Monday, July 09, 2007

The Meaning of Life

Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz

The meaning of life

Someone sent me a link to a lecture given by an existential psychologist. He believes that the angst that follows us throughout life is caused by the basic problems life presents: lack of meaning; isolation and the impossibility of communion; the inevitable presence of that uninvited guest, death. He spoke of a dog, so happy to be thrown a stick, for, during the time it takes him to retrieve the stick, the chase gives his life purpose. I'm still waiting, he said, for God to throw me my stick. (

Now as it happens, I think about these things a lot, often at Crawpappy's Bar when I'm not distracted by girls. Sometimes they mix. More than one bewildered female has heard me exclaim, "Oh if only God would just tell me what to do!!!" Michalah, who knows the sort of things I think about, came up to me on Friday and said, "I love your guts."

And yet, it's better not to think too much In the main I try to be like Alyosha, who after all is the hero of "The Brothers Karamazov" He was not one for grand ideology; his brother Ivan was the man for that. But when he encountered another human being, he did his best to make that person's life better, no matter the cost to himself. And he did this by instinct, without thinking, or reasoning, or wondering why.

If you are immersed in the joy of others, you can feel the miracle of their being wash over you, and for that moment you are truly immortal.

Third of July

One of my mom's nurses lives on a farm about fifty miles east of Tulsa. You drive along back roads and byways to get there. "The street is named after her!" I cried when we drove out there last year. And indeed a signpost by the road bore her name. "It's not named after me, it's my husband's grandfather", she said. Her family has been in the area a long time. Just beyond her farm, the road wound past the old brown Mennonite church that serves the region. Most of the people there are Mennonite or Amish.

Once a year, in early July, Liz, the nurse, drives about seventy miles to the small farm community of Porter, where she picks a bushel of a variety of peaches, called Red Haven, which grow only there. A delicious peach, redolent of the robust perfume of life. She makes those peaches into pies, with a light ethereal cream sauce and a crust as subtle as an epiphany. Lots of heavy existential metaphors there, but it's easy to write like that when you taste her pie. We wait for those pies all year long.

Yesterday she cooked dinner. Sort of a Fourth of July meal, a day early, and starring the pie. She got up at sunrise, put on rubber boots -- that endless rain which has hit eastern Oklahoma has turned the land into marsh and mud -- and trudged out to the farm. She dug up a lot of potatoes, picked some cucumbers. She got corn from a neighbor. A nearby farmer had just killed a cow, so she bought a few steaks. At our house, she peeled and boiled the potatoes and then seared the edges in a pan. She boiled the corn. The cucumber got sliced and served with a creamy yogurt-like dressing that a German grandmother had taught her to make. The steaks went on the grill. We ate and ate until we bust and then we ate the pie. It was a lovely meal, a family meal, a meal not unlike what a family would have had on a good day a hundred years ago and more. Everything on the table came from her farm, and the neighbors' To a city boy, those rich explosive flavors were a revelation. "You could never get a meal like that in New York," I told her. Yes, we have some of the finest cooking schools, and chefs, and restaurants in New York. But that food didn't come from a fine cooking school or chef. It came from generations and generations of family meals, carefully cultivated and lovingly prepared. It came from an American farm.

Fourth of July

I don't think I've written about Cathe before, though she's been one of my Mom's nurses for quite some time. Yesterday her family came over to help us celebrate the Fourth of July. Now it's only because of a happy accident that she had that family at all. (No, not the kind of accident you think.) Back in the '70s she was liberated, a feminist, and didn't think much of women who spent their life raising a brood of kids. And then one day she and her boyfriend got to talking with a Mormon missionary. She probably wasn't too impressed with the knowledge that Kolob is the planet closest to God, and she certainly wasn't thrilled to learn that the Book of Mormon forbade sloe gin fizz and margaritas and all those delightful fun drinks she'd find at raucous weekend bars. Still, they prayed to God and asked Him to show them some sign if that was the right path. That night each of them had an ineffable experience, a sort of joyous (and indescribable) epiphany that convinced them beyond doubt that the church of Latter Day Saints was indeed right for them. And so they became Mormons, and faithfully practise its tenets, though if there is some passage in the Book of Mormon suggesting that women should be meek and subservient, Cathe forgot those verses soon after reading them.

And so Ed and Cathe raised seven children. One more than the Brady Bunch. Cathe also found time to become a nurse, and helped a lot of people along the way, which is how we came to know her. Four of the kids got married after college, moved away, started families of their own. We follow their lives vicariously. One of them, Brianna, became a track star in college, and Cathe went to California to see her compete in national events. About a year later, Brianna had twins, and I still remember the frantic phone calls when the twins entered the world a few weeks ahead of their scheduled appearance. Cathe went out to California again to help Brianna deal with the very energetic duo, who seem to take turns bawling and raising ruckuses.

So that left three of the kids still living at home, one a college graduate, one just graduated high school and already taking college courses for advanced placement, one a high school junior already taking her ACTs. And it was they who visited yesterday. Cathe always says they are picky eaters so we fixed hamburgers and hot dogs -- no kid will turn that down. Susanna, the youngest, is fascinated with Japan and anime -- last month Cathe took her to an anime convention in Dallas where ten thousand teenagers spent the entire night roaming through a big hotel and convention center wearing the costumes of their favorite anime characters -- so I put an Ukiyo-e print by Hiroshige on my computer screen. The kids didn't talk much to me, they mostly interacted with each other, and had a great time. We played a card game that was mostly an excuse to giggle and have fun. Betty the neighbor won! No one could believe it.

Well that was our Fourth of July. And I began writing this as a companion piece to my Third of July description of an all-American meal. But I now realize it's really a companion piece to my essay on the meaning of life. That existential psychologist who wrote that life for most people is solitary and without meaning said that he sometimes plays the game of trying in his head to list people to fill tables at a dinner party: the table of introverts, the table of overachievers, etc. He wrote that the only table that he just cannot fill is the table reserved for people who have led good, rich meaningful lives, people who are happy with their life. If he knew Cathe and Ed and her seven kids, he could set nine more places at that table.

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