My morning began with fresh-squeezed orange juice that I sipped standing in front of the kitchen window while watching the rain and green-ing hills. Those little oranges may look puny and bruised, but they are sweet and good and plentiful. I gathered them from the ground beneath the tree, not what I would normally think of as a January activity, but there you go. I am grateful. Life unfolds in unexpected ways, and some of them are beautiful and wondrous.
Believe me, I am striving to live that life well, although I am not always sure what this means, other than not squandering the days in sadness or stupidity. I emerged from last year with an intense awareness of mortality, and I think about death perhaps more than is healthy, but it looms always. As Karl Ove Knausgaard said someplace (and I copied it into my journal): “We use systems to keep the wolf from the door…and systems are nothing but vast complexes of notions and concepts. Everything that helps us lose sight of the petty, pathetic, and meaningless parts of our own selves.”
Yeah. Or as Maria Popova wrote on her Brain Pickings website in a recent introduction to When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, “All life is lived in the shadow of its own finitude, of which we are always aware, an awareness we systematically blunt through the daily distraction of living.”
I like the wording: an awareness we systematically blunt. That’s exactly what I am doing lately by staying busy with such fervor. I’ve launched a personal campaign to be engaged in the world in positive ways, to say yes to everything, to bear my sorrows but not become them, to think…but not in those obsessive circles that yield nothing but despair.
I am trying to make meaning, trying to connect, trying to be redeemed. And I am learning to contain the tricky knowledge of our human condition while at the same time allowing myself the privilege and the pleasure of music, a walk with a friend, or a glass of orange juice by the window.
It bears fruit. Even in the course of the last week my quest has led me to some interesting and inspiring people I would not have otherwise met. One is an artist who is traveling this spring to the Philippines, her grandmother’s homeland, to do art with women there and help them to tell their long-repressed stories. Another is a woman who is a “natural builder” and who teaches others those building techniques. She seemed so committed and enthusiastic as she spoke of all the good things happening out there: people building safe, nontoxic, earth-friendly shelters…growing their own food…making stuff…dancing!
Yesterday there was a rocket launch that shook us to our bones with its booming reverberations, and the waves were big and noisy, and it was a three-day weekend, so there were lots of people around. The prevalent feeling was a cross between festive and frenetic, not the Ranch I know in daily life. Two special friends, Dave and Ming, came out for a postponed New Year’s walk, and on the way home, as is our tradition, we summed up some of the important messages we had accrued in the course of the year or gathered like beach glass during our walk along the shore.
“I was trying to get pictures,” Dave recalled, “and I said, ‘Damn it! I missed that wave!’ And Ming said, ‘You didn’t miss it. You just didn’t get a photograph of it.’ That was perfect! And that is what I want to take home. It’s all there. Maybe not exactly the way you wanted it, your recording of it, some goal you had. But it happened. It’s all there. And that’s enough.”
We also talked about how important it is not to look at the lives of others and be deceived by appearances, or as Ming says, to avoid that tendency to compare our insides to their outsides. Dave relates it to the image of swans on a lake: “Those swans appear to be gliding so gracefully and effortlessly, like ballet, like ice skating. But if you were to look underwater, you’d see they’re doing the same things everyone is doing: paddling like hell, thrashing around, working hard to keep moving.”
And that reminded me of something my friend Cornelia told me a long time ago when I confided that there are days when I have to make a monumental effort just to appear normal. “Didn’t you know?” she said. “Nobody feels normal.”
At this point my neighbor Ryan came along, heading up the road on his way back from those big waves, his relatively new surfboard in the back of his truck, but in two pieces. Bummer. We all expressed our sympathy, but he was philosophical. “A wise man once told me, if you want a new surfboard, keep it in the garage.” Another good lesson right there. It’s only a thing, anyway. And life is messy but you might as well live it.
Ming told us that for her one of the biggest messages of the year had been to have some faith in the way events unfold. Often we think we know what we want and we think we can orchestrate things and create those outcomes. “But sometimes the universe knows more than I do,” she said. “I’m learning to let go and trust.” Things may turn out differently from what you expected or wanted to happen, and that isn’t necessarily bad. Even in the disappointments, there are gifts, and these may be subtle, or so profound that they set you on another path entirely.
“I don’t even have cell reception where I live now,” she added. “The nearest place where I can get service is right outside the Painted Cave. Don’t you think there might be some significance to that?”
We thought so. All sorts of messages to read into it, and why not get some spirit input while you’re standing at that cave? As for me, I had nothing to add. I’m just taking it all in, trying to learn. I’m managing to stay afloat, splashing and thrashing, but without the swan’s grace.
Now, back at the house, the rain is subsiding. Sheets of white mist are drifting over the hills faintly backlit by a pale and distant sun.
And here we are. Everyone dies, including David Bowie. But what a life he led, even in his dying.
Seeing more and feeling less.
Saying no but meaning yes.
This is all I ever meant.
That’s the message that I sent.
I can tell you this for sure: other than a glass of cool water when you’re thirsty, fresh-squeezed orange juice is the perfect beverage, especially while watching the mist through your kitchen window as it drifts over green-ing hills.