In what way were we trapped? where, our mistake? what, where, how, when, what way, might all these things have been different, if only we had done otherwise? if only we might have known. Where lost that bright health of love that knew so surely it would stay; how, did it sink away, beyond help, beyond hope, beyond desire, beyond remembrance; and where the weight and the wealth of that strong year when there was more to eat than we could hold, new clothes, a granfanola, and money in the bank? How, how did all this sink so swift away, like that grand august cloud who gathers–the day quiets dark and chills, and the leaves lather–and scarcely steams the land? How are these things?
- James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
* * *
How are these things? By what mechanism do they come to be? Where was the moment the wheel came loose before popping off? What seed was inadvertently planted? What weed came of it? How did intention and inattention become this?
There is no answer, no true answer, just feints and eclipses and ellipses. We are troubled by the answers we find because of their incompleteness. There is no grand unifying theory of fucking it up, having it get fucked up and being fucked. It is unique in its specifics, but I’ll suggest there is a thread–different colored as the case may be–that runs along and through such questions. It is this: the underlying premise that our lives are made meaningful by ease or comfort or success or the good fortune to not be familiar with tragedy is wrong. Our lives are not made meaningful by the pursuit of happiness, but by the willingness to undergo the experience that is uniquely ours. It may or may not hold much peace or quiet or love or relief. It may have all that in spades. What is certain is it is yours to suss out and see what is there for you to see, to learn, to forgive, to experience.
Sounds grim. Lord knows it can be. But that, too, is a type of lie, a keeper on the very experience you’re to wade into. Preconceiving, prejudging, allowing circumstance to be the arbiter of what is possible for you is as crippling as the saccharine mantras of self-help gurus who peddle a snake oil that, at its root, blames you for not believing hard enough.
No, the life in your hands has but one master: you. What you choose to believe, how you choose to act, where you choose to go are all under your control.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”
What is outside of that choice is the outcome, the very circumstance you find yourself in, but to you goes the freedom to choose how you’ll experience your life. This is the only truth to hang a hat on. Everything else you do, from religion to politics to work to love to how you will experience your death, flow from that one point. Culture and expectation may blind you to it, but it is there waiting for you.
* * *
Agee wrote about tenant farmers in Alabama during the Depression. Impossibly hard lives: subsistence farming, no education, crushing poverty and failing health from overwork. Children died early and often. How could that be bearable? How could the yoke of a nation’s indifference have a shred of meaning or purpose? It would be easy to say they lived so Agee could write of them and haunt us with their desolation, but that is facile. No, Agee took with him the photographer Walker Evans to document these lives and if you can’t find the meaning of these lives in the fury and righteous fire of Agee’s words, you’ll see the inherent dignity of these lives in the photographs themselves. The physical, the corporeal, the bent and withered bones themselves answer back: I lived. I struggled. I didn’t choose my birth, but made my way.
Would you switch your life for theirs? No. No one would. But that is beside the point. We have but the life we have to see what can be made of our days. Comparing it to the experience someone else is going through or has gone through keeps you from seeing all there is for you to see. There are no promises made about what that will be, only that it is yours to know.
* * *
Things sink swiftly away when we pay no attention, when we take their presence for granted, when we make assumptions instead of taking the time to learn and know. We do so, in part, because we fear what we might learn: a love shorn of its wonder, a job reduced to paycheck to paycheck living or no job at all, a mole ignored for fear it might be cancer. We tend to delusion, indifference and being a victim as it is easier to skate by. Few things actually sink swiftly. Mostly we lower our expectations for ourselves bit by bit until things are threadbare.
But there is a tonic, a cure: being awake to the life in your veins. That alone is promised (for a while). The rest is up to you.
* * *
“It is not likely for any of you, my beloved, whose poor lives I have already betrayed, and should you see these things so astounded, so destroyed, I dread to dare that I shall ever look into your dear eyes again: and soon, quite soon now, in two years, in five, in forty, it will all be over, and one by one we shall all be drawn into the planet beside one another; let us then hope better of our children, and of our children’s children; let us know, let us know there is cure, there is to be an end to it, whose beginnings are long begun, and in slow agonies and all deceptions clearing; and in the teeth of all hope of cure which shall pretend its denial and hope of good use to men, let us most quietly and in most reverent fierceness say, not by its captive but by its utmost meanings:”
I have lived and this is my story.
* * *
I wish you well.