Like Singing Amazing Grace

painted hands on cave wallHere’s a question to you personally: if you’re not driven to create (writer, painter, dress maker, etc.), how do you live? What I’m asking here, with my endearing clumsy stumbling, is the one basic question that underlies our existence: What the hell are we doing here on the earth?

You’ve wondered why we’re here, of course, perhaps in a less profane way. I have relatives who consider themselves religious and who think that I’m not. If we take religion to mean (as they do) a rigid set of rules that free you from having to think about things, then no, ma’am, I’m not religious, and thank God. But as to the basic questions that helped to create religion in the first place, I ponder those questions every day, multiple times a day.

The question as to what we’re doing here is always humming around there in the background, ready to pop its little existential head up. When I’m driving down the road, I may suddenly think “Why am I driving?” I’m going to see a friend. “Why go?” Because it’s good to see friends. “Why is that good?” Because connecting with other people makes life better.

I embrace the good things in the world—invite me out for a drink or go with me to a museum, you’ll see it—but how do the good things address that nagging question of being here? I can read books on Buddhism, or meditate, or just wallow in pleasure—huge cheeseburgers, then whiskey, then ice cream, then sex all night (I wish)—or I can sing “Amazing Grace” till it vibrates in the heart, but driving home, I’ll still think, “Why am I driving?”

One answer is always there as to why I’m here. Everything else comes and goes (goes, mostly). People I love leave. Or I leave. Things end. Things I want badly never even happened in the first place. But in the end, I’m always sitting in front of that blank whiteness, writing down word after word, until a sentence finally struts across the page, snapping down an unexpected phrase with its eyebrow raised, a slight smile on its lips, and an implied “What do you think of that?” The answer is always that I’m here to write.

It’s not as if writing gives me all I need. It doesn’t make me less lonely. Maybe just the opposite. It doesn’t give me friends to laugh and drink beers with and pretend that the evening we are having together is the sweet culmination of human existence. Or, to be a little darker, when I think of the fact that we die, decay, disappear and I wonder “What the fuck? Why does that happen?” writing does not assuage that perplexity. Being a writer gives me no answer you don’t have.

But writing does give me one thing. It gives me a comforting kind of obsession, a pretense that something I do matters. It may only matter to me, but there’s a kind of madness about it that at its best makes me happier than a bottle of whiskey. My success as a writer has been fairly small to this point, and yet I believe, believe down through my bones, in my dreams, as I go to bed, and when I wake up, that I’m doing something important. cave paintingAnd although writing is incredibly difficult, when I see a person appear on the page who has never existed before, when they open their eyes, take a breath, and begin to walk around and speak, I sometimes think, “My God, look at that.”

Thus I continue to tolerate washing dishes, paying bills, shaving, working, folding clothes—that whole tsunami of dreary details so necessary to our few seconds of existence. Because for a brief time each day I create, I touch a world I can’t explain or even understand. It’s how I live and it makes me want to.

But if you’re not a creative person, what does it for you? What helps you live?

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