The Living End

Seize the days (that we have left)

What do we have to look forward to in the new year? Well, for starters, there's the end of the world as we know it. According to the North Carolina seeress promulgating the current prediction, it's slated for May 21. This auspicious date happens also to be the birthday of my husband, my youngest son, and Mr. T, which makes it easy to remember.

By my calculations, four and a half months is scant time to mend one's ways. Not that mending would do much good at this point. Apparently, the list has been finalized. The sheep and the goats are already separated. Any last-minute spiritual scrambling falls under the implacable heading of Too Little, Too Late.

Or does it? I have to say that my understanding of the end times does not involve dates circled on calendars. That seems a bit presumptuous to me. People of all religious stripes have been predicting the end of the world for thousands of years, all convinced that they had the inside track on the day and the hour. So far, this hasn't gone well.

But despite my skepticism, there is something to be said for considering our transient state on this small blue planet. Somewhere out there, a clock is ticking. And here in the first month of the second decade of the new millennium, I consider the steps I might take to seize each remaining day.

Risk delight. The poet Jack Gilbert says, "We can do without pleasure, but not delight. … We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil."

There is no shortage of injustice. The sheer weight of it can seem overwhelming, unless it is balanced with the delight Gilbert advocates. It is the abiding mystery of life on Earth: How, on the same day, there can be torture and the red flight of a cardinal; missing children and sunsets like holy cards; unearned kindness, famous cruelty. Sometimes, I feel as though the tightrope leans inexorably towards the void. In this new year, I want to tilt towards the light.

Get real. You'd think I would have mastered this one by now. It's late in the game to be reinventing myself as a wholly authentic, no-artificial-additives human being. But I am beginning to wonder if that is the heart of this journey, the road back to the person I was before people started telling me who I was supposed to be. T.S. Eliot talks about "a condition of complete simplicity/costing not less than everything." I've been trying to buy it on the installment plan. Maybe it's time to spring for the whole package.

Pipe down. Silence again. For someone who frequently praises its merits, I seem to practice precious little of it. Even my noise-free zones—the car en route to work, the house when I am alone—resound with interior chatter. It's been a long time since I treated myself to the rich silence of a retreat at my favorite monastery. I think of the stark white church, the chanting in the pre-dawn darkness, how peace slips over me there like a light garment. What am I waiting for?

Look again. Quick. Intuitive. Rarely in error, never in doubt. I used to trust my writer's eye for detail to tell me all I needed to know. Now, I'm not so sure. The older I get, the less certain I am about my split-second ability to sum up a person or situation. The layers seem more complex, the possibilities more varied. In the months ahead, I ask for the grace of second thoughts.

The North Carolina lady is pretty well set on May 21 and seems unlikely to revise her prediction. As for me, I am sticking with the eternal calendar-clock a friend gave me some years ago. It's made of wood and operates without electricity, batteries, or solar power. On one side appears the date: Today. On the other is the correct time: Now.