By J.L. Pendall
I am calm, and my heart and mind are at rest. These words disappear from me right after I write them.
The sky is a bright blue, and the trees sway with their shadows. Birds sing and flap, “Food! Food! Fuck! Fuck!” The unseasonable heat is keeping most people indoors. The joggers and cyclists have traded their feet for vroom vroom boxes and the comfort of an artificial arctic.
I have to work tonight, but I have no intention of sleeping.
I called off last night since I had no intention of living—I never do. This is all duty to me now. There are moments of joy, laughter, love and bliss. Moments of singing, dancing and awe. Only moments. It’s best for me to not build stories around them. It’s the stories that hurt.
Space and silence are the reality. In this open space, there are blue skies and gray; singing birds and barren trees; busy roads and empty streets. Back and forth, forth and back, we cycle without any final goal. Some things are beautiful, others are ugly, but both eventually dissolve back into space.
Then there’s music and laughter, weeping sobs and ecstatic moans. There are profound words and senseless chit-chat. The doppler roar of a lifeflight helicopter overhead, and the sporadic honk of an irate driver stuck behind a Sunday cruiser. My congested breath (thanks, chronic sinusitis), whistling as I type. It all fades to silence.
The sun rises.
When asked, “What color is the sky?’ most people say, “Blue,” but that’s wrong. It can be orange, purple, red, pink and gold. If you’re a Midwesterner, you’ve even seen it green a few times. That usually means it’s time to head to the basement or grab your camera, depending on your temperament.
All that said, without interference, the sky is black. Without interference, it’s empty of stars—empty of us. Everything, all of this, even these words, they’re momentary interruptions of universal oblivion.
The older I get, the more tragedies I face, the harder it is for me to forget that music, warmth, and light are “extra,” that absence is the mother of all things.
A good Taoist or Zennist would accept this and learn to find peace in it. They’d learn to see how presence and absence are one, and how absence frees us from getting attached to things.
I’m not a good Taoist or Zennist. I’m a furless monkey who has a panic attack while shopping for deodorant. Why are there so many different types of deodorant? Why?! I usually just end up picking one at random and then I go around smelling like a pile of lilacs for a month.
Why do we even use deodorant? We’re mammals—mammals stink. It’s strange how, if I smell someone with B.O., my mind finds it remarkable for some reason. “Oof, dude needs a shower or something.” Why? Would I think the same thing 200 years ago? Would I have even noticed the smell? Probably not since, 200 years ago, pretty much everyone smelled like shit.
I’m a bad Zennist because I can’t take absence lying down, and I can’t just accept all the silly ways we try to dress it up and ignore it. If the sun didn’t interfere, the sky would be dark; if we didn’t interfere with our glands, we’d all smell bad.
That’s why we smell bad when we die—death is the end of interference. We smell bad when we die, not just because we’re farting out all our insides, but because we’re not around to interfere with our natural body smells.
You can’t shower, take a bath, put on perfume or cologne. Ya can’t shave, moisturize or condition. You’re dead! You’ve joined the night sky, the silence between notes, and the stillness of a winter’s day. You’ve become the next moment and the last one.
You’ve become the tree in the forest that falls without anyone around to hear it.
You’re the rocks and water, the burning leaves and the mountains on the moon. That’s death, and it happens to all of us. We were absent, then a bubble formed in the stream and we’re present. The bubble reflects this and that and that’s our lives. Then it pops and we’re absent again.
For me, for one who has never wanted to be here, that’s a beautiful thought.
We’re just going home. With that in mind, we get to our old pal Camus. Camus said that the only philosophical question worth asking is, “Why don’t I kill myself?” He thought that everything else was besides the point, all extra.
Most people don’t choose to end their life because they find it at least somewhat meaningful and enjoyable. Modern philosophers would say that that’s because they’re choosing to ignore the facts, and the more we ignore them, the more deliriously selfish we become.
We enhance the quality of our own lives by diminishing the quality of others. Even this laptop I’m on was made thanks to African slave children and Chinese sweatshops workers who can barely feed their families.
If I love this laptop, or say, “You should get one too! It’s great!” it’s because I’m ignoring the facts. Passionate people hurt others; ignorant people let passionate people hurt others. But all of that is just a facet of ignorance. The fact we ignore the most, at all costs, is that this universe is indifferent to us, and that we spend our short lives mindlessly traveling through the same pointless cycles until we die.
We ignore these facts when we decide to have kids. We ignore the fact that we’re bringing another helpless being into this chaotic world where they’re going to strive, suffer and ultimately get old, get sick, and die. We ignore the financial and environmental strains and we just focus on our own lizard brain prerogative to make copies of ourselves, to keep the cycle going.
So, why keep going?
One simple reason, a reason that goes beyond duty, that even goes beyond religion and the greater good.
When the sun sets, and you step outside and see that black vault of dying stars, sure you’re getting a naked glimpse of your own insignificance, but you’re also getting something else: breathtaking beauty.
That beauty is always there, even in the most unlikely places. In Auschwitz, some prisoners were so sick and exhausted that they couldn’t even eat. Instead of letting them just lie there and die, another prisoner might break off half of their bread and feed it to them, even though they were starving too. That’s beautiful.
Right now, even though I’m right in the thick of complete suffering, I can take a breath and feel the texture of the keys against my fingers. I can smell the musk and freshly cut grass in the air. I can let go of the past and future and just be here, in this room. I can sit and watch the shadows move across the lawn and, if an anguished thought crosses my mind, I can hope that everyone else like me can find peace in pure being as well.
That’s beautiful. Life is art, and art is struggle. The impossible struggle of bringing inside and outside together—kindness, curiosity and creativity. This is why I live, and I hope that you’ll keep on living along with me.
And if, no matter how hard you try, you can see anything beautiful in this world, then make something beautiful in this world.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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