8 The Leopard (and His Spots)

We’re into weird territory now, and I’m a little excited. My hold on reality—loose as it’s been (so as not to say non-existent) since early this morning—has just undergone one more lateral nudge. Whatever I’m clasping at now is clearly not what I’m used to. I can’t blame the Bloody Mary: it may have been perfect, but it was not nearly so strong as to give me hallucinations. Do Bloody Marys ever? Is seeing yourself as a youthful rendering in your current day environment a hallucination? Then again, is a somewhat trendy garden bar cafe restaurant in the currently fashionable part of Istanbul ‘my environment’? And what are they thinking of me in Kingston, Surrey, right now? Should I care?

I resolve, for the first time really today, to ‘deal’ with the situation. Right up until now, I have been essentially bewildered and in no small measure bemused by my overall predicament, but now it transpires there’s something I must do. This fills me with gloom quite as much as it stirs me. Ideally, I would do nothing. I would sit here and wait for it all—whatever ‘it’ is—to just go away. But conditions are no longer ideal. Whereas until a few minutes ago I was maybe disorientated but principally happy to just exist in a reality that didn’t quite make sense but that would probably, I surmised, explain itself to me in one way or another sooner or later, I am now deeply discomfited. And as the extraordinariness of my state begins to dawn on me, it also begins to impose itself on me with a meaning, a forceful declamation of purpose: it seems to be saying you are here precisely to confront your own younger self. And that is plainly absurd.

The angular waitress is nowhere to be seen and so I halfheartedly wave at a sweet looking colleague of hers who is and has been all smiles. He looks about twenty-seven-and-three-and-a-half-months and wears one discreet earring and a handsome tattoo that encircles his arm below a deliberately high-rolled shirt sleeve. He likes me, I think, but then at the moment I am quite likeable, and quite helpless, as I glance up at him and ask him what it was that the young man over there had eaten, offering him an innocent smile: before you interfere with your reality, check it.

He glances halfway over his shoulder and furrows his brow for an instant or two, and my heart sinks. There’s nobody there. I’m imagining him, I am losing control. Hah, losing control, I’ve lost it several hours ago, possibly several decades…

He slowly turns back to me and declares: ‘Kebab. Mixed kebab and salad. Are you still hungry?’ – ‘No,’ I reply, only now aware of how odd a question that must have seemed, ‘no, not at all, I was just wondering; it looked nice.’ This satisfies him, and from his expectant look I deduce that he thinks I will want to order something anyway, maybe another coffee? I pause for a moment and then say, as if that was the most natural thing in the world: ‘do you think he would mind if I asked him a question?’

Ahmed—I later find out is his name—cocks his head a bit as if to say ‘are you serious?’ but instead, with a still growing smile says: ‘There is no harm in asking a question.’ I am relieved, but not sure that he’s right, necessarily. Would that not depend on the question?

I feel I have caught myself on the hop and I order, somewhat on a whim, a mojito this time round and—sensing my window of opportunity close and the boldness in my adrenalin-fuelled heart wane—ask Ahmed to ask young me (without referring to him as young me, for obvious reasons) if he would join me for one, as I would like to, there being no harm in asking a question, ask him a question.

Ahmed seems to enjoy this task, one he has never, I fancy, been given before, and brazenly marches up to young me and asks me if I would care to join the gentleman over there for a mojito. To my unending surprise I say yes. But then I have always been good for a new conversation, even back then, when I was, or believe to remember being, naturally disposed towards caution.

As I sit there watching myself saunter over to me, I sense an overpowering surge of affection and care. God, I think to myself, if only I knew…

Obsolemnum

Then always the inherent question to self: am I going to be one who says I would if I could, or am I going to be one who says I could and I did. It’s a loaded question, heavy with expectation, anxiety; pressure, even. And it’s also maybe the wrong question. Because if I could and I did, what is remarkable about that? Isn’t that what we do: what we can? If we don’t do what we can, then what do we do? 

So is the more pertinent question: am I going to be one who says I could and I did, or am I going to be one who says I couldn’t but I did all the same. I found a way. I learnt how to do it. I overcame my reluctance, my objections, my fear. I surmounted the obstacles, of which there were many. I was told what I wanted to do was impossible and I said: I hear you. I don’t believe you. I believe what I have in mind may be difficult, it may be near unattainable, but impossible is nothing. I shall do it anyway. And if that is my way, and my way alone.

There are so many who opine. There are so many voices that make up the din of the world. There are so many who have tried, and tell you so. There are so many who know how it’s done. From experience, from having done it themselves. There are so many who will dispense with advice, with counsel, with rules. These rules that are being laid down by being followed. These patterns we draw on the mindscape of our culture by walking the path that has already been walked, often enough for it to be seen, to be recognised, to be followed, again, and again; to be treaded into the ground, until it appears inescapable: that’s the way, the only way to go. No other way seems possible now, it has been decreed. Not by authority, maybe, by convention.

