To mark that occasion along with my graduation, some friends came out to tackle an invasive species removal project at a local city park:
A tradition started five years ago as a gift from my wife Kelly and the friends who participate, I like celebrating with an activity that feels useful and that hopefully benefits the wider community. This year's project was cut a bit short by a sudden downpour, but we managed to clear out a good section of tree line, which will in turn help protect a reforestation project happening nearby. Afterward we gathered with still more friends at a local restaurant to continue the celebration.
It was a good day and I felt fortunate to be surrounded by folks who are, as one of them put it, "glad I exist and have survived this long." 😀
Our dog has a drinking problem. That is, when she drinks water there is something in the way her throat works that causes her to regurgitate some or all of the water soon after. In her younger years she would throw up quietly and move on. As she's aged and as her health worsens, it sounds more like a loud, old man sneezing and coughing and choking at the same time. We are home all the time now, and there is nowhere in the house that she can't be heard.
"Oh, Chloe," we say, adjusting her medications, knowing we will also have to say goodbye to her soon.
We clean up the puddles left behind with one of a constantly rotating pile of "Chloe towels," old bath towels called back into service for mopping up slobber. There are discussions and pointed glances around how long a dog towel is meant to last before requiring laundering. You can refold a towel multiple times to make it last across throw-up events, but woe is the one who grabs a heavily used towel in the wrong spot.
Sleep is harder when there is an old man sneezing and coughing and choking at the foot of your bed. Sleep was already hard. At five years old our daughter has slept soundly through the night for a long time, but before the pandemic my body was only just starting to trust this reality. It remembers the early months of sleepless nights, the early years of figuring out sleep patterns and rituals that might or might not last. It has been listening for the sounds of a child wandering the halls in the night, needing a back rub or a book read aloud or a cuddle back to sleep. It has been saying, "don't get too comfortable" as it waits to be needed again. And now it says "don't get too comfortable" as it reminds me of what's happening in the world.
I pretended for a while that when the election was over we might sleep more soundly. Election day has come and gone but its many ghosts remain to haunt us. The yard signs around us proclaiming "we support a racist, xenophobic, misogynist, lying narcissist bully as our leader" have come down but the people who put them there remain. They are our neighbors, our community leaders, our elected officials. We co-exist, but we don't live in the same world. I am trained to look for common ground and my values would dictate that I avoid contributing to further division, but most days I just feel angry or upset. How could they?
It is hard to see the way forward for my country. All we have to do is swim through the fog of hundreds of years of white supremacy and fundamental disagreements about what's factual and true to find some solid ground. I lay awake practicing my backstroke in my mind. I don't get anywhere, and the fog closes in.
Friends have been kind to say that "you don't look forty" (whatever that looks like) and thankfully I don't feel "old," even if I don't often feel young any more.
I do notice the occasional sign of what might be aging.
I find myself increasing the font size on my various devices and apps, and at an appointment this week my eye doctor used the language of "you can't outrun it forever" instead of the past variations on "you're young, no worries."
A few weeks ago I butt-dialed two different people over two days.
The distance across which I can walk to retrieve or do something without forgetting why I started walking in the first place is decreasing. If it involves going to a different floor of the house, forget about it.
My hair has more strands of grey than ever before.
And my ability to sleep through the night without needing a visit to the restroom is all but gone.
What will I leave behind when I'm gone? What will be my legacy?
I'm not sure what is a "normal" amount to think about such things, but I do think about them.
Perhaps losing my father at a young age and then attending his funeral initiated some premature awareness that people could die and that there might be some variability in how they are thought of and remembered. As I came to terms with the existence of my own mortality, I more than occasionally wondered what might be said of me at my funeral, and how I would be known from that point on.
Of course it's an incredible privilege to even think about legacy, and dwelling too long on it can bring out the worst impulses of ego and self-importance. To have had incredible opportunities and access to resources over the course of my life and then still try to control how the world works even after I die...well, that would be crazy.
So I try to use any "legacy thinking" as a way to keep me focused, especially on the important things I want to do in life and the kinds of relationships I want to have, instead of as a vehicle for self-inflation or unnatural self-preservation. I also use it to keep perspective:
On a geologic time scale, I won't really have any personal legacy. I will be one of many billions of people who lived in a time when humans inflicted substantial, mostly harmful changes across the planet, killing off many other forms of life while altering the climate, poisoning the water, bringing up oil and putting down trash and toxic chemicals, and just generally making a mess of things while we wait for the sun to implode and swallow the Earth.
