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The centre of the known universe.

March 3, 2013

I am at the airport, waiting for a flight I have caught several times before; SK 2550 – the Sunday evening service from Manchester to Stockholm. There is a particular quality to Sunday evening flights – or at least to this Sunday evening flight. It has to do with home. People going home, people leaving home. It feels different to flights on which people are going on holidays. Different again to the strange weariness and excitement that surrounds an imminent long-haul flight. It has to do with going into the world to work, to earn, perhaps to struggle (or, of course, returning from being out in the world to a domestic place, a family, home…).

There are the usual tearful farewells, the frantic phone calls, the sound of business men and women saying goodnight to children by phone instead of in person.

‘Daddy will be home soon. Love you darling. Let me talk to Mummy….’

But there is also a quiet purposefulness, a seriousness, which gives this flight its specific quality.

All travel has something to do with home – a trajectory away or towards. The traveller contemplates what is being left behind, what travelled towards. I imagine a few hundred years ago at the dockside those who were leaving, waiting, final farewells spoken, as today, we wait at the departure gates. A hundred years ago? Tonight, all over the world, there are men and women saying farewell, knowing that they may never return, as they set out to be smuggled in leaky ships, to walk across deserts, or without dignity, to be hidden in refrigerated trucks. They go into the world to work, to earn, to struggle.

I am not equating my experience with theirs. It is entirely different. I have passport, visa, credit card and the sure knowledge that I am welcome where I am going. Many of them have none of these and face a lifetime of being shunned, despised, blamed, hated. No, I am privileged and, amid the maelstrom of my own unhelpful thoughts, it is wise that I remember that.

At times I am ridiculously sentimental, moved easily to tears. Who was it who wrote of the extraordinary potency of cheap music? Whoever it was, was writing of a power I know well. On Saturday, as I rushed around buying things for the long trip that starts tonight, I paused for a moment on a street corner in Huddersfield. A charity collection was taking place and a sound system played Vera Lynn (sentimental music of the Second World War, for those to whom the name means nothing). Standing next to me, an old woman with rheumy eyes. She seemed lost in thoughts. Perhaps she was thinking of last night’s television, or of her shopping, or of poetry or the latest advances in biomedicine. I do not know, but I imagined her thinking of the war, of those who never returned, of those who did not get to live the life that they had, doubtless, started with such optimism. Perhaps, I thought, she remembered a fiancĂ©e, lost in the war, with whom she first heard Vera Lynn sing of the white cliffs of Dover.

I realised, of course, that the story I was inventing for her, was mine. It had nothing to do with her.

And as I stood there, I was in the middle of swirling universes – perhaps, more accurately, I was a universe in a swirling multiverse. For all around was unknowable. The thoughts of the old woman, of the passing young mother, of the shop worker smoking a bored cigarette or the angry man shouting at a child. All around, pain, joy, memory, ambition, dream, disappointment, love, anger, fear.

Surrounding me, yet none of it knowable to me

What could I possibly know?

Well, I could know this much. What I see, hear, touch, smell, taste, is real. My immediate experience is real. My immediate experience is my entire universe. Everything else – the experience of others – is unknowable. I might guess at the experience of others, but I can never know it. Everything in my own mind that is not direct experience, my thoughts and fears and dreams and frustrations, is also not real. They are just thoughts, as fleeting and changeable as a spring storm. On that street corner, my whole knowable universe existed in my senses and what was only inches from me, an old woman with rheumy eyes, was no more knowable to me that an electron is knowable to a tortoise.

That sense of absolute isolation and the ultimate unknowability of others, the sense of the endless and unreliable distractedness of my own mind, the sense that only what is perceived in this moment is actually real, might seem a reduction of the world. I did not feel it to be so. For just as we travel from place to place, so we also travel through time, passing from now to now. And just as travel in space – away from or towards – makes thoughts of home inevitable, so too traveling through time makes us think, always, of the ‘I’ we left behind and the ‘I’ we hope one day to become.

Realising things die, we treasure the fact that they are alive. Experiencing my whole universe dying and being reborn in each moment, in that moment, flowing through time, I experienced reality. It was not a reduction or a withdrawal. It was quite unbearably beautiful.

Standing on that street corner, all around me, infinite, unknowable universes of other people, endlessly dying, endlessly renewing. As Vera Lynn sang a song i’ve never liked, I almost started to cry. There was a cold wind and I blamed that….

Tonight I travel out again into the world. My life contracted to a suitcase. My life expanded to multiple cities, new sights, new perspectives. My whole universe – all that I can actually know – travels with me. Even in this limbo-land of an airport departure gate, the whole knowable universe is here.

This is my ultimate privilege. Not my passport, visas or credit card, though lord knows, I am grateful for them, My ultimate privilege is that I am alive to know my own universe. I look around at my fellow travellers and it is a privilege to be here, now, with them, each one so richly unknowably and unique.

I catch the eye of a passing businessman. He is Swedish. I guess he is heading home. He smiles at me as he talks into his phone. There is a complicity in this Sunday evening airport. If I was with a friend right now I would touch him or her, just gently. Perhaps I would look into his or her eyes. Perhaps you might choose to do that. For whoever you are with is unknowable to you. You are scarcely knowable to yourself. We are all dying and being reborn. The universe reformulates with every sound or sight. I take a moment to step out of the noise of my thoughts and to experience reality. For all reality is now.

And my privilege is that I am alive to experience now.

‘Will all remaining passengers for flight SK 2550 to Stockholm, please proceed to gate 24 for immediate boarding ….’

The universe comes with me as we taxi towards takeoff.



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