I’d like a long old life.
I’d need one to be able to even scratch the surface of the outer crust of all the things I’d really rather know inside and out.
The world is too complex now — it’s overwhelming for an insatiably curious mind. Even more so for an insatiably curious mind that’s conscious of its own debilitated powers of recognition and absorption and retention. A mind that is now stunted by traumas both blunt and penetrating. A diminished mind that feels somewhat helpless in the face of its own undiminished curiosity.
In other words: there’s too much shit going on, and I want to know about all of it. And I’ll never have the time. I’ll never have the time to get a handle on what’s happening in the world right now, let alone catch up with all the things that have already happened that I’ve missed, like Graham Greene and Tolstoy and the Austronesian language family and Finland and most of opera.
I didn’t even know that the Earth’s crust occupies less than 1% of its total volume until 5 minutes ago.
I don’t even know who the Birds’ starting cornerbacks are this year and the season starts tomorrow.
But luckily — luckily— this is a dilemma of overabundance, of finding yourself hungry and thirsty and in the middle of a citrus grove at peak season trying to eye the ripest or fattest or most fragrant fruit to peel and devour first. It’s lucky to be hungry and surrounded by food. It’s stupid to be paralyzed by choice; the smart thing to do is to know what you like and start there. Or, failing that, start with anything that looks delicious.
Being paralyzed by choice is about as useful a way to pass your time as being crippled by anxiety over a fate that’s already determined.
I have an MRI on Tuesday morning. The results of that test are already determined. Not in any mystical determinist way; it’s just going to be exactly what it’s going to be, and nothing more or less than that unless I smash my head into a wall on purpose some time in the next 48 hours, which I’m certainly not prone to do.
There’s nothing I can do right now to control the outcome of this bi-monthly brain parole hearing, and so I’m not at all anxious about it. So why am I so anxious about all these things that I know I will never get a chance to know?
Because I miss them already. I miss all the things I will never get a chance to know, even though I don’t even know what most of the things are that I will never get a chance to know.
But I do know what a lot of them are. Tuscany and Tolstoy and Tristan und Isolde are three.
Hey why don’t I just start there? I should live long enough to get through the T’s! (As long as I start with the T’s.) And that’s something! That’s something I can actually reach.
Something I can reach is the full part of the glass that is otherwise occupied by an unreachable infinity. For the emptiness stretches out beyond the rim of the glass to join and connect with the infinite everything that isn’t, from here to the ends of the universe. And that’s a lot of nothing.
So why bother worrying about this unreachable part? Even the emptiness in the glass (to belabor the metaphor further) is not nothing. Emptiness implies the presence of something that was once there, or has the potential to be there. And so there is a kernel of positive value even in emptiness, if you’re willing to see it.
Look at it this way (before we both lose our trains of thought— and believe me, my train is almost off the rails):
Missing someone or something hurts, because it is someone or something you love.
And love is something.
And that is positive.
I am positive that I will live long enough to go to Tuscany for the first time. I should live long enough (I hope I live long enough) to return to Toluca. And those both start with a T. So that’s a start. With a T.
In fact, I think a lot of this started with Toluca.
(Cue blurry transition fade and flashback music… or you know what— screw irony, just listen to the story. It’s a flashback. This is the transition.)
When I was 12 years old, I went on an elementary school exchange to Toluca, Mexico. For a month. At 12. I didn’t speak any Spanish.
And after a ten hour plane delay and layovers in Cancun and some random person’s house in Mexico city and a drive in a van to the house of the host family with whom I would be living, I fell asleep in a bed that I have absolutely no recollection of getting into.
Nor did I remember getting into that bed in the morning, when I woke up in that room, completely alone. I looked around and saw no one. I heard no one. (This is because there was no one there). And so I tentatively wandered out and into the hallway and down the stairs and around this strange and unknown home in Toluca, Mexico that seemed to be inhabited by no one other than my 12 year-old self.
It was slightly traumatic. It became even more traumatic when I finally encountered the one other human being who was there in the house: a kind but grizzled old woman with the face and teeth of a fisherman who’d been lost at sea for 35 years. Needless to say she spoke no English, and I spoke no Spanish. But we tried anyway. It didn’t work. I was 12. I was terrified. I burst into tears.
I wept, probably harder than I ever have before or since. Then she hugged me. I would probably have fallen apart if her bony arms hadn’t been there to hold me together. And now her cleverness and compassion took over, and she got me on the phone with someone I did know, who did speak my language, and who informed me that my teacher and my friends were already at our host school, and had been for hours. (For some reason this annoyed me more than the fact that I had no idea where I was.)
Apparently my host family had felt bad about the long trip and didn’t want to wake me at 7AM, thinking it would be better for me to sleep in. And to wake up, alone, watched over only by a grandmother I had never met, in a place that was so foreign to my limited and sheltered suburban Philadelphian sensibilities that my head would explode upon seeing it, and I would never be the same person again.
They couldn’t possibly have known that this was what they were doing, but it worked. I had never experienced any kind of trauma in my life, any kind of separation from the familiar, and this situation was a shock to the system so powerful (and inherently safe) that it could not have been orchestrated any better.
It exploded the walls of my brain. It pressed the reset button and tore down any retainer fences that may have persuaded me into thinking that there was some limit to what’s out there, to what’s knowable or experienceable in the world.
And so since that day when I was 12, I’ve been addicted to immersing myself in the unknown. Into tearing myself away from the familiar and diving head first into the freshness of the new.
Even better, I’ve always trusted that things would work out great. That leather-faced old lady—as terrifyingly knobby and shriveled as she was—would always be there to wrap her arms around me and show me that everything was going to be OK in the end.
And it has been.
And it continues to be.
So I’m gonna go move on to the next T.
And hopefully one day get back to Toluca.
(And, once there, learn to play the Ukulele and Violin.)
PS: If you ever get to Toluca, be sure to visit the Cosmovitral Jardín Botánico de Toluca . Somewhere in the world there is a photograph of me standing in front of the beautiful stained glass window pictured above. It was taken almost exactly 25 years ago. I haven’t seen it (the photo or the real thing) since then. I’m happy to report that I remember it perfectly. I’m sure if you go you’ll never forget it either.