Some Autumn leaves must have fallen from the trees into my eyes: how else could I explain my wet cheeks, now covered with streams and streams of tears?

And I tell you now, that despite all the obstacles our culture throws at us, and all the struggles our creative spirits must endure -- that night I promised myself I would remember. And act every day on that remembering, and begin my life anew. It would mean sacrifice: I would have less, I would be more.

There is so much good in all of us, so much kindness, so many noble dreams. I know now that Goethe meant: “Remember to live sincerely, passionately, intensely.” The person who has lived the most is not the one with the most years or the most wealth, but the one with the richest experiences. To remember to live is one thing mainly: to remember to love.

This is our moment. This is our time.


Michael Pastore is the Editorial Director of Epublishers Weekly, and the the author of more than a dozen books of fiction and non-fiction, including the forthcoming The Tao of Information: How to Simplify Your Life, Keep up with Technology, and Harvest the Internet’s Essential Facts and Ideas in 30 Minutes a Day. (Zorba Press, Spring 2009).

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