In my twenties it was walruses.
“I’ll never become an expert on walruses.” That was my wistful thought when I made the decision to move to Montana, fresh from college seminars on post structuralism, moral beauty, and environmental imagination. I had just spent six months in Tanzania, where I’d gained a passable ability to converse in Swahili, a taste for ugali, and a love for the bushbabies who clattered rocks off my metal roof each night. The world seemed excessively open and curious and I seemed full of agency. I believed implicitly in the immortal words of Dr. Seuss: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”
I’d never cultivated particular interest in walruses, so giving them up as a possible life career caused me little more than the passing thought: here is a direction I won’t be going.
One door shut.
But all others seemed to gape open.
I’m nearly two decades beyond the time when I ruled out walruses once and for all. And life looks incredibly different from forty as it did from twenty-two. Less branching possibility, more prescribed probability. Fewer trips to faraway continents, more trips to the grocery store.
Recently I read Amor Towles’ novel, Rules of Civility. In the book’s final pages the narrator reviews her life. As she thinks about her husband, her career and the life she built in New York, she reflects, “I have no doubt that they were the right choices for me. And at the same time, I know that right choices are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”
I took a photo of that paragraph because I wanted to have it down just so. Like Towles’ narrator, I love my life. I feel the fit of each significant life choice and harbor no doubts about them. I thrill when I walk out my door and think again for, perhaps, the thousandth time, “I can’t believe I get to live here.” And, even so, I’m cognizant of the losses – all the walruses along the way – that indwell each gain.
I don’t mean this as lament; rather as stock-taking, as faithful render of life as I find it. And there’s something compelling about all these losses. They pile up not like so much inanimate dust, but like little flints that sometimes, when struck just right, still spark with latent energy.
As Towles’ narrator stands on the balcony thinking back on the right choices through which her right choices “crystallized loss,” she says, “I knew too well the nature of life’s distractions and enticements – how the piecemeal progress of our hopes and ambitions commands our undivided attention, reshaping the ethereal into the tangible, and commitments into compromises.”
The idea of piecemealing life has such an honest ring. While I want my life to hum with the passion of worthy commitments, the groceries in the fridge persist in disappearing, my kids grow out of their soccer cleats, they clamor for homework help. Bills arrive in the mailbox requiring payment. And that bathroom is not going to clean itself. Life feels way too tangible and all too compromised.
But then, from somewhere deep inside something ineffable sparks and flares. At times, these sparks seer and blister – things have gone by, doors are shut. But sometimes these sparks seem to glimmer with a hint that all things treasured up in one’s heart are never gone, that all the branching profusion, though seemingly pruned years ago, is suddenly found miraculously intact.
Is it possible for both to be true? Does the spirit obey its own physics – wherein things coming and going are all mixed up with one another, wherein losses are real and, at once, never truly lost?
Friend, whatever walruses you bear, bear them well and with love. For we are all complex, expansive beings, and our hearts are immense and capable of holding much.
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