The earthquakes had been very disruptive in the past few days and I realised how insignificant I really was. Yesterday was Christchurch's second 6.3 magnitude earthquake this year, and while not as destructive as the first, it had been almost equally as frightening. Not just the earth moving itself, but the fact that the earth could move, shaking us up with the carelessness of a child shaking bugs in a glass jar. We are nothing to the world, we have no ultimate, divine connection with it or reason to be on it. We just live on it; we are subject to its every move. I lay on my bed and thought, 'why are we here?'. Feeling as though I was stupid asking this extremely clichéd question, I became frustrated with myself. 'Why do we always want to know everything?' I thought next. Why does it even matter? On that note, if nothing matters, then why am I at university studying something I don't want a career in? Why am I consciously caging myself in institutions? For safety? Perhaps so I can tell myself that I need direction in my life and this is going to make it look like I have some.
I closed my eyes and imagined that the blanket I was lying on was tall summer grass pressing into my back. The wall behind me became the trunk of an old oak tree. I pretended to feel a summer breeze on my skin. The grass rippled around me, rustling and shimmering. I would get out a notebook and write until I had nothing left in my head. Then I would lay the notebook down and watch the birds fly and the clouds pass, then finally, I would close my eyes…
"It's all lies, you know," a husky female voice said.
Startled, I opened my eyes and looked around. The tree trunk had turned back into a concrete wall, and the grass into my blanket. But there, at the end of my bed, sat a gorgeous young gypsy woman.
"I was like you, once." She paused, and turned to look around my small room.
"Just like you," she continued, "I was lost in the pretentious purposefulness of all the other people. These people who create small aims for themselves, little futures. It makes them feel accomplished, well-learned and successful."
I stared at her in astonishment.
"You know it's true," she said, with a sort of condescension, "so why do you bother with it all?"
"I… I don't know. It is what it is, what else is there?"
"There is so much more. You have not learned."
Her eyes locked with mine and I felt my body numbed by their intensity. She had lived. She was living. And she had life. Not like this life. This wasn't a life. How could I have ever thought this was a life? I looked out my window. The sun shone as brightly as it was shining ten minutes ago, but it was as if I was seeing it for the first time. The trees were dancing and laughing in the wind, but I could not see anymore than their tips - the grey and white concrete building across the quad stood in my way. It made me so angry!
"We can make it all go away," the woman said. "We can fix it."
Infuriated, I ripped my eyes away from the window and looked straight into hers.
"Yes. I want it to go."
"Come with me," she purred, "come." She held out her hand.
"Where are you taking me?" I asked, but it was too late, my hand had leapt into hers by its own free will, and she pulled me off the bed.
"We can't let anyone notice you've gone, you can't tell anyone."
I nodded, and she whisked me out, through the corridor, out the door, round the back of the building and into the car park.
There, in the car park, stood the most incredible and elaborate contraption I had ever seen. It seemed to be some sort of gypsy van, but it was a most unusual shape. It was painted in the most extraordinary colours. I gasped. The colours were moving! The were slowly swirling around creating intricate patterns: flowers and streams and multicoloured rocks. I walked closer, entranced by this ornate van, and realised that small green-painted grasshoppers were jumping from flower to flower. And then I saw the most exquisitely-executed birds of paradise swoop into the painted sky. Just as I was about to ask where the entrance was, a door painted itself onto the side of the van.
The woman opened it.
"Come with me and I will see that your life will never be the same. You will never again be motivated by cultural facades - money, power, competition… and because you will understand how little these things are, you will never need them. You will be richer in life than the wealthiest king or the most successful entrepreneur; you will be more powerful than any governor or head of state because will have the power of independence and self-satisfaction; you will be wiser than any doctor or lawyer because you will live by the knowledge that all else know, yet are too afraid to live by; you will crush all your opponents because you will not seek to compete with them; and because of all this, you will not fear to love whole-heartedly as you will not feel shame or embarrassment. You will live for yourself first, and for those who you love second."
"I cannot," I said, "I cannot live selfishly like that. I cannot put myself before all else."
The woman smiled, and pierced her life-filled eyes into mine.
"No," she said, "but will you?"
I couldn't stop myself. I stepped into the van.
She smiled smugly.
"Take a seat," she said, gesturing to the benches on either side of a table.
The van started to shake and I grabbed the table, thinking it was an earthquake. But then suddenly, I got that strange feeling, like that feeling you get when you're in an elevator, of your insides hurtling to the bottom of your body.
"Look down," the woman instructed.
The whole of the bottom of the van had simply disappeared, I could even feel the breeze whipping around my legs as they hung down from the chair.
I saw the building I was in only moments ago hundreds of feet below me.
"What -? How -?" I was speechless.
The gypsy woman waved her hand and the buildings sank, slowly being engulfed by the earth.
I screamed at her, "Are you crazy? All my friends are in there! There are people there!"
"You put yourself before them, remember?"
"Don't worry, they will be fine." She laughed softly, thinking it was hilarious, tormenting me like that.
"You really are insane."
"You are insane, you do not understand things. You have asked questions all of your life. Why were you here? Why did you so want to know why you were here? Why were humans here? Why? Why? Why everything? And now you can see things. You can see things that matter. Things that will truly satisfy the human soul."
"Okay so let's go back to the ground."
"Are you going to put the buildings back?"
