One Thousand Things to Do (and Only One that Really Matters)
An Essay About Everything
There are a thousand things I need to do today but only one I really want.
“This thing needs to go,” my wife says, pointing to the dying bush outside our dining room window. Next to it is a tree that fell down in the storm the week we came back from spring break when everything went wrong. How do I tell you all the things that have happened since the last time I told you what happened, and would you believe me if I did? It’s a lot for one person to handle and even more to tell. I can barely contain it most days.
This morning, a record plays through two Infinity speakers, attracting my attention to the turned-sideways number-eight symbol, which is, I am told by two girls who live in my home, the superior number. Life is like that: always moving, never breaking, only ever one. What a profound thought, I think, as jazz music plays in the background. I want to like jazz, but sometimes I do not. Like that note right there. I did not like that note. But I see that it is necessary for the next one, and as the two resolve, the dissonance is beautiful. It all belongs in the end.
In front of me is a book about van Gogh. I love his work, the way he blends texture and color in explosive ways. He might be my favorite artist. I read an article once about how he created new colors the world had never seen before, and that this is a thing all great artists do: not merely use what has been given them but blend this with that to create something novel. The article said that what we see today in his paintings—the bright yellows and powerful greens, those deep and vibrant blues—are all faded versions of what they looked like in the artist’s day. One hundred and fifty years ago, they would have been much more colorful. I guess it would be more like one hundred and seventy now. Is that right? The years keep pressing on, and I don’t have a calendar capable of keeping up. My wife’s clock broke the other day when I bumped it with my elbow, watching it shatter to pieces as it hit the floor, and I haven’t been able to tell the time since. I want to Google “when did Van Gogh live?” but realize we have not yet turned on the Internet. Every night we click it off, and each morning there is a flood of activity as we reengage the world. I always forget this. Anyway, it was a long time ago and what we see today pales in comparison to what once was. Maybe some day we’ll say the same about now.
This morning, I considered the thought that there is no objective reality and wondered if there is anything we can agree upon anymore. Is the sky blue for a blind person? When you stare at “Starry Night,” what do you see? How do I know that what you call aquamarine does not actually appear as fuchsia to my eyes? This is the problem with it all: there are, in fact, no problems but no way for us to ever know that for sure. Except that sometimes my record player skips and cracks and I wonder if it is the record or the player or everything. Within this world exist many worlds, countless movies within the meta movie, all unfolding before us at once. We are, at once, both the viewer and the actor. Maybe I will go to the theater today even though I just told my wife we are out of money and can’t afford anything what with the lawsuit and all. Ah, yes, the lawsuit. Forget I mentioned that. Who has cash for seven-dollar matinees anymore?
The birdsong awoke me hard at four-fifteen. There must have been a hundred different sounds echoing in the playground of my mind, teasing me with the suggestion of dawn while I contemplated succumbing to the dark. I couldn’t. I never can when those voices are so insistent. Get up, they say. You have so much to contribute, and shouldn’t you get back to your daily walks? It is a cruel gift they offer in those ceaseless reminders that once again it is today. Even how they go about their day is an affront to my being. Their nervous flits and flutters belie an inner calm most humans should find enviable. Beneath those seemingly awkward movements is a deeper, undetectable presence that seems quite at home in its own nature. We are not like the birds, I think, acting one way on the outside while feeling entirely different on the inside. This just might be the problem with everything. My wife joins me on the porch where I am sipping tea because we are out of coffee. We read a little and do our breathing exercises. Each round has an increasingly calming effect. I feel my heart slow down and the ripple of blood plunge deep down into my fingertips. As we take the final breath in and hold, watching the world awake, we see busy people rush out their front doors and scramble into cars, zipping down the street toward some destination. Minutes later, they are back because they forgot or remembered something, and I realize we are not so different from the birds, after all. Perhaps, underneath all that activity is a subtle stillness, somewhere.
I look at the woman I married one October weekend when she least expected, and she smiles a tired smile. I feel empathy. She is pushing hard, demanding too much of her body in a stressful season, and I want to give her everything. Aloud, I read a passage from The Prophet and, of course, she already knows it. She always knows. I ask her what she needs and it is coffee. I go to the store and get some that has been roasted not too long ago which is a thing I am particular about. I try not to race back home in spite of the fact that it is almost eight and everyone is a racer now.
I make the coffee and throw together what’s left of wilting produce in the fridge, scrambling four eggs in a bowl, then pouring the mixture atop vegetables and seasonings and sausage in a cast-iron skillet. I call it a frittata even though it isn’t. “What do you have to do today?” the dearest one in my life asks as we dig into our breakfast. Her voice is sweet, and I can tell she will be exhausted long before bedtime. I tell her not much, listing a couple of phone calls and a project I keep pushing off. This is when she tells me about the bush and the tree, and I remember the dog-who’s-dying that peed on the bed in the middle of the night and how once again my wife was forced to be a morning person. She wants that, though, she says.
Just before all the frenzy started so many hours ago—a prelude to the parade of ceaseless activity we will inevitably encounter as the sun continues to rise high above our little world—I am reminded of a near-dream I experienced just as those birds began to sing: a memory of a childhood friend and what he must be up to and the realization that I really did become a writer and this is wonderful and before I die there is at least one, maybe two, things I still need to write.
I had better get started.