The Meaning Of Life
Karen’s got some stories in her. She’s been collecting them for nearly as long as I’ve known her, which is twenty-seven years today. I’d say more likely her stories became hers sometime later, say around those years we—or at least I—started to drift, picking up outward experience and influence and turning it inward and causing those who were so much us before to wonder and worry.
High school, I mean, and growing up and out and then leaving all that behind. Now we look back because we’ve seen the other side of the world and it’s not got everything we left. And we wonder where we’ve been. Karen’s been a ways and I can’t think of any story that was ours in high school and after. I see her now and she’s something whole and new, a bright and vital character in my own story, and I think of all she’s been and it must be something. Because I can’t think of it but I see it’s there.
It’s there in the in-between her being my smart and goofy kid sister and her that’s now, at twenty-seven. I’ve only just left twenty-seven and if she’s that, well, there’s some stories. But it’s not so much the twenty-seven as I look at her, think of her, behold her and she’s not me or us, any of us—except, you know, that thing that’s all of us—she’s a person, and my way in is that I knew her when.
Which is often terrible because we don’t always see—whether we’re blind or they’re hiding. I knew her when isn’t I know her now, and the point is I’m lucky because it’s a way in and it’s an insight. Because when I get to sit down with Karen, I have some genuine questions. That’s what that kind of love turns into. I care about her story.
I won’t head backwards; I’m bad at it, and it’s not as good as the other, which is the big one, the one I like to say, and that’s that my kid sister grew up into a nun. And there’s that rush of pride, like we had in the old days and your son was a priest. That’s not around so much now, and I wonder what you think when I say it, but Karen is a nun. (Nearly. The process takes a couple of years, but she’s in it.)
What it means to me is that my sister is happy. I know she’s happy because I defined it for myself: a spiritual life, a life in service to the improvement of the quality of life for everyone, a life of unconditional love; that’s happiness, the only true happiness on this earth. Maybe you feel it sometimes in romantic or familial love. That’s it, though not all of it, just a sample. What Karen set out to do is what I’m too afraid to do: to cut out of the new road and hitch on to an older one.
Which may raise in you all sorts of objections about freedom and all that horseflesh. And you miss the point, the one I see when I hear Karen talk and I marry that with my own fantasies of myself in that kind of a life (and I would remind you of my agnosticism): you’ve become a valuable person, and everyday you wake up to do something good, and you meet folks, and travel, and swap stories, and raise up your character. You join up to something big and good (and you know it’s good because you thought about it and lined it up against your own code and it fit, or else you’d do it some other way) and you’re with others like you: storied people, good characters.
It’s as good and useful a life as I can think of, and if the world were full of people like Karen instead of those that want to be good and useful and promise it later because there’s so much to do now, I wonder that we wouldn’t all be happier. Because what Karen’s done is more than what I’ve done, so I can’t say she put her life on hold for anything. She’s living and we aren’t.
To Karen in Philadelphia, whom I admire, and whose story is continually fascinating, happy birthday. Thanks for loving us all so very much.