“I don't believe in anything anymore:
god, country, money or love.” – Dorianne Laux
This is the life I always wanted but never knew how to dream: Rabbits in a two-acre yard with a view of the northern edge of the Flint Hills and a wide river a half mile away, a small rural town without a blinking light, a job that lets me be creative, a forgiving boss, a wife who makes everything worthwhile, the Milky Way arcing across the scintillating night skies, clean air and turkeys gobbling in the spring. Bluebirds in the nest boxes and a covey of bobwhite in the thicket. So why this creeping doubt, this uncertainty, this heaviness that is more than physical?
I trust nothing and believe no one. So I say in an occasional bout of bitterness, quickly amended to exclude a few significant friends, my wife of course and the natural world, or the great migrations, at least. Lately we’ve had white-crowned sparrows in the yard plus a smattering of other sparrow species, Lincoln’s and Harris’s, song and clay-colored, and the brown thrashers have returned to their incessant repertoires, and hawks hunt for thermals along the grassy ridges overlooking the valley before rising on heated globules of air to launch themselves northward on long slow glides. Our chimney swifts have returned to dimple the fluid air with their chittering; great plains skinks sun themselves on the patio. My belief in the circadian rhythms of mass movements timed to the angle of sun and our home planet’s ungainly wobble are merely a way to ground myself to this patch of prairie I call my own, however untruthful the statement. It is mine on a temporal basis only, not even a handful of seconds in geologic time, met with indifference by the other creatures whose claims are at least as legitimate as mine. By such measures we convince ourselves of our worth.
I’m at the age where these things matter to me far more than their relative importance. It’s as if I’ve made them extensions of my self and, by virtue of that acceptance, my self extensions of their own actualities. This is utter nonsense but reality is too dismal to be a viable substitute. And maybe none of it matters anyway. Maybe deliverance comes not from truth but from how we perceive it. Isn’t that the heart of religion, faith versus what our senses tell us is the truth and nothing but, and nothing more, either?
But then, I’ve given up on religion, too, and politics except when necessity demands action. We can’t let the goons win nor the corporations though we’re outmanned, outgunned and hopelessly outmaneuvered considering we give it so little effort while others live for nothing else. For that exact reason I no longer trust my government to do what’s right for the common American. Ours is the best government money can buy but it’s not my money and it’s not yours either.
If you calculate the things you believe with absolute certainty and the things you once believed and no longer do it’s a grim sort of mathematics not unlike the act of aging itself. We add experiences while simultaneously subtracting convictions until somewhere in the middle passage we all but flounder like rudderless ships tossed in tempests. Questioning becomes a rote that leads only to more questions, answers having fled the room. After a while it becomes second nature to realize there is no realization without a vague sense of unease that everything we know is a lie, that we’ve spent our lives going the exact wrong way. When I was in junior high I envisioned adulthood as being a sort of cross between Doc Savage and Sergeant Rock, clean cut, muscled, driving a WWII-era Willys jeep and helping little old ladies across the street. A modern if not emasculated Sir Galahad one short remove from Don Quixote. Whenever I passed the entryway mirror I’d flex my biceps to see how they were progressing which wasn’t much because I never worked out with weights or anything more strenuous than a push mower and then not for any great lengths of time. My father made fun of me once and forever after guilt robbed whatever incipient pleasure I might have derived from seeing what little muscle there was. As for Doc Savage and Sergeant Rock there was never a trace in my later life. Probably the nearest to it was that for a few years I carried a .45 auto, a Colt Mark IV that always shot a little high and to the right. The sad truth is that we grow up to become who we are.
Who I am is still a mystery. The person I imagined myself to be never materialized, and the man staring back at me in the mirror a graying, grizzled stranger. Somewhere beneath that aging veneer is the real me though inwardly I’m twenty years younger and full of a hope based on nothing more than wishful thinking and the American ideal of advancement through hard work and consistency. But hope must have a kernel of truth to become viable, and the American ideal for the commoner is rotting on the vine.
Yesterday while mowing the yard I was reduced to a half-crippled automaton guiding the self-propelled mower in regulated, methodical rows meant to maximize the width of the blades and minimize the time spent in the hot sun. To take my mind off the pain I watched the swifts darting through the crystalline air and looked for toads, lizards and wildflowers, also obstructions in the deep grass such as the brick I clobbered last week. Mostly I asked myself what I really believed in, the things that mattered without questioning, and if the list I finally tallied was short it was nevertheless as true as anything I could name: friends who don’t betray you, my wife, love, art and inspiration, creativity as a means of immersing oneself in the world and learning to see and have a true voice, migrations, the warmth of the sun. I no longer trust the weather, my country, my body or any sort of future without unbearable loss and suffering.
By the time I was through several hours later I was more dead than alive and yet encouraged somewhat by remaining upright, if nothing else. I never imagined a life so circumscribed but then I was always imagining something else, something better if not wildly unrealistic, as if I could create a life from a patchwork of dime-store novels, comic books and literary fiction when the real world was less forgiving, careless to the point of unfeeling and cruelly infinite to our finiteness. And heartrendingly beautiful. It would all be pointless if not for imagination and its catalyst for change. I’ve always believed the examined life to be our highest calling but I never did very well on examinations, hated school and found introspection to be little more than a justification for failure. The man hobbling up the stairs was ready for something different, a reawakening to a world where the imagined life was the only form of innocence and the future an imaginary construct whose ending, for all its forbidding certainty, indeterminate, mutable and uncompromising.
Good article, Tom. I sometimes have looked back in time to when I was single, just out of the army, and the world in front of me. Then marriage, children, work, home repairs, and everything else that usually comes along in life. However, looking back on my life, I realize how much God has blessed me with. The best parents a kid could grow up with, great brothers, a fantastic wife whom I love dearly, my children and grandchildren, and my career, which is over but not forgotten. I would change a few things if I could, but very few. I've had a great life, friends I'll never forget, and all of the experiences I had which shaped who I am today. I'm not worried about what will happen tomorrow, because I believe God has me in His hand and will take care of me. When I finally die, I have no doubt where I'm going, so I have peace in my heart. Life has been good to me, and I look forward to more in the future, however long that may be. God bless you, Tom, and take care of yourself. You know you can always trust me and rely on me if needed. That's what big brothers are for. I love you.
Love you too, bro. Looking forward to your company this summer.
Your writing is deep and rich and dark. Lots of good phrasing here, but perhaps the line I liked the best... "Questioning becomes a rote that leads only to more questions, answers having fled the room."
"... answers having fled the room."
Thanks, Cheryl. Today there are even fewer answers but I'm smoking a turkey breast, reading a good book and doing my best to take a day off with my beautiful wife. Sort of a vacation day without going anywhere, and much needed. Now if we could just make it so the wind would die down...
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