With it being almost time to vote, and me having mentioned the apocalypse, one would be forgiven for thinking I was gonna talk about Donald Trump.
Instead, today’s lesson comes from the Book of Shelly, the prophet who tells us of the fate of Ozymandias, with his colossal statue lying broken in a wasteland.
With a frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command….
Here’s the end of the sonnet:
And on the pedestal, these words appear: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Solomon of Jerusalem penned the following lyrics (found on his classic album Ecclesiastes):
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. All things are full of weariness; What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
(TL:DNR? Okay, pick up the thread again here…)
So, the point, Ozymandias and King Solomon? You’ll be forgotten, no matter who you are.
Good lesson, in any case, even if numerous modern-day prophets have made the same point:
All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see… Dust in the wind… All we are is dust in the wind…”
(Livgren, as found in the Prophecies of Kansas.)
For all of these men–and they’re all men, fwiw–I must pose a question:
Why do you care? About your “legacy,” I mean. Being “remembered” by people not even alive yet.
And why are so many of us kinda like that?
What makes us want to spread our image and our name across the land, like a lightning bug smeared across the inside wall of a church-camp quonset hut on a mosquito-infested night? (That’s an oddly specific image…) What makes us want to carve our names into history, leaving a reputation-shaped scar to last all time? What good does that do us when the sands will still come and cover us up?
What good does it do? There is an answer: No good. none at all. None good.
Life has its own scale, and it isn’t monumental. It is human-sized–if you’re living right.
It’s today. And when tomorrow comes, it’s that day. And if you’re lucky, you’ll share it with the right people. And when you’re gone, and when they’re gone, and the sands come, it won’t matter, because you have already had your days, and you knew it when it was happening, and it was enough. More than enough.
Between love today and future glory, I’ll take love. Speaking for me is the prophet Nesmith in the book of Monkees:
I have no more than I did before But now I’ve got all that I need For I love you and I know you love me
(Note to my beloved wife–I’m talking about you.) 🙂
Living inside anxiety, I can’t help but think I may actually be the worst person to explain it. I’m certain that it looks entirely different from the inside, and would be unrecognizable to people on the outside.
I feel this is best expressed through a peyote-inspired scene from “I dream of Jeannie”:
Me: “Okay, it’s a round room, about twenty feet across, with jewels on the wall, and cushions that fit together, and pillows all around. And kinda pink and purple. Mostly purple. Weird ceiling. Do you see it?”
Some human: “Dude… you’re high. All I see a shiny bottle about as long as my arm.”
Me: “Open it!”
Anxious person emerges, blinking.
From this side, it feels like anxiety is connected to time somehow–like everything is coming in too fast, and nothing I do can slow it down. It feels like stress, but in more dimensions than emotions are supposed to have. (Apparently, that feeling is a real thing and much discussed at one time, in certain circles.)
Alvin Toffler definition of future shock: “Too much change in too short a period of time.” Published 1970.
Part of my brain keeps saying, “Hurry up! You’re not making it. If you fall behind…!!” (Not sure what happens if I fall behind. Something bad.)
Without meaning to, I’m aware of every responsibility, every job I’ve got to do in the next ten minutes, hour, rest of the morning, day, week, semester, year, all at once… as well as the time crunch I have trying to accomplish each one while doing all of the others, facing the scrutiny and scorn of the (imagined?) authorities looming over my shoulder.
And all the time, all the time, all the time, I keep thinking about the years–how many I’ve passed, how many since this movie came out or that album was released, how many years I’ve taught, how many I still need to work, how many years since Mom and Dad passed away, and how many more I can hope to see, like an old man counting down to zero.
So it’s simultaneously time by the fraction of a second, and time by the year and decade, with me trapped between.
And with the thinking is the feeling of anxiety–a true, physical feeling–like a fever that gives you chills all over; or like razor-blade poison traveling through your veins; or like frost on your skin, a quarter inch deep; or like molten lead in your gut, sending its metallic tendrils every direction.
It makes me grit my teeth until I have a headache. And jiggle my knees. And crack my knuckles over and over.
See? I can’t describe it properly. Maybe that’s close enough.
But I know what I want instead.
I crave slow time. Maybe no time. Sitting on the porch, reading books by natural sunlight, hearing the sound of the wind and the flutter of the curtains, with the dogs puttering around and the leaves rustling. Nothing much happening. Nothing needing to be done. No critic at my shoulder. No deadline. No existential angst.
The deepest calm I feel is when a scent, like cut grass, or a combination of clouds and sun, or some chance word, or crickets outside at night, or some other perfect accident of life conjures up not just the memory of my youth but an actual moment, a time when I didn’t inhabit this strange space, this bizarro version of my inner life. Then, for a blissful instant, I step out of the bottle, out of time, out of the fever-poison-frost, and feel…
But only for, like, you know, a second. A good second.
That’s not how I feel at work. I don’t know many people who do. But sometimes, once in a while, there’s a tiny spark of it.
Normally (though it shouldn’t be normal) work is where everything is coming in so fast–for real, for everybody, not just in my imagination–that an actual happy, healthy human can barely keep up. Teaching is like managing a party for eight-year-olds at McDonald’s, except it’s with 30 or more kids at a time, all day, every day, and they’ve all been eating bowls full of red frosting for the last 24 hours, and your party games are super stupid, like essays and multiple choice quizzes.
Teaching is a job for masochists and martyrs and people who didn’t read the job description very well, though it is sometimes kinda fun. Not very peaceful, though. Unless you’re a paperclip.
Not a metaphor. An actual paperclip.
About a year ago, when I entered work feeling feverish-poisoned-frozen every day, I started to notice a paperclip on the sidewalk a few doors down from my classroom. A simple aluminum paperclip, dropped by a passerby, and probably never missed. Unassuming little tool. Modestly useful. Fragile, typically–even a child can destroy it, if it comes into their hands.
What do you make of this?
It was there every day. Day after day. In perfect condition. The students would walk on it, and the leaf blower would blow around it, and the rain would wash over it, and nothing troubled it. It wasn’t worth picking up, and it wasn’t worth worrying about, and it wasn’t important enough to bother destroying in a fit of “Take that!” And for months that paperclip lay there. Tenacious. Resilient. An outrageously unlikely survivor. I noticed it, and left it there, silently rooting for it to outlast the school, the way crocodiles out-survived the dinosaurs.
Okay: picture one of those Notting Hill-type season montages, where it’s fall then winter then spring–and watch the paperclip, still there, unchanged, through it all.
Every day when I saw it, I felt a little lift. Though conditions shifted every minute at school, the paperclip stayed the same. It went unnoticed, unmoved, untroubled. Just enduring, an unlikely hero to me in my anxiety-drenched days. I would show up–another day–and it would be there–another day–and I would remind myself: