Sunday, October 12, 2014

Angle of repose

Angle of repose
I would not know the meaning of this term were it not for Wallace Stegner’s novel of the same name. I think of it whenever I pass along a narrow roadway cut from a rocky hillside where I sometimes walk in the desert. 

The road was once planned, I gather, for access to lots for houses with high views of the valley below and the mountain range beyond. Now the shelf of exposed granite is crumbling and spills into a slope of debris that’s held in place by gravity—at an angle of repose—until more rock falls and new instability urges a new state of rest.

All of this is a roundabout way of talking about time. As each day passes, I cross it off the desk calendar where I keep track of doctors appointments and bills to pay. Above on the wall is a battery-powered clock that ticks off the seconds. Meanwhile, out in the desert I am witness to geological time in the exposed layers of rock strata and twisting ravines. Everywhere I am reminded of this adventure of being human and how, more than ever after 72 years, it is linked to time’s coming and going.

Morning sky
I recently found curious comfort in a newspaper piece by a graphic novelist who traced his appearance and disappearance in the universe, starting with the Big Bang and extending over 6.7 billion years to the departure of a microscopic fragment of himself on a comet headed for a neighboring star. (See Anders Nilsen, “Me and the Universe,” New York Times, September 28, 2014.) His point, is very much on message for me, as I try to remember to be here now: “This is all there is. I should try to appreciate it.”

Another takeaway for me is the surprising answer he gives to the question “Who am I?” He’s saying that we are time travelers, the elements combined to make of us what we are at this moment existing throughout the life of the universe. Like space dust, maybe. I find that reassuring. Don’t ask me why.

Creosote bush in bloom
Then there’s this other recent essay in the newspaper by the surgeon Atul Gawande, whose new book Being Mortal sounds like it’s written for me and comes in a series of them he has written about medicine and ethics. Here he addresses the question that has been on my mind since this journey with cancer began: How do you spend your time when you know what’s left of it is limited?

Being human has become the start of an answer for me, though any confidence in where that goes is thwarted when I’m reminded of humanity’s record of inhumanity. And I can’t exactly point to myself as a glowing exception to the rule. Observing myself through a day, I get ample evidence of a dark and shadowy side, reciting its pet opinions and unworthy grievances.

Gawande’s answer comes in the form of a story about a cancer patient who elects to spend her last days under hospice care, where she resumes as well as she can her life as a piano teacher. Those final lessons and a student recital give her the opportunity to do what is in her to go on being human: “to share memories, pass on keepsakes, connect with loved ones, and to make some last contributions to the world.”  (See Atul Gawande, “The Best Possible Day,” New York Times, October 5, 2014.)

Desert walk
What he seems to be saying is that we have this brief moment of time to make a difference in the lives of others, as only one human can do for another. Before and after that moment, we are space dust. I’m not sure how that informs my days, but I continue to work on it.

Until a while ago, I had no answers except the threadbare ones of religion. Caring friends here have pointed me in alternative directions, some touching the margins of spirituality, as explored by mystics; others by the practices of Buddhist and zen meditation. Among other things, these teach me that the materialistic culture we live in has permeated, eroded, and replaced even the most cherished spiritual beliefs. So I need to remain alert to those time-worn grooves of thought.

What may have been good news 2,000 years ago has been mostly stripped of whatever it may have yielded to inform the life of the soul. While the ticking clock brings me back to the present moment as I write this, I feel grateful that I’ve been granted the time to consider all this and to be filled with awe and wonder at the richness of possibilities and a desire to live each day as the best possible one.

Meanwhile jazz continues to offer it own life-affirming and soulful message for me. Today, at the suggestion of another reader here, I’m closing with a jazz recording from 1963 that’s also a favorite of mine, Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder.”

Any other readers with jazz favorites of their own, links to them are welcome.

Previously: Mood swings


  1. I like the photos, Ron. From one dust particle to another, fine post, too, well-put.

  2. Nice and honest writing even though a bit sad. I am reminded of the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-15. Most people stop at verse 8, but if you read on there is an affirmation of making the most out of life. Blessings

  3. Jay was reading in bed tonight, instead of sleeping, so we listened to all of your jazz selections. Very nice. When I was in my teens, late at night my radio in north Idaho picked up KGO San Francisco and the Les Crane Show. I loved the theme song - it made me long to be grown and gone. Years later, I finally identified it as Freddy Freeloader by Miles Davis. It still gives me the shadow of the emotion I felt then - anticipation of a life yet to live. Age must soften those raw emotions of youth. Got a whiff of an old thrill watching the replay of the Beatles 50 years ago on Ed Sullivan this past summer. Felt it go right up my spine. Oh, well . . .

  4. Tried to put Chet Baker's rendition of AUTUMN LEAVES on here but I could not. It's on you tube, of course. Coltrane's is great too.

  5. For a long time in response to aging I borrowed a phrase from a friend of mine to describe the journey. "On my knees and snarling." Unfortunately, that only works for a while. Eventually there isn't much in the say of snarling left. It is definitely an experience that changes every nuance of what you have thought and felt in your life.

  6. Very well done, Ron and I don't find it sad at all but re-afirming fact. The difficulty I see with some of it is that only those of a certain age - perhaps 10 or 15 years younger than I - will "get the drift". Perhaps younger lives would be more comfortable and rewarding if they understood and practiced.

  7. Ron, thanks for another inspiring post. When you mentioned making a difference in the lives of others, I thought of a famous quote by Gandhi — "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others" — wherein also lies the answer to overcoming one's preoccupation with oneself. Atul Gawande has made a name for himself. I think I know him as a writer, especially for a particular short fiction he wrote for "The New Yorker" some years ago.