On a park bench in Retiro
By Parson Thru
On a park bench in Retiro. The time’s 15:54 by my phone. The sun is high in a clear sky but a slight chill remains. It’s the last day of January and something is beginning to stir.
Earlier, on Paseo del Prado, I’d sat listening to the parakeets up in the trees. It was a different energy to a couple of weeks ago when I’d seen them plodding beneath dejected cypresses, competing with pigeons for scraps. Now, they were swooping noisily from one tree to the next: flashing emeralds, chasing. Excited sparrows were spreading rumours of spring’s arrival.
I watched a woman who’d been walking into Retiro ahead of me unzip her winter Parka, slip it off and stretch herself out along a bench. She’s basking now, perhaps sleeping, not a hundred metres away: Mother Nature shedding her Parka in primeval response to the approaching sun.
In a few more weeks, the temperature will begin to climb. I read in the news that the UK has been experiencing mild weather, too. Strange times. Back home, tradition says never cast a clout until May is out. They say something similar here.
A park bench is a good place to watch people come and go and let your mind wander where it will. I re-read Ginsberg’s “Mescalin” this morning, prompting yet more thoughts on mortality. Part of the problem with appreciating what we’ve got is the distance we like to place between being and not being. There’s something amazing we have in common: we’re the living cohort. But the ripple of conscious awareness will pass as quickly as it came.
How is it that we spend our lives oblivious to this, busying ourselves piling numbers into bank accounts and acquiring junk; erecting short-lived monuments to our vanity?
I watch people emerging from under trees into sunlit spaces then disappearing again. Some are deep in conversation. What are their thoughts? Where do they wander in the silences?
Ginsberg stared into the mirror searching for truths: what comes after this lifetime of corporeal decay and eventual collapse? Will death bring rebirth and kick off the process again? Will it transport us to “some heaven”? Or will it merely release us from our burden? Will the end be “a lifetime – all eternity – gone over into naught”?
I can’t help but contrast the people ambling through the trees and the woman basking on the bench with the most final of those options. None of us asked to be here, but here we all are, making the best of it. What more can we do? On a day like this, it isn’t so bad. What’s the alternative?
I try to imagine oblivion. It’s impossible to conceive.
No self. No history. No future. No love. No desire. No dreams. No being.
Does it matter? Ginsberg wonders the same. Why spend time now worrying about something so far away? He deflects the problem onto his friend and influence William Carlos Williams, who’s staring death in the face a bus ride away in Paterson. Thirty-eight years later, Ginsberg would get his answer. That knowledge focuses my mind a little.
What can possibly survive us? Our existence occurs in and around an ugly electrochemical porridge squashed inside its poor skull. Once the precious supply of nutrients and oxygen fails, it’s had it: just dead grey porridge in its corruption. No self. No history. No future. No love. No desire. No dreams. No being. Imagine reaching that point.
Just as Ginsberg stared naked into his mirror, I stare naked into the sunlit space around me. The trees will continue to bud in spring; birds will find their summer song; other people will sit on this bench watching their cohort amble among the chestnuts, birch and cypresses. None of that will exist for me.
Why expend so much time and energy trying to understand something we can’t change? Why carry the burden?
Maybe to highlight what we have – each and every one – and that no one of us is more deserving than the other. The bleakest of Ginsberg’s options sets before me the most valuable insight.
Perhaps if we took a moment to sit on a park bench and look around us, we might see that life is nothing more than a brief stroll beneath the trees, a chance to chat and to bask in the sun until it’s time to leave.
What could be more ephemeral and precious than that?