Why ask the big questions: who am I? where do we come from? why do we exist? We hike somewhere out west, write our name on a rock. I was here.
When I was little, I looked to science: the miracle of reproduction, the elegance of evolution. And then to church, I can think of no other place where fourth graders are asked about their deep beliefs and what it means to be human and taken seriously.
Lately I've been turning to therapy and to books with titles like Getting the Love You Want. And to art, a place where we explore without dogma or telos. And to my own Instagram feed.
For me, I think these questions get at what kind of life do I want to live. Who I am is an outgrowth of a swirl of DNA and several billion small miracles. It's also how I call myself and how others call me. A triathlete. A writer. A daughter and a sister. A vegan.
I think labels matter because they are language. An infant, just starting to navigate our strange world, starts with naming. —Momma! —Dog! Language is how we assimilate, and how we call a thing into being. Creation. In other words.
When I bow to what Dharma calls my supreme self, it's Nanda Devi that I see. Nana Devi is a peak rising from the northern Himalayas, her face stark and craggy and snow-covered. You may climb over mountains and weeks to meet her, your first sight from an opposing plateau where there is a crude and musky temple surrounded by thousands of bells hanging from ancient laundry lines, each a beautiful sound, each a private prayer. I wanted to give her up something, make an offering, and I thought of the book Dune where to spit is to give your water, but I didn't.
I started this project because I was searching for meaning by interrogating the most fundamental tools and identities I have. But I learned much more about love and feelings and connection.
Karl Weick writes about a crew of smokejumpers, trapped in a deadly fire. The leader yells at the retreating crew to drop their tools; but the tools are fundamental to who they are and why they are there. Weick calls this an existential moment: "If I am no longer a firefighter, then who am I?" A collapse of sensemaking.
In the face of collapse, will we be resilient? When the structures that define us, turn, against us—will we find hope, build identity, forge stories of triumph?
Halfway through the run at Hawaii 70.3, I found myself overheated and nauseated and started—walking. If I'm no longer a runner, who am I? When a woman went jogging by and I thought, Well, that doesn't look too hard, I could jog next to her. But I have to go, I have to go now. A five-hour race, contracted into a handful of seconds where a choice had to be made. I didn't have very much courage that day, but I had enough.
Social ties, Weick says, make for resilience. We need each other to get dressed in the morning, forage food, cope with rejection, share love.
When I started talking about searching for my self, people responded by sharing their own struggles. When I said, I'm cutting up my wedding dress, no one said, —And can you believe this weather we're having? It's not the heat, it's the humidity.
They wanted to talk about their own relationships, their own career decisions and how they made them, being a parent, learning from their parents, how to talk to God, the heart's deepest aches. We watch Esther Perel on TED Talks. Talk about Derrida and Foucault. It's my opinion that Brené Brown should be President. Finish the bottle. Call my mother.
E.L. Doctorow writes that a song expresses the universal truth of heartbreak like a mathematical equation expresses the universal truth gravity. A mother sings her baby a lullaby. —When the bow breaks, the cradle will fall. Without the imminent collapse, would we find the rocking cradle so sweet? Can we love without despair?
A curriculum for fifth grade: The student will recognize and name fractions in their equivalent decimal form. The student will express a basic concept of heartbreak as a function of age, depth of joy (pain), and hope.
Without language, there is void, darkness, absence. And God said, —Let there be light. And there was light. We can flounder where we are, or we can call light from the void, courage from despair, find structure and meaning, ascend.
And we do it for love. We do it so vines may grow, so we can watch someone eat the first peach of summer, juice dribbling down her chin, so we can dig into dark earth and see a worm wrasp in the sun until it finds its way into the soil again, so we can watch a hawk, talons extended, pluck a violet-green swallow out of the air, so we can recombine our chromosomes, nurture a small and spindly meiosis.
What would we want with immortality, if we had to go it alone? What would we want from mortality, but to pass on our double-helixes and dreams and convictions and lessons and stories?
(Photo: Mike Olliver)