ITEM: purposes. Stopping by the Oldman River, noon 15 July 1999

It comes to mind, watching a prairie gopher cropping scant grass, and beyond the gopher a circus of swifts, slashing the air with their curved-back wings (leaving it in tatters) and the water washing away the stone, that if we have a purpose, a raison d’Йtre, it is to understand the world. Or at least to understand that it is.

Mohammed said God made the world so someone would know him, so he would not be alone. I don’t know where I read this. It is not in my copy of the Koran. But I believe it.

ITEM: mindgames When I was young I smoked dope until my mind became a little fractured, and I chewed peyote until I couldn’t take it any more. I don’t know what I expected, but in any case only once did anything happen. Someone gave me a hash brownie at a party. A few minutes later this produced a slow wipe, in the cinematographic sense, across all the senses. My sight became somehow clarified, I could hear layers of music and talk, I became aware of my sleeve rubbing my wrist, I became The Sensual Man. It was quite a pleasant sensation.

Unfortunately, within a few minutes I had adjusted to the new level of sensuality and it became the norm. When the effect faded, it was as though it had never happened.

No, coffee and booze are my games, the only ones I know. They are unhip and they do not sensualize for the most part, but I know them well, they are old and honoured friends. I trust them.

ITEM: songbirds. Fumiko said that this morning at five o’clock a ray of sunlight touched her on the eyelid to awaken her, and at that moment a phoebe in the cherry tree below the window began to sing.

Everyone must know by now that birdsong isn’t really song at all, properly speaking, but an aggressive staking out of the male’s turf: Touch that worm and I’ll rip your wing-coverts off! Later in the summer when the nestlings begin to feed themselves the necessity becomes less pressing and the birds eventually stop singing. It occurred to me to wonder about those last few days; does the bird begin to `mellow out’? Does the belligerence fade, are the last songs perfunctory, a little absent-minded? A touch off-key?

How curious it would be, I thought, if an ornithologist were to record a bird singing his song once a day until he stopped for the season, then listened to the tapes of the last songs to see if they changed, became less bellicose. This would be a charming piece of knowledge. Useless but charming. But then I thought, no, this is the age of quantitative analysis. The ornithologist, anxious to be `scientific’, and leery of value judgments, wouldn’t even take the time to listen; right away he would transfer the analogue tapes to digital, convert the format and `output’—that toxic verb—a tabular breakdown of observed phenomena.

So much data. So little information.

ITEM: be

This least of verbs.

This shortest of verbs.

Is to be an act? Is it something that we do?

We are, intransitively, as a stone is.

We are in the world, and we can decide not to be, but to be is a decision that has been taken out of our hands by a higher power. As the angel of the Annunciation explained to Mary when she questioned the idea of a virgin birth, “When He (Muhammad) decrees a thing, he needs only say: `Be’ and it is”.

Options are limited. We are overtaken by our own moods: we cannot decide to be elated, or cast down, or frenzied. As Nietzsche pointed out, we cannot even decide beforehand what to think about. `A thought thinks itself when it wants to, not when we want it.’

Still and all, at the best of times merely to be in thins world is in itself a powerful act of celebration, a far cry from the mute endurance of a stone.