Hopefully I also live in a time where a shift in human attitudes about the planet we occupy eventually leads to some reversal of those trends, and maybe our descendants will despise us slightly less than they could have otherwise. But as much as I want to believe that I personally can make a difference in reducing this harm, I don't currently hold out hope that my lifestyle choices will be worth much when measured across the millennia.
Recently I've heard some people make the all-too-common assertion that they don't have enough time in the day to get done all of the things they want or need to get done. I was reminded of an exercise I went through about a year ago, during a period when I was making similar statements, sometimes out loud, sometimes just to myself. I wanted to do the math to see how the hours really did add up - did I have enough time in the day to do what I wanted to do, or was I actually overbooked and trying to make 1 + 1 = 3?
It's a pretty simple exercise in the end. Make a table of all of the things you spend time on in a week, and compare that to the total hours available. If you're over, then you have to change something. If you're at or under the available time, then you still might need to change something to be happy, e.g. increasing the amount of time available for fun, sleep, or just relaxing. Or you may find that you spend time exactly the way you want to!
Lately I've been recalling one particular day early in high school. My "study hall friend" Craig and I were giddy with excitement because he had just bought a copy of the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, a book that was basically the detailed explanation of how all of the tools and technologies in the Star Trek universe actually work. He kept it at his side in the plastic bag from the bookstore, only bringing it out for glances here and there as we tried to avoid the watchful eye of the study hall monitor.
But really, he didn't want smudges on the cover and he didn't want to break the spine, and that was great with me because I would have demanded the same. I might not have even brought the book to school - who knows what could happen to it!? We whispered about holodecks and warp drives, and let our minds wonder. Though we didn't use the word at the time, we were totally geeked out, in awe of this seeming bridge between science fiction and real life. Craig and I only saw each other for this brief period a few times per week, and we'd only seen each other outside of school once or twice, but we had a connection that only comes with being a bit (or, okay, a lot) uncool together.
It was 30 years ago this month that I was born into the world. I celebrate the landbase that sustains me, my health, my successes and failures, my friends and loved ones, my past and future, the hope that drives me, and so much more.
And so here I am, in August of 2007. As E.B. White said, "I get up every morning determined both to change the world and to have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day difficult."
I think that one of the hardest things a person can be asked to do is confront the value of their own life weighed against that of the world around them. But we see the tensions of this confrontation everywhere - balancing our self-interest against our service to others; balancing our concept of the good life against the survival of other species and the environment they live in; balancing our intense love for a small group of people against the thousands of neglected and unloved that die in some unknown place.
Last night, I saw one of the recent movies to come out about wars and the nature of the experience for those fighting in them. This one was about Vietnam, and it did an amazing job of contrasting the emotion and intensity of individual participants (American and Vietnamese) against vast scenes of death and destruction, hundreds of lives being ended violently and quickly and without prejudice. But the overall feeling I walk away with is awe at the magnitude of the loss of life. The movie tells us that loss of life on this scale can be worthwhile - that sacrificing spouses and parents, hundreds at a time, is sometimes necessary. And, perhaps unfortunately, this is the message that is absorbed from these films, more so than the sense that the loss of any particular man or woman is in itself a horrible tragedy. For who can bear the burden of reflecting on the pain and sadness of any and every widow and widower, son and daughter, mother and father that would hold their loved one no more?
When I wake up this morning, I go into the kitchen and see on the front page of the paper that a local high school student has died in a car accident. The picture on the front is of my housemate Charlie, a volunteer firefighter, wading around a half-sunk, overturned car in an icy creek. Charlie says that the shot was taken right before he went under to try to find the kid. We talk about the rescue effort, how cold it was, and how sad it is. "Poor kid." Thinking about the shock and the sadness and the sense of loss that his friends and family will experience breaks my heart as I sit and stare at the words on the page.
But how can I put it into context, how can I think about the loss in terms of all the loss that was experienced that day, even in that hour, around the world? How can that tragedy be weighed against images of boys the same age as the accident victim being shot, stabbed, blown up, and burned as they run through the forest fighting for a country that will notify their next of kin via telegram delivered by taxicab?
At either extreme, the value of life is sharply more understandable than in the relatively mundane existence that is common in the middle. There is the sense that I am doing an injustice to that boy and those soldiers by worrying about my plans for the summer, stressing over too many meetings, pondering my weight and my exercise regimen. I know that I may never have an opportunity to truly experience the appreciation of simply being alive because I may never understand how good life is, and how easily it slips away.
