Some days I sit down to write and I have no idea where the next sentence will come from…actually, most days are like that. Usually I begin with a picture or a series of pictures that strike me for some unknown, indescribable reason, then I let the sentences go from there. Maybe there’s an emotion bubbling behind the photos, or maybe I start to hear under the coursing of my blood a story that I didn’t know needed to be told. Sometimes what comes out is funny; many times, it’s somber and even sad; and usually, almost always, it has to do with time and loss, the way that our mortal coil is perpetually unwinding despite our grand and glorious attempts to convince ourselves otherwise.
There is a passage in Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard where Matthiessen, reminiscing about his recently deceased wife while trekking in Nepal, remembers the moment when he realized she was dying. After sitting a silent retreat, he had come home to his wife, with whom he had an emotionally volatile, on again, off again relationship. Seeing his wife looking thin, pale, yet pretty in a new dress, Matthiessen had a moment of clarity in which he realized a prognosis that doctors would make months later: riddled with cancer, his wife was dying.
I’ve always remembered this moment in The Snow Leopard because I too have seen this “look” that Matthiessen describes. Although I’ve never foreseen an actual terminal diagnosis, occasionally when I walk through town and see passersby, the startling thought appears, “All these people are dying.” Looking in a child’s eye, I imagine the old woman she will inevitably become; looking at a flower in the bud, I envision that flower gone to seed, then denuded, then dead. And even when I look at myself in the mirror, which for some reason I’ve been doing frequently these days, I see not the face of a 35-year-old woman looking back at me but a sort of death mask: pay attention, girl, because the show passes this way only briefly.
This fascination with mortality is, of course, odd: it’s not something I share with family and friends. And yet how telling is this simple fact that we deem “odd” the realization that “all things shall pass” whereas we deem “normal” the delusion that that our lives, possessions, and the status quo will continue smoothly without change or end. Who exactly in this scenario is odd? Even so, I learned at a very young age not to tell my classmates what I was thinking as I sat alone at the top of my school’s jungle gym watching those other children playing: given that life is short, why doesn’t everyone try to figure out the meaning behind it all?
My infinitely weird childhood notwithstanding, I’ll go so far as to admit that I’ve seen “the look of death” in even inanimate objects: looking at seemingly stable, solid, permanent structures like buildings, roads, or trees, I sometimes see with visceral clarity the fact that they too are passing away. Sometimes when I snap photos, it is this realization that drives the shutter: “Someday when all this has passed, people will wonder what our houses looked like.” And so as I look at the stable, solid edges of tangible things, I see them as phenomena that are themselves perpetually and eternally in flux, their subatomic particles outpacing even the coursing of my blood or the lightning volatility of my thoughts. Foliage passes with every year, the sun passes with each day and cloudburst, and yet we foolishly think that our buildings and belongings will endure. “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal,” St. Matthew exhorts, “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” If I knew the way to Heaven’s Warehouse, surely I’d store my meager treasures there; not knowing the way, though, I’ll hoard my cherished things here in the present, right here, in this heart that still beats between lungs that still breathe. For where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.