This, the eve of another birthday, a phenomena that just keeps coming and coming, faster and faster, year after year, and I don’t feel like writing on any of the various topics that have been rattling around in my head. Do I need to get all worked up over something and then unload it on you, friendly reader? It is a night, tinged with that particular brand of melancholy, suited instead for reflection while staring into a fire. Maybe with a pipe to puff on, and a dram or two of something earthy to sip at. Yet I have no fire, have no pipe. And all the whiskey went down the drain some months ago. So it’s just me, the flashing cursor on the screen and, with the quiet, the constant ringing in my ears.
This evening I’ve had an exchange with a writer friend who I admire very much. It was a curious exchange because it was overflowing with weird coincidences, particularly in how what I initiated the conversation with via email had bizarre connection to what has been going on in his life, utterly impossible for me to know about. “How does anybody explain all that?” he says when he points out the serendipity of it all. I can hear him laugh in saying so.
This man also told me some weeks ago that, like him, I live my life “with one foot in this world, and one in the next.” I’ve been thinking about that comment a lot; what it means, and how true it is. I think he’s on to something, and he would know. Here are the opening paragraphs to one of his novels from just a few years ago that I copied into the “Quotes” file I keep because it resonated so deeply with me. It is the voice of the first person narrator, but I hear him speaking of himself:
“Like an early nineteenth-century poet, when I have melancholy moments and feel the world is too much for us and that late and soon we lay waste to our powers in getting and spending, I’m forced to pause and reflect upon my experiences with the dead and the hold they exert on our lives.
This may seem a macabre perspective on one’s life, but at a certain point it seems to be the only one we have. Mortality is not kind, and do not let anyone tell you it is. If there is such a thing as wisdom, and I have serious doubts about its presence in my own life, it lies in the acceptance of the human condition and perhaps the knowledge that those who have passed on are still with us, out there in the mist, showing us the way, sometimes uttering a word of caution from the shadows, sometimes visiting us in our sleep, as bright as a candle burning inside a basement that has no windows.”
Someday all of us, if we play our cards right, will be that “candle burning in the basement” of someone we may not even know yet. They haven’t been born, haven’t been pulled from the cosmic energy swirling around out yonder; they haven’t left behind that place between the worlds from which our souls emerge. Where does that energy come from otherwise? Science might say one thing but I believe something else. Something more beautiful than simple chance and biology; something more mystical and a bit terrifying. I wonder about those souls who are lined up in a shadowy queue to catch some form of public transportation back into the world of the living. Are they eager for this emergence, this return? Do they have to provide a token to advance through the cosmic turnstile? Do they know what they are in for or is it an entirely new experience? It is a Mystery as Great and unexplainable as the coincidences from the email exchange I am reflecting on.
I recently wrote, not for the first time, about community. My brilliant friend Antonia kicked off what looks like the first in a series of essays about it a couple days ago. Maybe it is the varying degrees of isolation most of us have endured over the last couple years that has so many thinking about it. Perhaps we are revisioning what it looks like for us now, having seen what it’s like to live without one, out of a recognized necessity for survival.
I bring it up here because I think this reflection on time, of ancestors and ghosts and the future, is part of the discussion of community. This deep time “reality” is a community we are all part of, admittedly or not, willingly or not. Maybe even the most important one. After all, the most staunchly-committed atheist who doesn’t believe in ghosts and expects complete and total lights-out-forever-when-death-comes is still involved in the global community that determines what kind of world our upcoming generations will have to live in. There are ripple effects that come from every choice we make, the ramifications of which we are clueless of. Those choices and decisions take on epic importance when considered thusly. I don’t mean to paralyze anyone the way the cereal aisle can, or the way indecision between two people can almost cause fisticuffs over trying to agree on where to go to lunch.
