Bobbing and Sinking with Everyone Else

While meditating the other day, I had an image of all us humans in the world bobbing like tiny corks in an immense ocean. Sometimes stormy skies loured overhead and a sudden wave would sweep in and shove some of the corks under the water. Sometimes the sun shone, the surf was gentle, and the little corks floated easily on the surface of the sea. At any given time, some corks would be inundated, while others would be lofted up.

And, really, so it is. Think of the bobbing and sinking going on these days among your own circle of loved ones and friends. Right now I know a woman who is likely to die within the next year of a malignant brain tumor. I have another friend who’s feeling on top of the world because he has a best-selling book and lots of invitations from prestigious places to speak and present. I know one couple who had a healthy baby a few months ago and another couple whose baby was born with significant disabilities. Sometimes whole communities are swept under—the Rohinga in Burma, the residents of Flint who are still struggling to get clean water, the many people in the western U.S. who have lost their homes to wildfire.

At any given time, some of us are bobbing happily in the sun and some of us are barely managing to stay afloat. And it can all change tomorrow.

There are those who believe that “whatever happens is for the best.” Others claim that everything occurs according to God’s will. Or they tell you that, if you’re having difficulty doing something, it’s because the universe doesn’t want you to do it.

I don’t believe it. Stuff happens. Calamity strikes and you either get in the way or you don’t. One person in the stadium catches the fly ball and another person gets conked in the head with it. Of course, to a certain extent my behavior dictates what happens to me (I’m more likely to get into a car accident if I’m texting than if I keep my full attention on the road), but often I simply get in the crossfire of chance forces.

I actually find that unbidden image of the corks comforting. It reminds me that I’m just one among many trying to stay afloat and keep an eye on those I love in hopes that they’ll keep floating, too. The cork image reminds me that hazard and delight can push us under the ocean or lob us up to the top of the wave. It reminds me of the fickleness of life and the amazing stubbornness and beauty of people and all of nature.

 

What I’m Reading

I first read Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, when I was 23 years old. Here the French philosopher digs beneath the surface of all kinds of things we typically take for granted, like why magazine articles about professional women always have to mention how many children they have or what travel guides are really trying to get you to see and do when you’re on vacation. I was fascinated with it. Those short pieces, usually just three or four pages each, made me look anew at the ordinary things in my life. Recently I decided to read the book again, and I find it just as fascinating now, more than forty years later. The essays were written in the 1950s, and many of the subjects Barthes deconstructs will be either unknown or but vaguely familiar to modern readers. However, the phenomena Barthes probes remind you of all kinds of contemporary things where you might find meaning and intention if you’re willing to look. You might ponder, for example, how drivers behave when they wait in traffic, the patterns newscasters employ to relate different kinds of stories, and how tourists regard themselves and their place in the world when they travel. It’s not easy reading, but it’s deeply engaging and thought provoking.

A Savory Moment

Since my husband’s back pain and, recently, recovery from back surgery has prevented him from doing a lot of the work on our 5 ½-acres of land, I’ve taken over many of the tasks. One of them is mowing the lawn. I’ve discovered that I really like this job. It’s aerobic, it requires force and pushing (forms of exertion I find satisfying), and as I do it I see clear evidence behind and around me that it’s working. The grass is getting cut. After I’ve finished mowing, I put the lawn mower away, and then I like to sit outside on a chair. At first my body is like the lawn mower: revved up and on the move even though it’s now at rest. Gradually I start to cool down. My heartrate slows. The slightest breeze soothes like a silk cloth. The sounds of the birds, the crickets, the windchimes begin to reassert themselves. I cease to be a hot engine pushing through the world and become instead a piece of life that the world gently brushes.

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