- W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge
"I'm not looking back
But I want to look around me now
See more of the people
And the places that surround me now
Freeze this moment
A little bit longer
Make each sensation
A little bit stronger"
- Neil Peart & Rush
Abbe, and her fiance Evan, and I, are padding around in a small, dark room of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. In this one small room are five, count 'em, of the world's starkly limited supply of Faberge eggs.
I am standing, with Abbe, in the extra-wide, grassy median of Richmond's majestic, cobble-bricked Monument Avenue. A block each to our north and south, towering statues of Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis (President, Confederate States of America), respectively, dominate the street. We have just taken breakfast at a winning and funky java joint in the historic-and-picturesque-townhouse-lined Richmond district called The Fan. There was a Jamaican soy latte, flavored with cinnamon and cacao, involved. Abbe had a bagel. Juice figured.
Further to the south of the spot where we stand, stands an additional monument, this one to Robert E. Lee, and then after that one to Major General J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart, Commander, Northern Virginia Cavalry Corps. And but also then a block to the north is, eigentlich [the pregnant German word for "actually," which I've been affecting pretty unceasingly lately], a statue of Arthur Ashe the AIDS-felled, African-American, Richmond tennis hero. The South is all about racial reconciliation, ne pas? I mean, where other than Virginia would Robert E. Lee and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. get to share a holiday?
The sunlight here in The Fan is having a certain spectacular, dreamy, sinuous quality to it. The temperature is fine and Richmond is pretty like very healthy and well-to-do little girls. We are smiling out loud. And but also I am having another existential moment here:
M: We're really not probably going to remember the details of this.The knock-out visuals on Monument Ave. are making me hurt for lack of a camera. I finally decided on a new digicam; but I ordered it from a low-cost vendor whose idea of 24-48 hour turnaround time seems to be measured in weeks. So I went ahead and jetted off (from Atlanta) on this side-trip (the northerly-oriented segment of East Coast Meander ]I[, in 3-D) camera-free. With each stop, increasing pain has resulted. And but some of the pleasure has also been of nearly painful magnitude. Last night, Abbe and I stayed up late, and sat silently on the couch together in little timid cones of light, reading. Of course I knew beforehand that I was keen to see her again but I didn't remember, until I was actually in her presence, how all-around delightful that presence is. Being here, like this, is a joy.
A: We're not?
M: No. The sunlight, the greenery and this singular feeling. This is my third trip Back East in 16 months. And I tell you the details of the other two have already just gotten like meltingly vague. All muxed together. Or just not there at all. So, I mean: five years from now, you and I are going to be talking together, and we'll say, Hey, remember that great visit we had in Richmond that time, we went to a coffee shop or something?
M: I mean, not to be too dramatic. But thinking about the profound ephemerality of this startlingly lovely moment in light of dodgy memory, and of my complete lack of any sort of freaking camera makes me suddenly sad, sad to have to ultimately die. For all of this to go away. I mean, I guess it's pretty nice to be enjoying life so much that you're sad for it to have to ever end.
A: Are you enjoying life?
M: Yeah. Yeah, I am. I'm a happy guy.
Evan and I in the early-ish morning, seated together at the breakfast nook. Evan is eating toasted Jewish rye bread, suitably buttered. We are recounting bagels, and rolls, and the Times, and black-and-white cookies, and other AM accoutrements of youths spent in New York and New Jersey. It is a fine shared splash of memory. It is a fine morning.
Now, things are going rapidly, and bouncingly, by. First goes by the campus of VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University). With it, the converted row house on Grace St. that used to house my old favorite vegetarian restaurant haunt, Grace Place. (My first jobby job was with the Virginia Institute of Government; we had offices in Charlottesville, and Richmond, so I used to spend a fair bit of time here. That's when I figured out what an underrated berg Richmond really is.) The campus has gone by; but I'm still feeling very strong, and everything is just so very beautiful. So I keep going. There goes the presumably several-star Jefferson Hotel and the historic Linden Row Inn, where I used to shack up on business visits. There's the RTD (Richmond Times-Dispatch) building and my old office. This means I'm actually downtown. But and then there's a sign for Belle Isle the little, sandy, preserved patch of island out in the middle of the James River. Can't pass that up (I used to bicycle out to it, and remember it fondly mainly because I have a picture!). To reach it, you actually negotiate a narrow, bouncy pedestrian bridge (more like "skyway") which is suspended from the bottom of the tremendous overpasses that carry I-95 over the James. The suspended bridge is like 60 feet over the water, and as many under the overpass. The sound of the cars and trucks grumbling by overhead sounds uncannily like thunder. You keep looking up for the rainstorm, over and again.
While I'm bouncing on out, I find I'm revisiting, re-hashing, the existential themes from earlier. Specifically, I begin to turn over the question:
"And Then What Have You Got?"
I mean, at the end of the day at the end of a life what have you actually got? When I met my friend Chad, one of the reasons he was so darned interesting was that he was genuinely in the throes of a full-blown existential crisis. Raised Mormon including BYU, missionary work in South America he had not too long ago realized that he just couldn't believe anymore, that his faith was gone. So, he had two questions. One: "If God isn't keeping track, then what the hell does it matter WHAT I do, morally speaking, anymore?" and Two: "At the end of all this, do I simply end up staring at the inside lid of a pine box? And, if so, what's the point of any of it?"
Fair questions, right?
I mean, okay, what might you have (at the end of the day)? Some pictures? Sure, maybe. Though, chemical photographs, even on good paper, are only going to last about 100 years on the outside. (And that's if you brought your camera.) Digital's potentially a little more immortal but that's, like, assuming anyone will have software that can render, say, JPGs, 100 years from now. Stories? Maybe, if you write them down, or pass them along. Art, of the immortal sort? Sure, maybe you'll write something that will be in print forever, or paint something that will hang someplace dusty and with big marble pillars out front. But those are mighty tough rackets, let me tell you. The love and respect of others? Okay, we're onto something with that. That's a strong candidate. Being a really great friend/sibling/child/parent/spouse has got to be a truly admirable route to immortality. But, then again, popularity is fickle, no? So . . . NOTHING? You've got nothing? That's the traditional answer of Eastern Mysticism. Everything goes away; so, your best bet is to let go early and often. Just get over the whole clinging thing. As Abbe suggested, enjoy the process, and don't go expecting any final product. But that's a hard nut, isn't it? Muslims and Christians are expecting Eternal Paradise and a seat at God's Right Hand. Could come up. Not banking on it. Similarly, Buddhists and Hindus are gunning for karmic perfection, and thus an end to the cycle of samsara (suffering) and reincarnation, and then a final merger with the old Godhead. Stranger things have happened. Like, for instance:
Getting back uptown, I realize I just did, like, a 10 or 12 mile run. I'm historically a pretty sorry excuse for a runner, like a 3-mile-and-out kind of guy. But, today, I just ran for a solid two hours at, I'm at least hoping, maybe a 10-12 minute per mile pace. And I realized it was the best run of my life. And then I remember the best bicycle ride of my life was also the longest ride I've ever taken. Maybe a lesson here, maybe an allegorical-type lesson. But, whichever, today, I know this, that I am definitely a happy guy.
And but then what have you got?