for Laura Michaelian (1922-2013)
Earlier this week, while stuck in gridlocked traffic on Sepulveda Boulevard through the pass here on the west side of Los Angeles, a young deer, a buck with forked horns, ambled out of the brush on the side of the road and walked up to the passenger window of my car. He stared at me intently for several moments, maybe even a minute, and clearly in my head I heard his voice: “What are you doing with your life?”
Before you accuse me of driving under the influence, or question how I knew it was the deer’s voice, let me just say in my defense that although I was listening on the radio to the predictions of400,000 Ebola cases by the end of January and the report of how tumbleweeds have taken over whole neighborhoods in my drought-plagued city, I was not hysterical or even close to falling over the edge into insanity. The only thing I can say is that the deer gave voice to a question that has been running around in my dreams for months now: “What are you doing with your life?”
My problem is, I keep waiting for something. A sign, a hint, a door left opened. Is that wrong? I mean, there has to be more to existence here in my fiftieth year than sitting in two hours of traffic each day only to fall into bed every night wondering exactly what I accomplished that day, or worse, what will I accomplish tomorrow, or next month, or in the years ahead? What does it really mean if you feel as if every part of your life is a wrong turn off the existential highway? I think of the phrase, “in the weeds.” Is it normal to feel, on every level, in every situation, that I am “in the weeds?” It is not just that I am entangled in the details and complexities of my life; those details and complexities are things I never thought I’d be entangled in, much less have to take ownership for, but here we are. I own the wrong life. However, I can hear a literal Greek chorus of wise men from Plato to William Michaelian tell me that there is no “right” or “wrong” life. There is just life. Live it, and quit your belly-aching. (Okay, that last line sounded more like my mother from Kentucky.)
We live in moments, crystal drops of time that fall and shatter and wash away to become fragments of memory. From dust we were created and to dust we shall return. It is so difficult, so heartbreakingly frustrating, so profoundly vast and empty, to contemplate the fact that the world will go on, quite efficiently, without us.
I remember a religious studies professor I had as an undergraduate, the same man who married my wife and me in his church 27 years ago. He told us once that as he was driving home one evening, he came to a stop by the side of the road with the premonition that he would die soon, and almost everyone on earth would not care. Outside of his family and a few friends, his death would escape notice. No tributes. No public monuments. No lasting work—a great novel or philosophical treatise—to leave behind. Just a quiet slipping away into the dusk. Very few of us are Shakespeare. Our reputations will not transcend the end of our earthly bodies. We die twice, once at our deaths, and then again when everyone alive who remembers us dies. How do we live in such a world? My teacher broke down and sobbed in his car, and this from a Congregationalist minister not given to highly emotional outbursts or bouts of narcissism. His was a stoic, New England persona, and a deeply serious man trying to express something dark and disturbing: the absence of being in the world.
Although mortal, I am trying with every fiber of my being not to be. How do we live in a world where we are destined to die? We live well, with good works and intentions. We create art and beauty, we celebrate truth, we extend a hand, we listen, we meditate, we hold close those we love. We get up each morning and wind the clock of existence, day after day, so that time does not run out on us. But it will. It always does. Time flies, and then there is darkness. But still, we try to hang on to the light.
The deer by the side of Sepulveda Boulevard looked deep into my eyes for what seemed like an eternity, a plasma pause in the universe of light. Then he snorted and broke the spell. He shook his head from side to side, turned, and ambled away. I watched him pass the other cars behind me, stopping for a moment to look at each driver. I guess he still had not found the answer he was looking for.