"Not quite yet."
The floor of the van reappeared, and after another feeling of having my insides hurtle to impossible places within my body, we hit the ground.
We walked out onto what used to be the College House quad. The grass was longer and drier, much like the summer grass I had dreamed of before. The quad's tree was still there.
The woman led me to the tree and we both sat down on the grass, leaning against it.
"So, why do you study law?" she inquired.
"Do you want to be a lawyer?"
"No," I said.
"So why waste the money?"
"I thought you didn't care for money?" I asked, trying to corner her.
"I don't," she said, "do you?"
I thought about it.
"I want to live the simple life. But it would be easier to live the simple life if I had money to fall back on."
"Ahhh…" she mused, "so you want the easy simple life?"
I nodded, knowing where this was going.
"It's paradoxical, isn't it," I sighed.
"I'm afraid it is," She said, "but are you prepared to work hard for a simple life rather than to work hard for something invented by man, written on paper and represented by digits?"
"I suppose. But money can get me food and water."
"So can manual labour. Think about it: manual labour equals money which is equal to food, water and clothing. If they all equal each other, why not just skip the middle step? The only difference money makes is the quantities. And really, all you need is food and water and clothing for yourself to survive."
"I understand this. But the temptation of money is far too great. It can get me a nice house, help me eat nice food, buy me nice clothing, get me anywhere in the world I want…"
She was silent for a while.
"When I was in your position, I felt the same way. However, it is possible to find a balance between the pull in the direction of our civilised culture and the pull in the backwards, more primitive direction. The trick is to find peace within yourself so that while you are living your modern human life doing your modern human things, you are not consumed by comparing yourself to others. This would only lead to you betraying yourself, and you will become something eternally paralysed in a falsehood."
"Wouldn't it just be easier to die? Really. I mean, when we die, nothing will matter anymore. So why continue living?"
"That is such a human thought. Do you think a dog would ever think that? You are totally overthinking this."
"It's your fault, you're making me all depressed about this now."
"You did it to yourself. Why do dogs keep living? Because they aren't even aware that there is any other option. It's instinctive."
"Why do they fear death then, if they don't understand it?" I asked.
"Are you assuming we understand death?"
"I guess not."
"We are just too intelligent, we consider it an alternative because we know that it is going to happen anyway."
I looked up into the leaves of the tree.
"I think," I said, "that we have evolved from simple animals to these complex, intelligent beings and in order to protect ourselves from our inner human nature we have created civilisation, which has doomed everything on the planet."
"I agree," said the woman, "so what are you going to do when I put you back into reality? Are you going to change the way you live?"
I thought about this for a while. "No," I said eventually, surprised. I thought for a bit longer. "But… I will change the way that I think."
I thought about money. Slowly and deliberately. Would I ever really take it seriously? No. Was I naïve in thinking money didn't matter anymore? I wasn't sure about that. I was either enlightened or purely ignorant. But not being able to decide made me ignorant of my potential enlightenment which would render me ignorant either way anyway.
"I really do think too much about things," I admitted to the woman, but when I turned to hear her reply, she was already walking back to the van.
"Wait!" I shouted, and ran to catch up with her.
"I'm going to show something bigger," she said, and I followed her back into the van.
The van bolted back up into the sky, and once again, the floor disappeared.
This time we flew over the streets of Christchurch.
"Look. Look at all the damage. Why did people have to die in these earthquakes? We are all at the mercy of the earth. Why? It's not fair, is it?"
"No," I replied.
"People lost power again yesterday, and water. This is scary, this planet. We fear it, and yet we worship it. It provides and destroys life. We can't fight the will of the earth."
"I know, we can't."
"But when the earthquakes rolled in with such mighty force, you were afraid."
"I suppose I was scared to die."
"No matter how much we might consider that death is the easy option, or accept it fully, when something unexpected like that happens, we still are frightened. This is our nature."
There was a pause.
"Come and live with me," the woman said suddenly, "you and I, we are so alike, we could travel the world in my van, see things, experience sounds and tastes and smells from exotic countries. Leave university. Forget Law and degrees and rote learning. Forget close-mindedness and conservativeness."
I wanted to, I really did. So why could I not say yes? There was just something, deep down, that still held onto the meaning of my life as an accomplished academic. Something that secretly wanted to stay and prove myself to other people. I hated myself for it.
"You are afraid of change," she murmured, disappointed. In fact, I thought she was about to cry. Perhaps it was the realisation that no matter how much I knew what she was saying was right, it wasn't enough.
"One day," I said, "one day, I will be brave."
She nodded. Her eyes, which had seemed so full of the bounty of life before, now dulled in sadness. The van landed in the car park, which was concrete again. The grey and white buildings rose up with a mighty groan, but showed no signs of having been under the ground. I looked at the woman, but she turned away.
"I'll see you again one day, I hope," she whispered.
I nodded solemnly. "I promise," I vowed.
I walked out of the van, and when I turned to look at it, the colours, once so vibrant, faded to grey, then eventually vanished altogether leaving me alone in the car park. I walked back into my room and lay down on the bed, feeling washed out and upset. I closed my eyes, exhausted.
I woke up and the sun was still shining through the window, although it was markedly less bright than before. I looked out across the quad. The tips of the trees waved at me, gleaming softly as they moved. But I didn't wave back.