A week ago I passed one of life’s mileposts. I walked past it, as now my knees preclude jogging. With the boldness for which I am famous in my own head, I strode right up to my 60th birthday and kept on moving. Even if you’re only 22 looking ahead with dread toward 30, you know how it goes with those haunting zeros. I’m…what? Sixty? No, I don’t think so.
One of the burdens of this age is that as one of the elders I’m required to be wise (the official letter came in the mail yesterday). Wise, though, that’s a tough requirement. It’s going to cut out almost everything I’m actually good at.
One thing I can continue to do is observe human existence with an increasing lack of comprehension. Perhaps even more as I’ve gotten older, I ponder our place here on the earth, and it is a ponderous topic. A possible line of thought is the question Socrates must have asked, along with possibly every person since then—what the hell are we doing here?
I pace the pavement perplexed by a different question, however, though it may be related somehow. What I ask is: what is a human being? How do we exist, what makes us do what we do? This question is with me every minute, and despite a thousand permutations, it’s the one topic I write about.
I read sometimes about quantum physics and the nature of the universe, because our bodies are made out of the universe. So those little quarks that pop in and out of existence—that’s us.
I think about molecular biology and the fact that the activities of just one cell are so complex it’s almost terrifying to try to imagine it. Trillions, maybe bugeyezillions, of chemical reactions every second—that’s us.
I read history and try not to become hopeless at the one billionth story of wild savagery. Gunning down a mother who is holding a baby—that’s us.
I look at the mysterious impulse to create art (which I have myself), or I remember with sadness the whims and desires of the human heart and where it leads us. That’s us, too.
The more I know about all these things, the more I want to just go sit on the back porch with a cold beer and think, “To hell with it. I give up.” And yet…and yet…I keep trying, and I continue to write. Last Saturday, I went to a diner, taking myself out to breakfast (birthday, you know). While I was there, a family came in with young children. When I see children I like to watch them, and nothing makes me believe in the existence of the soul as much as watching a child. This family had a little girl, maybe five years old, with red hair, and with a kind of charismatic energy in the way she held herself and with the expressions on her face.
If we had the vision of God, we might look at that child and see a vast expanse of mostly empty space, and in that space tiny particles and energy. Or we moved our vision to a much larger scale, we might see billions of molecules combining and changing faster than the human brain can comprehend, keeping the body alive and growing, even without the child knowing that a single one of those molecules exists.
Or if we looked at the little girl with the human eyes of this world, we might see a potential enemy who we want to kill, or we might see a curious, clever little girl who will someday be an artist or an engineer.
In all of that, from the particles of the universe to the physiology of the body to the spirit, where is the person inside that child? Because there is somehow a person there. I don’t write trying to answer anything. I write because I have questions. So I started writing a story about that girl.