I have been gone for a month from my ranch and in my absence fall has come, the flowers have faded, the garden is dying, and the fields are turning brown. I turned sixty. My daughter got married. A dear friend’s daughter got married. I went to visit my mother, who has failed so markedly since last I saw her that it was profoundly unsettling. I was “home” in my childhood home with all the attendant memories and ghosts. I am utterly exhausted.
I know I have prattled on ad nauseum about growing older, the significance of life, the passing of time. I wish I could share recipes and cute quotes and have a concrete goose on my front porch that I dress in various holiday-appropriate outfits. (Do they still do that in Ohio? It used to depress the hell out of me.) But that isn’t me. I continually have to wallow in angst about the big questions. And the stock market, the Ebola crisis, the fires destroying the West, our diminishing water, the “fault in our stars”-are all adding to my anxiety these days. How much time do we have left? How much time do I have left?
I just read the book, “The Fault in Our Stars”, by John Green. I know, I am the last person in the United States to get on the bandwagon, but this is a thoughtful, funny, poignant story that rattled my cage in so many ways. Augustus Waters, one of the main characters, is obsessed with living a life of significance and being a hero in his own story. Hazel Grace, the other main character, is convinced that life is basically random and meaningless. So of course they fall in love. I will stop there in case you are one of the three people who has not read this book. I will say that I highly recommend reading the book and not just watching the movie which is very good, but cannot capture the depth of the story or the characters.
I was moved by this big question because it is the background of my days now. I wonder daily if my life matters, if I am doing what I was put here to do, if I am in the flow of my life’s purpose. Most of the time I believe it has a purpose. It is quite remarkable how putting our house on the market and contemplating moving to be closer to our kids has thrown me for a loop. Did it matter that I was HERE? Has my life her for the past 10+ years made any difference to this implacable, resistant place? I hoped to bring good creative effort here and to even change some things, but all I see is that I have BEEN changed, worn down, quieted, even silenced. I have discovered that most people are not really interested in changing. Most people are not really interested in being moved in any way by anything. I know, a little bitter, but there you are. The great wheel of life spins on, and I am a speck of dust adhering to one of its spokes, screaming my heart out for it to change its course just a mite as a result of my effort.
Somehow we are beckoned to enter this great dance, the “Great Mandela”, and we think we can actually choreograph it. But in fact we are whirled into a great dervish that already spins on and on, and then at some point, we fall out of step and are gone. That is what it feels like to me on this incredibly beautiful morning after a night of almost no sleep and too much time to think.
But enough about me. What do YOU think about me?
Last night I made BLTs for dinner using a huge perfectly ripe tomato from our garden. I used the best bacon, perfect Bibb lettuce, superbly toasted bread…you get the idea. It is actually the only tomato I have eaten from my garden this summer. I have been gone for most of the harvest and Janet, my friend who has basically made my garden happen this year, kept busy taking produce to the shelter, to the food bank, so it would not go to waste. But here, when I got back, was this tomato on my counter, ripening to a deep delicious red. It was begging to be featured in a BLT and so it was. We had them for dinner and oohed and aahed as we ate, enjoying every bite.
Countless hours went into planning, planting, weeding, watering, composting, harvesting, and now tearing down that garden. Most of the labor was not mine but I invested in it. What have I gotten? A raft of eggplant, a truckload of greens, green beans galore, a few carrots, a lot of food that was given away, and one perfect tomato.
Was it worth that one perfect tomato? Because you see, that really is the question. Your life will be full of effort that does not seem to lead anywhere. You will try to help people who do not want your help. I have started a hundred ventures and not finished them. Almost nothing I have tried to do has turned out the way I hoped it would. My house isn’t sold, winter is coming and I don’t know which box my winter coats are in. I am haunted by the thought of death and disaster on a daily basis and cannot seem to shake my anxiety, in spite of being one of the 3% of the world’s wealthiest (we ALL are, in the United States), with a family that is all doing well, good health, a happy marriage, and more friends than I can count. Somebody SMACK me!
I suspect that when it is all said and done, as surely it will be on a day I cannot predict, I will find that it was indeed worth that one perfect tomato. And maybe a few other things I am simply unaware of at this point. I am not the one to measure the value of my days. Only others, and God, can see that clearly. Maybe only God. No one else may care all that much. Even Mother Teresa, towards the end of her life, was plagued with despair and a lack of the sense of God’s presence. Maybe it is just the way life is. Maybe that is why most older people are reduced to thinking about their next meal and discussing their aches and pains. The alternative is too haunting. To live in solitude, which we all do, in spite of our best efforts to shield ourselves from that reality, to face the silence of the universe and still believe that someone’s ear is bent to our cries, takes all the courage and resolve of the world’s greatest hero. I wish I could tell that to Augustus Waters. But he probably already knows.