n old friend calls to have a chat. We say this and that, exchange helloes, answer each other’s “How are you?”, quarrel over our answers. But I keep with me the thought of waking to go down the stairs another morning, of the hush of nobody up yet, of the sunlight revealing yet again the dust on the staircase. I keep to myself this love of quiet things.
All this because he’s asked “How are you?” and I’ve said “Okay.”
Okay? Okay? Okay?
“Just okay?” he asks. “Can you do no better than that?”
To which I respond in my usual fashion, “Okay’s good enough for me.” Which does zero to further mutual understanding between two members of the same species.
So we quarrel about “okay.” That is, I rant about people who say “I’m so excited!” and expect you to say it too — because you’ve bought a bag of lima beans or gotten a job cleaning toilets. But, I say to him, that that much excitement can’t be sustained. Are we really so excited about everything? Don’t we store up all this enthusiasm for larger things? And anyway, would we really want to be excited all the time?
He does not agree with me. Life, he says, is a celebration, a perpetual pageant of merriment and joy, and the only enlightened response is “I’m so excited!” or “Wonderful!” or something like that.
But, dear friend, I tried enlightenment once. It didn’t go well for me.
However, this friend is not the kind of person likely to be in raptures over a packet of beans or a career as a janitor. His aims, if I have understood them, are much higher than that. I know because he has told me before that I live life like a subsistence farmer. I should of course be growing soy beans or corn, and definitely I should inject my dairy cows with hormones. Life is a yield that must be maximized, which means doing marijuana in an ashram in Kathmandu and then eating spaghetti in Rome and then going to London to retrace the footsteps of Shakespeare, who is Culture — and all of it together is experience, which is the wine man was born for.
I do not point out that I have experience. It is nothing when made to stand beside the experience of this man — this male human being grown to vigor — whose speech and gestures all suggest that because he gets around, leads a full and active life, because he is the chairmen of many committees, and has a hand here and there on the ropes on which swing the buckets full of goods (full of the possibility of ashrams and the real authentic al dente spaghetti), that this is the life that is worth living.
So I ask him how he is and what he is doing, and he laughs and says he is excited because he is so busy. He is busy getting all the big heads together so that they can work out how to make a machine that will save the world.
Well, in that case, I’m busy too: busy reading, busy writing, busy thinking and trying not to think, busy making lunch, busy caring for the people I must care for, busy doing what is no more than my duty. But my duty so far has only ever been people, and that will never change the world; nor will it count as piercing through the shroud of unreality into transcendence. That is, it is not LSD; it is not an ashram.
But my life, such as it is, is one that I will defend.
Everyone cries out their love of high things: Paris, Rome, Venice, the West, the movie theater, the real theater, Bach, chamber music, high spiritual experience, the headiness of drugs, parties, alcohol. But let me declare the love of small things: of oranges, of sitting cross legged on the floor eating grapefruit and crackers and cheese, of waking up another morning to find that yes, this body will get out of bed, will read, will drink tea, will perhaps live another day being just okay.
And only numpties don’t know how nice it is to be okay.
If you are not currently contemplating suicide; if you are not imagining how good it would feel to blow your brains out, to have instead of stuff between your eyes, nothing, and when you look out to look out into nothing, there being nothing to see with, nothing to see; if you do not want to blow the brains out of life and meaning and existence and the universe; if you are not currently bashing your head against a wall then you are okay and it is good to be okay.
Paris, Rome, Venice, the West (with all its treasures, its Zoom, and its automobiles), the movies, theater, Bach, chamber music, high spiritual experience, ashrams, the Whirling Dervishes, drugs, alcohol: these things are not needed to give your soul height and depth. Culture, if all that is culture, is not needed. Experience comes in being human, and that is excitement enough.
When we live — and know we live! — on the edge of an abyss which, like a black hole, eats stars, eats light, and is constantly beckoning, “Come, come, come into my hungry mouth,” then we learn the love of sour oranges, grown sweet because a tomorrow may come in which there is neither oranges nor the love of oranges.
Then the ordinary pleasures of waking, of cups of tea, of walking down the stairs in the morning, of crawling into bed at night (and feeling all around you the ground lap like waves, the bed rocking like a boat adrift on the wide sea), then when you pull up the sheets and draw up your knees and turn to lie flat on your belly, burrowing your head in the pillow that smells of you and your clothes and your life and the daytime, what can you do but be thankful that you have lived another day?
The monster has been put off another day — he is in the future.
Death — the Enemy – God — or the devil; however, whoever, whatever, Fate, the Abyss, the black that we come from that is asking us back at every instant, into that we will go, one way or another.
I look at the faces of the people I love; I look at photographs of children eating ice-cream, of round-bellied children gnawing on raw green beans, children holding up pies and making cakes; and are all these little ones who have lain in the grass in the summer, sucking out sweetness from honeysuckle pods, are they to go marching into the black? And what if they are never happy; what if they die, never having managed to be just okay? And if they should die alone, unloved, grown old, become as bent as the shell of a tortoise, having lost the ability to speak, to make sense, to understand, to swallow?
And even if they do grow into happy well-adjusted adults, you know that they will go alone into the dark with the weight of their own souls.
So yes, tonight, when they sleep, happy as they can be, we are okay; I am as happy as I can be. And what more can I ask?
I do not know how I will die, whether by cancer or my own hand, whether by murder or an overdose, whether I will go slowly or go fast; right now I take myself to the bathroom, wash and dress myself; I have my limbs still and my back is straight. Is this no measure of happiness?
A day may come in which we remember nothing of happiness, all the tea and oranges vanished like a dream. But here we are, and it is now and the worst is not yet. And when it comes there will have been this day; this going down the stairs in the morning; this strange consolation that the future is unknown, that whatever awaits, no matter how terrible, here and now, in this sliver of time, we are always going down the stairs in the morning; and there on the steps there is perpetually this dust which has settled, the dust of this house and this family.