Discover more from The Ghost
Within and Without You
Life and Death and Creative Work
Last Friday night, I received a call from a good friend, telling me he was going to the hospital for an infection. My wife and I dropped everything and ran over to his house to take care of his four children and two stepchildren, with my own two kids in tow. For the weekend, we were in charge of eight children, ages three to fifteen.
Each day, we received incremental updates that intensified from “they’re just going to do some tests” to “I hope he makes it.” Since then, things have stabilized, and it looks like he is going to get to come home in the next day or so, but it was an emotional rollercoaster for a short while.
On Monday, we finished carting all the kids off to school and to their respective parents, took a deep breath, and realized how tired and sick we both were. We decided to take it easy. On Valentine’s Day, I made a mid-morning trip to the grocery store to get some supplies. While scanning the aisles, I sent a “welcome aboard” text to a newly-signed client—only to discover the news of this person’s death.
Meanwhile, a good friend is facing his second divorce, another told me he hasn’t been able to quell his increasing anxiety and is going for a psychiatric evaluation, and our dog who has a heart twice as large as it should be is now living on borrowed time. It appears we all are.
On top of all this, add the complexities of a newly-blended family, our first year of marriage, and running two businesses, and it’s safe to say we’re feeling some stress.
All of this tends to focus one’s attention on what really matters.
When death becomes reality
I don’t know what it is about approaching forty (I’m about six weeks away from ascending the hill myself), but this past year has been an education in the inevitability of my own demise. There’s something about mid-life that seems to evolve death from a concept in the mind to a present reality in the body. It’s strange to know people who have died, to be friends with individuals who are here one day and gone the next, but the older I get (and I’m not that old), the more it happens.
One of my favorite songs by the Beatles is a lesser-known tune by George Harrison on Sgt. Pepper’s called “Within You Without You” where he repeats the line:
…[L]ife flows on within you and without you.
I always thought that was a particularly poignant coda in the midst of the storms of life. For example, your friend might be dying… and life flows on within you and without you. Or, you’re running out of money… and life flows on within you and without you. And, this is all too much to bear… and life flows on within you and without you.
It’s a wonderful refrain, a grounding that connects our feet right to the same planet where people are born and die every day, where careers are launched and celebrity scandals come to light, where we eat fried chicken and go on diets and try not to drink too much. It’s all happening inside and around us, and somehow, without our consent. Life is always just… happening. And we are a part of that happening.
This is at once terrifying and bewildering but also, in a sense, comforting. When we realize it all continues in spite of our own little dramas, we can recognize our smallness and enjoy the fact that we are a lesser detail in an overarching narrative but still somehow sitting at the center of it all. What a fantastic, brilliant blend of contradiction.
I suppose this is what they call wisdom—or going mad: the realization that you are everything and nothing all at once. That life is always coming and going and the only constant is all the change that is happening within this sphere of events we call the human experience. If we let it, such a conundrum can bring us together and help us pay attention to what it just may all be about.
Art as a proxy for life
Whenever I feel the cold, dark presence of death breathing down my neck, as I did this past week, I think of my creative work. I consider the books I have yet to write, the things I hope to accomplish, and what, if anything, I will be remembered for. I think of who I am and what I stand for and what I want my life to be about. I feel silly for thinking such thoughts and wonder if I should be considering my children and wife and our neighbors. I do, of course; but I also think about myself—and this, perhaps, is a clue.
It’s natural to want to hold on to the ungraspable. To life. To love. To each and every relationship we hold dear. Even to our own creative gifts. This is why we make things and try to push our abilities to their very limits, often despairing of how far short they seem to fall. This is what can haunt an artist and plague a writer who longs to achieve the greatness they know is possible within them. The whole thing can drive a person mad (and sometimes does). But there is a wisdom in these attempts at perfection, understanding something deeper is going on.
The paradox of life is where good art comes from. It is the point from which all creative endeavor originates: the play between knowing we are inherently special and at the same time completely irrelevant. Such a maddening paradox is a wonderful place from which to create. This is what some might call the Tao or the way of wisdom. It is the inspiration previous generations of poets and philosophers were trying to get at—not with words or pictures but intimations. What is the Answer? It just might be the question itself. I always thought, given the choice, it would be more interesting to live a question than dwell in a dead answer.
When the unexpected befalls you, try to avoid the temptation to consider, “What does it all mean?” And if such a question does stir within, beware the urge to answer. Instead, learn to, in the words of Rilke, “be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart.”
There is a certain meditative quality to dwelling on the unknown, sitting in a space of wondering what is happening and holding off on landing on any particular conclusion. It is invigorating to wade through such wonder, feeling the flavor of each and every curiosity, sinking in to the essence of your own existence. It feels a little like watching the sky, enjoying the formation of each and every cloud without attempting to understand the phenomenon itself, resisting the inclination to name the willowy shape as it coalesces in front of you, then mistily transforms into something else.
You and I, and certainly what we create, are all a bit like that.
You are not what you create
There’s an old story about an Indian sage who’s dying and his followers are pleading with him, “Don’t leave us, don’t leave us!”
To which he responds, “Where could I go? Where could I go?”
When we try to hold on to the physical aspect of our bodies, our surroundings, even our minds, we are like a child clinging to their latest piece of artwork intended for the refrigerator door. Of course, a child rarely does this. They make a thing and share it, then immediately forget about it, understanding their own creative force is a never-emptying well. This is what the sage is trying to say. Existence is not the handful of water you scoop out of the stream; it is the continuous flowing.
And so, our own creative energy is, in fact, life itself—not the handful of scraps we clumsily cling to. You and I are not what we create but the very force that causes us to put pen to paper. Who we are is not what we leave beyond but what causes us to be in the first place. It may be that the core stuff we are made of is not stuff at all but something far more ethereal—blank and vacuous but constantly filled with ever-changing shapes.
Maybe the old idea of a soul isn’t so antiquated, after all. Perhaps, our very being is not the clouds that flit by but something deeper and holier and more expansive than we could ever imagine. After all, life goes on within and without you; and, maybe, just like the deep blue something above, there is a constancy to who and what we are that transcends all these troubles and stresses and inspirations. And perhaps, in the end, as Julian of Norwich once said: “All shall be well… and all shall be well… and all manner of thing shall be well.”