I imagine, a friend of mine said to me, everyone with canisters around their necks, invisible canisters containing the qualities that we give out as we go through life. It’s a bit like Grayson Perry’s wonderful sculpture from his show at the British Museum: Our Father. We struggle on through life more or less cheerfully, but weighed down by all the clutter that we have to give away or that we need to keep going.
You’re very sententious today.
He shrugged, a little embarrassed.
It’s the time of year, he said. These thoughts come unbidden, with the immanence of the Christmas angels.
And even more so, I said, with the non-coming of the end of the world.
The other mental picture that I have, he said, is of the great Captain Beefheart. He was always proffering to us things of value: reading lamps, vacuum cleaners (canisters in themselves), sometimes just his hat.
It’s a simple but attractive concept, I said, and it’s a pity to complicate it with Grayson Perry and with Captain Beefheart, of whom few have now heard. If it were a sermon you would by now have lost your audience’s attention.
It isn’t a sermon, it’s a conversation with you. And I know that you understand about Captain Beefheart and the vacuum because I know that you have an illegal copy of Bat Chain Puller and the image is on the cover.
And when they’re gone, they’re gone? I said. The canisters?
No, it’s not like that. I think they can be replaced as often as you like: full for empty, like Calor Gas.
I suppose, he said, not that I’m any kind of expert, that the canisters contain all the things that Buddhists like to get rid of: passion, fear, generosity, intelligence…
Or what makes us human. Music, humour, kindness…
Draw a conclusion, I said. Please. Make a judgment – or tell me how judgments are to be made. Is it a case of the more canisters the better? Should we trim down the number of different canisters that we carry around with us? Are they better emptied, or should we keep them for emergencies, for some occasion when they’re really needed? I know that if I were ever really desperate the one thing that would reassure me would be the sight of the good Captain offering me a whole vacuum, with nothing held back at all.
Then I had a mental image of my own: the dog, offering his rope, as he did when you returned home, his face a mix of generosity, love and serene incomprehension.
Never mind Buddhism, I said, quickly changing the subject. Is there a reckoning when we die, like Scrabble, totting up the number of canisters used and deducting those left, to produce an aggregate that is either more or less acceptable?
No, it doesn’t work like that. What’s important is the running total.