If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Pablo Neruda, "Keeping Quiet"
I once read about a wolf who was born disfigured and cast out from his pack. Every wolf, save his mother, hoped that he would die. Gifted sanctuary from a grizzly bear and her cubs, this wolf miraculously staved off death. When he matured he found a new clan in the Arctic tundra. Upon his arrival, he discovered there was a name for wolves like him: malcadh. This rank described other deformed wolves the clan had exiled to protect its bloodline. The clan designated malcadhs who returned as gnaw wolves, the lowest position in the pack. Gnaw wolves ate last and suffered abuse from fellow wolves.
However, malcadhs were skilled in the art of gnawing designs on their bones, and this wolf was a true artisan. His creations communicated his pain, his sorrow, and his resilience in blazing detail. The stories he depicted evinced truths other wolves didn't have the vocabulary to express or the moral courage to acknowledge. This wolf's art earned him the respect of his clan and others, and he transcended the depravity of his birth.
When I was young, I wished I had been born a prodigy. Math whiz who meets Ellen. Chess genius who baffles competitors. Soulful pianist who leaves listeners teary-eyed. Without any obvious answer, I struggled with the question of who I was. I feared my response would be this misty vapor forever. People who could say what they were passionate about without all of the subjunctive clauses my answer required seemed so well put-together. I barely practiced guitar for my weekly music lessons so I would need to look outside music. I couldn't run faster than most of the kids on my soccer team so the plan to play professional athletics stumbled too. I began searching for something I could call my own.
How long does it take to become great at something? 10, 000 hours? Burdened with the desire to become something I could proudly tell other people, I thrashed wildly in high school and in college. Viewing time as an obstacle as opposed to an opportunity, I reached for a perverse alchemy: the ability to compress five years into a single second. I believed my sole mistake was that I wasn't moving fast enough. Now, if I could speak to the tenth grade me, I would tell him to do fewer things.
Active lazing is a phrase I stole from my junior-year English teacher (who himself attributed it to Billy Collins, although I have never found anything to confirm this fact). He practiced active lazing during his summers at Cuttyhunk Island when he rowed in a paddle boat. The cover image of this blog is an acknowledgement of his desire to watch the ebb of the current, to displace this thrashing with something everlasting. Last week, Shreyas asked me what I believe the meaning of life is. "42," I replied stupidly. I know I'm destined to speed out on a motorboat if this is the question I pose. What is the meaning of life is unanswerable.
If I ask myself what is the meaning of my life, then I can structure my days in a way that respects the cyclic nature of time. I can discover my one action "which will fructify in the lives of others" (T.S. Eliot, Dry Salvages, Four Quartets). This advice is the greatest salve for missing out on life that I have ever learned. If I organize my life as I could die at any moment – and as Eliot reminds us, "the time of death is every moment," then I know I will have no regrets when the death comes. It is this self-knowledge that separates every human being from each other. The ability to suture our circumstances to our experiences to explain fundamental truths – time, death, love – to ourselves.
At nineteen, I recognized that accomplishment is an illusion that only makes us pant. In high school I stopped speaking to my girlfriend for two years because I was "too busy." In college I refused to go out with my friends on the weekends because my work was more important. It's only now because of a novel coronavirus that I can appreciate how my girlfriend's smile puts the sun to shame. Now I can see each day latent with a thousand hidden joys waiting for me to turn them over like sea-smoothed pebbles.
The most puzzling part of Harry Potter is when Voldemort kills Harry, his final Horcrux. Struck to the ground, Harry dreams he is in Kings Cross Station with Dumbledore, who grants him a final wisdom: "Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living" (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). When my paternal grandfather died, I wept uncontrollably. My father, who delivered the news to me, smiled as he said, "दादा lived a long life, पुत्तर." The idea that the living are worthy of pity suggests the gift of life endows the recipient with an enormous responsibility. To be alive is to feel this burden.
In the continuum of the five billion years our sun has shone and in the five billion years it will continue to shine, I am a blip, although perhaps that is overstating my importance. Out of this vastness, we are suspended into existence to strut and fret our hour upon the stage. How do I gather my hour into what the legendary poet William Butler Yeats calls "artifice of eternity?" God fastened my soul to a dying animal. I started dying the second I was born, my vital life force spilling out in a triumphant wail, golden energy proclaiming "Whát I dó is me: for that I came" (Gerard Manley Hopkins, "As Kingfishers Catch Fire"). What's permanent isn't my flesh and bone; I don't matter.
The epigraph by Pablo Neruda is about being still. As he reminds us, stillness is not to be confused with inaction – "I'm not talking about inaction, I'm talking about life." He's talking about life lived deeply; a life of moments that warp Minkowski spacetime to our will, leaving the imprint of our hour. He's talking about the redeeming power of art, and its ability to transmute the finite into the infinite. He's talking about creation and telling the world things we only tell ourselves, like a wolf who gnaws on bones and man who writes online.