The Half-Life Tree


He climbs onto the stool in front of me, interlaces his fingers before him in the posture of an inquisitor (resembling a forty-year-old rather than an eight-year-old), squares me in the eye and asks, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’

No beatin’ around the bush, this kid. The penultimate gauntlet thrown with blatant disregard that I’m simply trying to enjoy a salad in blissful ignorance of any ontological purpose.

Fortunately, I just stuffed my mouth full of spinach, a diversion which gives me time to ruminate (but only a little – I should have swallowed a bale full). I procrastinate with a few methodical chews, gulp, and squeak, ‘to live … on purpose’.

He holds my glance as if to check the veracity of my statement, shrugs, scampers off, and leaves me in a puddle of sweat, somewhat adrift, unmoored from reality.

The meaning of life?

It’s not as is this was the first time I’ve pondered humankind’s culminate question, I’ve just never had it put to me so nakedly and unashamed by my own progeny (which gives it all the pressure of a nuclear reactor under duress). The question loomed before me as towering defiance. An inquiry I can ignore, evade, or detest, but, when proffered by an eight year with a glint in his steely gaze, a question that nonetheless demands an answer.

The Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott:

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life.

I’ve seared the phrase FEAST ON YOUR LIFE into my consciousness as an anthem. Feast on your life is not the gaze of Narcissus into the psyche’s reflection pool, but a creed that reminds me that tomorrow is not my life, my life is, quite simply and most profoundly: now. To feast on your life is to be fully alive in the present moment, to live deliberately … on purpose, something seemingly simple but an act that requires emancipation from Gordian knot complexity:

I can freely tie myself up without a rope.
This talent is in the realm of antimagic
and many people have it. On a dawn
walk despite the creek, birds and forest
I have to get through the used part,
the murky fluid of rehearsals
and resentments, but then they drain away
and I’m finally where I already am,
smack-dab in the middle of each step,
the air you can taste, the evening
primrose that startled by my visit
doesn’t turn away.*

I’m finally where I already am, writes Harrison. The poets remind me that I can incessantly project my future in dress-rehearsals or flounder in regret and resentment, but both come at a high cost: with insatiable greed they devour the present moment.

When a spider makes a beautiful web, the beauty comes out of the spider’s nature. It’s instinctive beauty. How much of the beauty of our own lives is about the beauty of being alive? How much of it is conscious and intentional?
— Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

I later realized (of course) the sentiment ‘to live on purpose’ wasn’t mine, it originated with Thoreau* during his famous waltz into solitude wherein he vowed ‘to live deliberately’: ’I went to the woods because I wished … to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.’

Thoreau expounds:

Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify.

W.E.B. Du Bois observed* in 1903, that African Americans always felt the peculiar sensation of double consciousness, this sense of always looking ‘at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’. Since the emergence of digital technology (notably, social media), I think Du Bois’s comment resounds for some who constantly live under the tyranny of observing their own life through the lense of others. The writer Paul Thoreaux lamented our obsession with cameras, forsaking the beauty of living in the moment for trying to capture its essence onto the ephemeral landscape of memory, ‘see … if you take a picture of things … you don’t really see them … when you see a sunset or a giraffe or a child eating a melting ice-cream cone there is a chemical reaction inside you. If you really stand as innocent as you can, something of the movement, entering through your eyes gets into your body where it continues to rearrange your senses.’ I recently chatted with a grandmother who complained that her grandchildren ‘couldn’t wait to snow ski just so they could get to the summit and share pictures with their friends’, she lamented their bartered exchange of the experience for a transient shutter. Though I have experienced keener sight with a camera, I understood her sentiment. 

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.*

In the 1st Century A.D., Seneca warned about the ‘busily preoccupied’: ‘everyone suffers from a longing for the future, a loathing of the present … but the person who devotes every second of his time to his own needs and organizes each day as if it were a complete life neither longs for nor is afraid of the next day.’ (I relish Seneca’s sardonic wit: ‘there’s no reason to believe that someone has lived long because he has gray hair and wrinkles: he’s not lived long but long existed’).

The Greeks had a word for the cosmos* which meant ‘elegant order’. One could say that our lives are a microcosm of the cosmos. Rarely would any of us claim we live in ‘elegant order’ but that is the architectural hope within us: ‘the image of the pristine beauty / lives in the very grain of the granite / we must … become confidant / as the rock and the ocean that we were made from’, a confidence that asks (as Anne Morrow Lindbergh asked), ‘how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life; how to remain balanced, no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center; how to remain strong, no matter what shocks come in at the periphery and tend to crack the hub of the wheel’.*

Today, the odometer on my human suit clicked over to forty-five. Cyril Connolly:

Forty -somber anniversary to the hedonist- in seekers after truth like Buddha, Mahomet, Mencius, St. Ignatius, the turning-point in their lives.

I am like the half-life tree who, midway through its cycle, remains ‘deep-rooted yet dancing still’. From the shade of this half-life tree, I decided to write a series of posts that have been on my mind a lot lately, an attempt at life-hacking our way to living well, a series of tiny posts promoting tiny tasks intended on big gains, an experiment toward Flaubert’s maxim: ‘Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.’ Throughout the series, I will tackle such micro topics as How We Wake, How We Think, How We Stress, How We Eat, How We Friend, and more. I have lived with (and overcome -mostly, but not entirely-) escalating blood pressure, panic attacks, and extreme anxiety. Part didactic catharsis, part memoir, and part course-correction for myself, this is a series I’ve enjoyed nurturing internally for sometime but mostly, the posts are a result of attempting to move toward a life less preoccupied and more elegantly ordered (elegant in the purest sense of the word: ‘displaying effortless beauty and simplicity in movement or execution’).

The Roman philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius once wrote, ‘Such as are your constant thoughts, such will be the character of your mind; for the soul is colored by the thoughts. Color it then with a continuous line of thoughts such as these: that wherever a man can live, there he can also live well’ and if that’s too esoteric to grasp with your natural hand, then do life as Gerald and Sara Murphy did, pulse by a credo that declares, ‘Living well is the best revenge’.

(Stay tuned for future posts, next up: How We Wake).

*Resources cited (in order of appearance):

Collected Poems, Derek Walcott
Saving Daylight, Jim Harrison
Walden, Henry David Thoreau
The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois
Sunrise With Seamonsters, Paul Theroux
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig
Sailing the Wine Dark Sea, Thomas Cahill
‘Carmel Point’, The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers
The Emperor’s Handbook, Marcus Aurelius
Sunstone, Octavio Paz
Living Well is the Best Revenge, Calvin Tomkins
Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow LindberghinShare

All the photos in the post are from either my travels or my various walkabouts with a camera.