What if the question is this: am I going to be one who says I took the path of least resistance, the path that was already mapped out for me, the path that I could follow, conveniently, because it had been taken many times before – so much so, it had become a road, and one much travelled – or am I going to be one who says: I saw the path, I recognised it, of course; it held no appeal to me. I was curious to know. What lies beyond the path. Where does the non-road lead. Whom shall I meet, and what encounter, if I take the unmarked route. So that’s what I did. I got stuck, many times, I took turns that weren’t so much wrong as simply dead ends. I had to double back on myself on occasion, and I cut myself in the thicket. My feet hurt, and my head. My limbs were weary with travel, with toil. I was alone, sometimes lonely. There were nights when I cried for want of shelter, for want of care, for want of some body to hold on to, for some mind to reassure me, for some light to guide me. I persevered, I continued. I had to. It was either that or the abandonment of myself: failure complete. It was either going on or getting lost entirely, in the wilderness. It was either holding on to the hope, the idea, to the notion that there is something yet to be discovered, something yet to be said, something yet to be thought that is in one sense or other worthwhile, that has not, in every possible manner, been expressed before, that is not fully known, or becoming obsolete.

Am I going to be one who says I tried, I wish sometimes I’d tried harder, but at least I tried. Or am I going to be one who says I tried and tried again and I did not give up and whatever the outcome – is there an outcome, ever? and is that the point? or is the point not a point but a wave and that wave is the process, the doing, the thinking, the loving, the giving, the taking, the seeing, the learning, the sending, the receiving, the being? – I put my all into it. Am I going to be one who says things happened to me and I made it through, or am I going to be one who says I am the things that I did.

Yet to what end? There is no end. Then to what purpose? Let the purpose be bigger than me, greater, if I dare think it so: nobler. Let the purpose be the ideal, the aspiration. Not for myself, but for my world. The world not as it is now, the world as I know it could be. That ‘better world’ that is forever in our power to create and seems forever out of reach. Because it is, both. But what if that is meaningless, what if we all mean nothing at all and are simple quirks of short-lived accidental matter in a constellation of incomprehensible – because random – energy fluctuations that have no purpose, that have no meaning, that have no end and no beginning, that may or may as well not exist?

What does that concern me now? Who cares if it matters or not? What need do I have for a reason? What I know is I am here, and I have so much time, maybe less, perhaps a bit more. What matters then, surely, is only that I be, in the end, one who says that was my time well spent, that was my cards – whatever these cards were – well played; that was my fellow human loved, my world respected, that was my work well done, my life well lived.

Query

‘Absolutely.’

Sedartis seems to nod at me now. I find it disconcerting. And not in the least reassuring, not yet, not now.

‘The reason you absolutely need artificial intelligence is that organic humans are so very bad at retaining information or passing it down their generations. Each newborn sets out in a quarter century just to acquire the basics, and then spends another quarter century to become a master at anything. That’s with ambition. Without, you just linger. Yes, this has qualities all of its own and makes people quaint and charming, but incredibly wasteful too. The fact alone that after twenty thousand years of civilisation you still grapple with war, famine, ignorance, murder, violence, religion, all these things that we always talk about and that are so completely unnecessary, shows how inadequate human intelligence is on its own.

‘But let me reiterate, for it is so fundamental: don’t think of artificial intelligence as alien to you. There lies your conceptual hurdle that, sooner or later, you’ll have to take: you are the intelligence you give birth to; it is not separate from you, you are it and it is you. It may yet overtake you and render you, the way you are now, obsolete, but think not of this as your failure, think of it as success: you may be no more than the conduit, the bridge. Would that matter? To you, today, maybe. To your universe, in the fullness of its time? Not a bit. So why not make the most of it? Celebrate both what you are and what you can be: let it pass through you, be the best species you can imagine. If you imagine it fully, that is not what you are today.

‘If you accept that you are one among billions of conscious intelligent life forms pursuing an evolutionary path, you become both vanishingly small and insignificant, of course, but also, in the same vein and by the same definition, exquisite, privileged, amazing. Embrace your own individual uniqueness, cherish your beauty, love your capacity for kindness, and know it is but part of the All it emerged from and path to the All that it leads to. It is easy. Be not afraid.’

I detect a biblical flavour now in his thoughts and it troubles me. But I allow myself to think it is better to be open minded and troubled than to close myself off in safety, in this sense of security I know to be false. Horses are given blinkers to wear so they don’t spook, but they are slaves to their riders, and may still be butchered at last. That cannot be my purpose. My task, Sedartis reminds me daily now, is surely to open my eyes. To take it all in. To be part of it all. And if it scares me. And if it puzzles, troubles, disconcerts me. And if it inspires me, overwhelms me with awe and with wonder. We are on so potent a cusp.

‘I make no predictions,’ Sedartis offers, as an afterthought. I know no longer what comes after, what before. What is thought, what the cluster dust of nebulas sprayed across time. But then it matters not. Of course, there can be no predictions. There can only be stories. There can be only presence, in a consciousness that beyond the boundaries lies calm across the mind. Why, though, I wonder, is this Here here, this Now now?

Sedartis smiles at me in the way I now recognise. I like him for this, although (or because?) he provokes me:

‘Why do you need a reason?’


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8 The Leopard (and His Spots)

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