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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

40,000 Years

This I knew: it takes light eight minutes to travel from the surface of the sun to the Earth. But this I didn't: to travel from the center of the sun to the sun's surface it takes light forty thousand years.

For weeks I haven't been able to get this out of my head. I've been walking around with this bit of knowledge in my head as if it were some kind of secret. Not one that gives me, as an individual human being, any kind of special significance. Just the opposite: I feel an indescribable peace at the thought that the universe is immense beyond my capacity to imagine it, that even such a small part of it as our Sun is so big and so dense that light gropes its way through it, a step forward only every millennium, and that this universe contains me so briefly as to make me irrelevant. It's strange to find myself encouraged by absence of meaning.

But I have a suspicion that it smacks a little of cowardice. Every time I encounter that cliche about people's fear not that they don't matter but that they do, not that they are powerless but that they're powerful, I shudder. It's out of shame as much as disgust, because I'm convinced that whoever believes that to create fundamental change of any kind -- and therefore meaning -- is possible, sorely, and dangerously, deceives himself. And at the same time, the alternative, giving up on change, on exercising this illusory power, seems a cop-out.

I've failed to change time after time, no matter how earnest and disciplined I am. I seem always to end up in the same place, caught in the same patterns: confused about what's right and wrong, sunk in familiar despair about all the things I'm unable to do, vacillating wildly between the desire to give up and stubbornness to keep going. Time after time I find myself back to square one, persuade myself that the work necessary to get to square two is worth doing just for itself, and then when there are no results, when I'm back where I started, I simply can't bear it. Then the idea that I don't matter in the grand scheme of things, in the context of the infinite universe infinitely expanding, begins to sound like salvation. It takes me out of myself, places my failures into perspective. It turns me into a mere flickering of atoms in time and space.

Like most everyone else, I grew up thinking I was different, special, unique. It was a sort of religion, fed by my parents and teachers, fed by everything, really, that happened to me: the fact that I had hardly any friends as a child and have hardly any now that I'm an adult; my almost pathological love of reading; my speech impediments; even my constant doubt in myself. And what if I'm not different, special, unique? What if I'm not meant to do any great, enduring thing? What if this life of mine with its approximations, its ordinariness, its failed resolutions to change, is all there is? What if progress is a fallacy?

As always after asking such questions I think of Wittgenstein and the limitations of language. And as always I've reached the end again without learning anything new, having circled through the same old questions and not managed to find their answers.

The unexamined life isn't worth living, you might say. But the examined life doesn't seem a much better alternative either.


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