When Nothing Matters

I have spent the last two years disconnecting my personal life from the human race. An interesting exercise, which began unconsciously. I had taken a job that took me out of the community I had lived in for ten years. When I arrived at the new place, I made some halfhearted attempts to develop a social life. I subscribed to the newspaper for a few weeks, then realized I wasn't reading it and stopped the subscription. I went to meetings of a couple of organizations I was interested in; I spent a few evenings with women I met. My heart wasn't in it.

Then I moved again, back to a place I've lived a few times before. I resolved to create a personal life for myself in this new place. I spent a month meeting people, taking an interest in things, going through the motions. Then one day in January I decided to stop. How liberating it is, to feel no social obligations, no need for human contact outside the workplace.

I work in an office with fifty other people. For eight hours a day they are entangled in my life. Eight, ten, twelve... but I know when I go home there will be no mail, no messages on the phone, no personal email. No obligations, no social debts, no complications. I am a rock. There's nothing wrong with being a rock.

Keep in mind, I am fifty-four years old. I came to understand, a few years ago, that I was no more likely to love or be loved again than a man in the desert is likely to find water. That hurt, that grim recognition, and the loss that drove me into that realization, the loss itself, will never heal. But that terrible, final knowledge, that hurt, can be flexed against to make new strength, like a doctor's sentence of death giving us the freedom to be whoever we were afraid to be, when the future threatened consequences.

A few months ago I had a cancer scare, a pain in my throat that could have been my body punishing me with a death sentence for a lifetime of cigars. Ten years ago, I would have been frightened, terrifed of that 'good night.' The only thing that troubled me was that my dog might not die before me, and if so, he would be heartbroken. My son is supposed to outlive me, so his grief I could rationalize. The dog has, at most, eight or ten years. I will be, at most, sixty-four.

My boss asked me, recently, what my salary should be for the new year. I took a major promotion six months ago without a salary change. Time to adjust, soon, anyway. I was at a loss. I don't care what I make. I don't know what to tell him. I pay my bills; I can afford to keep the dog healthy. My son makes what I make, and he is building his retirement carefully. He is the beneficiary of my life insurance. I don't need to provide for him.

I don't need anything, aside from the fundamentals: food for fuel, sleep to regenerate, health to tend to the dog, money for his necessities. The dog gone, I will need nothing. We live, he and I, in a bubble of sensory life, extending as far as our senses, the geography our surroundings and all of history the now. Beyond that indefinite circle, nothing, other than distant rumors of my son.

I began, almost as a joke, to disconnect myself from 'current events' last year. I read no newspaper, watch no television, listen only to music on the radio. I have even dropped music from the environment at home. Silence, the hum of machines, the scuttle and grunts of my dog (he sighs eloquently): all enough.

I read, yes, and I maintain knowledge in my business. But I read, for the most part, books I've already read before: Shardik, The Robber Bride, Ceremony, The Indian Lawyer, King Lear, James Lee Burke, John Fowles, Robinson Jeffers, Emily Bronte again perhaps. No movies, not even repeats of those I liked. No 'new' music, and little of my 'library'. Only computer magazines. That's business; it gives me the freedom to enjoy the silence at home.

I have learned to throw away magazines. Now I am studying to give away books, CDs, videotapes. I want less. It is a kind of hermitage, not a sojourn in the desert to learn new truths, but a desire for simplicity, peace, and quiet.

There is nothing I want to do. No sensation I want to feel, no taste I miss or anticipate, no vista or demense I want to see, no sound, no smell. I had had everything that mattered, five years ago, and the rest is extra. Love fills us and helps us grow, but love lost hardens the limb, burns away the fat, and can leave us stronger.

At what price, I am invulnerable. Take my health, I'll die. Threaten my income. I won't give it away, necessarily, but lost, not missed or regretted. There is nothing to take away. Threaten my son; I will give him everything and take the consequences. I can't do more than that. He has his own life, and so it should be. I wouldn't want him here; he would not be happy, and he has a right to that. I can't make him happy. I can't make anything, except some fragments of beautiful noise.

Am I happy? Define your terms. I am happy as the dog. I am as pleased to see him, each evening, as he is me. We play games, we laugh together and at each other. We have conversations. We talk about the trees, squirrels, the bones in the backyard. We play jokes on each other, and forgive. He would give his life for me, perhaps even if he knew it. And I, as I told someone once, defining my own relationship to him, would go into the traffic after him.

The dog. His love, and loving him, sustains me. His health matters to me. The knowledge that I have to preside at his death someday gives me pain I cannot avert. I understand the viciousness of God well enough to anticipate that I will be forced to kill him. He won't die struck down by a car, after momentary terror, or quietly in his sleep, or, best of all, midleap from his favorite creek, in a heart-burst instant. He will sink into pain, diminished senses, senility, incontinence, and I will spend days wondering if, today, if he could choose, he would choose death. And one day, the answer will be yes, and God will watch me kill the last thing I loved, smiling His special smile and anticipating my pain as I doubt, afterwards, if I did the right thing.

It is a terrible future, but there I am, and there, after all, are we all. An old man's vision of the tunnel, very different from the diversified paths we see when we are young. The tunnel looks like such an adventure, there at the beginning, its branches beckoning, its caverns filled with light and promising treasure. And yes, all the paths lead but to the grave. The paths can matter. But when nothing matters, we are truly free, even of God's power to torment, tease and harm.

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