The resolution, it would seem, might come in the form of relativism - the sense that the value of our lives can only be completely known when taken in the context of those around us who we love, fight for, and miss when they are gone. It is too cold to say that because life HAS been lost on massive scales in the past, the value of an individual life is decreased. But neither does it feel right to say that we must all mourn deeply and at length over the loss of every stranger...again, who can bear that burden?
Even in relativism, I can find no peace. But it is perhaps the unanswered question - what is life worth - that can inspire us to seek ways of living our own lives that pay tribute to those who no longer have life, and to those who miss them.
The boy, trying to ignore the reoccurring dull pain in his left side, brought his hands together in front of his face, and held them there, barely touching. He moved his index fingers together and smiled at the brief moment before they touched, when each seemed to gently reach out to the other, attracting and pulling and melting into the moment of contact.
The girl, several hundred miles away and an hour from the nearest hospital, dropped her shovel and fell back into the sand screaming in terror from the pressure in her skull. Even when mommy scooped her up and held her tight and told her it would be okay, she could not stop screaming. She cried because it hurt and she did not understand.
The old woman ran her fingers over the smooth cover of the book on her bedside table, comforted at its presence though she could not see its pages. She had always had books near her, as a mother, as a teacher, and as a grandmother, and now she wanted to have one ready to read as soon as she got her strength back. She sighed at hearing the birds outside her window eating from the feeder down below, wishing she could see them, imagining that she did. She wondered if any of the friends or family who had come to say goodbye would remember to fill it again.
The old man nodded his head slowly as he was led past his wife's casket. He briefly ran his fingers over its (almost inappropriately) shiny wood surface, not so long as to acknowledge fully this loss, but just long enough to say "I know you don't belong in there." After sixty-five years together in a world such as this, it did not seem possible that he was breathing while she was not. He thought about how much work there was to do, and how he just wanted to take a nap, wondering if she would be there when he awoke.
The boy glanced up only briefly at his mother, but then back to the dashboard, and then out the windshield to the car in front of them. Briefly, the flashing of the other car's turn signal again came in sync with the clicking noise coming from their own, but then quickly went off into its own cycle. Why not make all car turn signals click with the same rhythm? He giggled quietly at the (somehow unsatisfying) answer to his question as he pictured a great, unified clicking noise on all the streets of all the world. Then, the car turned and it was quiet again.
The girl thought about her father's answer to her question as they kept walking: "Because he is a bad man, and he doesn't deserve it." He hadn't looked like a bad man. He had startled them a bit and he looked kind of dirty, but mostly he looked tired and hungry, sitting in that doorway covered in his blankets and newspapers. The girl could not know about the "bad" man's lung cancer, or that he could only sleep in that doorway because it was Sunday, or that she would be startled by quite a few more like him in her lifetime. But she quietly decided that she would have given him some money, if she had any. So what if he didn't deserve it?
The man tried to look deeply into his wife's sad and cautious eyes, but with every word he spoke he realized more that the depth he sought would have to be recreated rather than rediscovered. The horror would never quite leave him, that he had somehow justified a few moments of unworthy pleasure for this numbing pain he had brought into their marriage. As he looked at the woman he loved - perhaps more so than he loved himself? - he promised that, if she could forgive him, he would learn how to love all over again.
The woman laughed beautifully and fully as she tried to cover her husband in the leaves they had gathered, ignoring the itching against her skin and the damp cold on her fingers. They tossed each other around gently and finally lay side by side in the messy pile they had created. They drew close as she wrapped her arm around his chest and he put his hand in the small of her back. She looked intently up at the rounded space of his neck, wondering if she could curl up in that space and go to sleep. She had told him that she forgave him many times, and they had oddly never stopped saying "I love you." But it was only now that she fully appreciated the intensity and depth of the love with which they had covered each other, the forgiveness and pain inherent in it, and the contentment of knowing that it would survive and shape them forever.
With the noise of the reception now off in the distance, the man and the woman, the boy and the girl, stood facing each other, hands raised and each with palms nervously but firmly pressed against the other's. It was a perfect darkness and the temperature let them forget about their skin and their balance and their mass. They looked deeply, smiling at the joy of this night and of these several years together. Each wondered how they met, how this moment came to be, and each looked for signs about what it would mean to spend the rest of their lives together. As their faces neared, each seemed to gently reach out to the other, attracting and pulling and melting into the moment of contact. Moments before the physical touch, another kind of touch that explains everything engulfed them both.