Sunday, January 3, 2016


Calling Birds

Her daughter had gotten into the habit of calling her back to her room, long after bedtime, with the sole purpose of putting impossible questions to her mother. 

"Mom, what's the point of life if there is no God?"

"Mom, I can't sleep. Because I'm going to die one day and then I'll be asleep forever."

Or this doozy, tonight:

"Mom, I've been thinking a lot about the insignificance of humanity."

She couldn't help it: she laughed. Her daughter looked wounded. She would be a teenager soon, and was getting very good at that.

"I'm sorry. It's just--geesh, honey. Do we have to talk about this now?" 

With her daughter, the answer was always, emphatically yes

The girl squeezed a stuffed marmoset to her chest. The eyes on the thing were huge and vacant. 

"But this is when it bothers me most. This is when I'm alone with my thoughts. And I can't help having my thoughts when I have them, can I?"

"Hmm. Another interesting question. But all right. Why the assumption that humanity is, as you put it, insignificant?"

Her daughter shrugged. "The universe just seems pretty random and meaningless to me. And because we're human, we feel it in a way that other creatures can't." She shuddered. "It's kind of awful, really."

She had a point. Always, during these late-night existential crises, there was a struggle in the mother between honesty and a mushier mollification. Yes, life's inscrutable. But a lot of people do believe in God and some kind of grand design to it all. Just because I don't doesn't mean you can't! 

But the words wouldn't come. Because she knew they wouldn't land.

The truth was that the nature, and degree, of her daughter's obsessions scared her. And whatever was said tonight would likely be discarded tomorrow, anyway. But she was a parent and had to say something. To inhabit a wisdom she didn't feel.

"When I was at the store today," she started slowly, "I tried an exercise that made me feel a little better about the world."

"What?" her daughter said.

"I took a single, distinguishing characteristic of each person I saw, and building on that quality or quirk, I gave them a kind of--I don't know--a super identity, I guess you could say."

Her brow crinkled. "What do you mean?"

"Well, for instance, there was a stock girl with a small chin and pointed ears, so I imagined she was an elf. Easy, right? And later, there was this guy who strutted out of the store wearing only a t-shirt, in spite of the cold and snow, and in my head he immediately became a kind of dumb superhero named Impervious Man."

She puffed out her chest comically. Her daughter didn't laugh, but she was listening, at least.

"The cashier who checked me out had a rather unfortunate case of acne. But in my head, just for that moment, he was transformed into a mighty warrior. That flimsy, grocery-store vest of his was armor. His pimples were battle scars. And the only reason he didn't meet my eyes was because he was just so weary from fighting."

Was she rolling her eyes yet?

No. Still good.  

"And the lady working in the floral department--well, that one was harder. I admit, she looked so sad and lost to me."

Her daughter waited. Finally, she asked, "So? What was her story?"

"I don't know. Maybe you do."

Her daughter thought for a minute. When she spoke, her voice was dreamier, and distant. "The love of her life was killed in a duel with the cashier. Now she brings her flowers to his grave every day and sings to him all night. The sweetness of her voice is the thing that makes her flowers grow, and her sadness is what colors them. And so the colors are the purest colors in all the known and unknown worlds."

Her daughter smiled up at her. She smiled back and touched her on her cheek. 

"See? You've given her meaning."

But just as suddenly, she lost her smile. "None of it is true, though."

"Not the exact details, no. But I bet she's loved, and lost. And I bet she still appreciates the beauty left to her in life. Not all the time, but often enough."

Leaning in, she kissed her daughter on the forehead and pulled the blanket up to her neck. "So. Did I do my job? Is humanity significant again?"

"Maybe a little bit."

"Good. Better keep looking for more, though. Just to be safe."

She walked to the door and turned off the light for the second time that night. 

"Mom?" Her daughter's voice sounded small again.


"What's my special quality or quirk?" 

She looked at her girl, ensconced in a gaggle of stuffed animals that she'd be rid of soon enough.

"Your eyes, honey."

"What about them?"

"Well. You have these great, big, nocturnal eyes.You always have. Except, you're still learning how to use them. And right now, what you see most is all the different shades of darkness. I think that's why night scares you. There's so much darkness out there to absorb before you can make out all the things still breathing and beautiful inside of it."

She flipped up the switch in the hall, bathing the doorway with light. Her daughter squinted and held up her hand, until her mother adjusted the door just right.

"But when the brightness hits you, I promise you: it will be just like that.'" 

She blew her a kiss as the clock on the nightstand turned 12:00 and walked down the hallway, thinking and worrying, and thinking some more. 


My "New" series began in 2008. There are also entries for 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2015. Why no 2014? I can't remember. But it must be Aniket Thakkar's fault for not badgering me enough that year. 


Aniket Thakkar said...

I think the 2009 was my favorite, so far. As sexy that was, this one tops it, if only for the reason that how often I've wondered the same about life. I think you and I have had a couple of discussions on the topic

I remember, once it was over some silly post of mine, where I thought we were all living in a snow-globe of sorts, put over on the desk of some alien's home. Another time, I think when you wrote about David Foster Wallace.

I loved your little exercise. It is these little moments - an old friend's hug or your Dad ruffling your hair out of nowhere - life makes perfect sense. A whole lotta other times though, I wonder what's the point of it all? May be we are part of just a giant experiment. Even the giants who made a significant impact on this Earth, what did they really achieve? Earth itself is a speck of dust to the entire universe.

For now, I'm content with the answer - to pester you into writing posts like this one.

Tomorrow, I'll look for another reason. Just to be safe.

Sarah Hina said...

That works for me.

It really does mean something to me that you still care about this. When I think how far we've traveled together--and how far removed I feel from that 2009 post, personally--it's just incredibly meaningful to me that you're still pestering, and making me rise to the occasion.

As an aside, you should watch this David Eagleman (a neuroscientist) series called "The Brain" if you can get it. Really fascinating stuff. And he wrote a book called "Sum" that's amazing, too. All stories about different possible afterlives.

I hope that alien keeps shaking its snow globe, and finding it as pretty as we do.

Charles Gramlich said...

Don't know why blog pages are coming in all distorted for me today. Something weird in my feed. I couldn't see everything but enjoyed what I saw.

Aniket Thakkar said...

It's not like I've found any better folks to pester, so I'm happy doing the job.
I've found 'The Brain' Will watch it and hopefully, it'll lead to one of our pretentious email conversations. :)