My struggle is how the choices others make fly in the face of what I think we need to be doing to make our future better for those who are to come after. What arrogance on my part! The only thing I can control are what choices I make and I often do a bad job at that. The arrogance feeds my general, lingering unhappiness, and the frustration only surges from there. Cynicism, the worst possible outcome for what I need to inhabit my life, often results. But why should I say more, when someone else has said it better for me? I thought to quote a recent letter from Nick Cave’s Red Hand Files but I’m going to post the entire thing here instead because it is wonderful and wise and exactly what I needed to hear. Maybe it will be what some of you need to hear too.
Following the last few years I’m feeling empty and more cynical than ever. I’m losing faith in other people, and I’m scared to pass these feelings to my little son. Do you still believe in Us (human beings)?
VALERIO, STOCKHOLM (AND ROME), SWEDEN (AND ITALY)
You are right to be worried about your growing feelings of cynicism and you need to take action to protect yourself and those around you, especially your child. Cynicism is not a neutral position — and although it asks almost nothing of us, it is highly infectious and unbelievably destructive. In my view, it is the most common and easy of evils.
I know this because much of my early life was spent holding the world and the people in it in contempt. It was a position both seductive and indulgent. The truth is, I was young and had no idea what was coming down the line. I lacked the knowledge, the foresight, the self-awareness. I just didn’t know. It took a devastation to teach me the preciousness of life and the essential goodness of people. It took a devastation to reveal the precariousness of the world, of its very soul, to understand that it was crying out for help. It took a devastation to understand the idea of mortal value, and it took a devastation to find hope.
Unlike cynicism, hopefulness is hard-earned, makes demands upon us, and can often feel like the most indefensible and lonely place on Earth. Hopefulness is not a neutral position either. It is adversarial. It is the warrior emotion that can lay waste to cynicism. Each redemptive or loving act, as small as you like, Valerio, such as reading to your little boy, or showing him a thing you love, or singing him a song, or putting on his shoes, keeps the devil down in the hole. It says the world and its inhabitants have value and are worth defending. It says the world is worth believing in. In time, we come to find that it is so.
Thank you, Nick. The world and its inhabitants are worth defending. Even … especially … the world and the inhabitants to come.
A Little Randomness
People who read this newsletter via email didn’t get the link to my recent podcast interview. If you are eyeballing this in your email now, you may click HERE to check that out, if you are so inclined.
Speaking of decisions, if you read this the day it is set to post — April 4th — it is indeed my birthday. So it’s no surprise I’m musing on all this existential whatnot. I will close then with this: I’m curious about how you would resolve this choice: when it comes to cake and ice cream, separate vessels, or pile them together in one bowl/plate/whatever? Remember, the future may hinge on what you do….
Miigwech for all the support you’ve shown me over this past stagger around the sun. My gratitude is immeasurable.
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I feel like every one of your essays is more powerful than the last, and yet they are all individually powerful in different ways. *This* one is just . . . wow. I need to shut up and walk with it for a long time.
"The most staunchly-committed atheist who doesn’t believe in ghosts and expects complete and total lights-out-forever-when-death-comes is still involved in the global community that determines what kind of world our upcoming generations will have to live in." Somehow everything we face is in this line. (Also, I am an atheist who is actually terrified of ghosts so I might be approaching life all wrong.)
Thank you for the kind words, for all of your words, every time 🧡 And Happy Birthday! On ice cream and pie it really depends on the flavors. I'd only mix vanilla ice cream in and maybe only with cherry or strawberry-rhubarb pie; otherwise, I'd eat them separately and in generous quantities.
Having just had a birthday myself, I am concerned for what I am leaving behind for my grandchildren. What legacy do I leave them with. I am running out of time! I fear for our world. I fear for the disasters we are leaving those who follow.
I have come to the conclusion that the most important thing I can leave for my grandchildren is the need to be kind. To be generous. To be genuine. To be open to the world around them. To treat our planet with deliberate kindness. To respect all people, nature, and themselves.
Your musings always leave me with new things to ponder. Happiest birthdays to you.