March 22, 2005

Horses in the World

Four horses grazing by the fence: three brown, one white, but the number and colors don’t matter. What matters is the life flaming inside them. I focus on them for the time it takes to pass them in a car, and I can feel how they open their nostrils wide to take in grass scent and pollen grains, and how the dusty soil tickles behind their hooves. And how it feels for them to be close to one another in the sun, the warmth twitching like an electric current from flank to flank in the scent of each other’s hide, and how their tails seek the flies, and the flies, just a little annoyed, rise back and lose no time returning to the game. Big wet mammal eyes taking in the scrub pasture, their angle of vision a foot higher than mine, ears listening to each car.

I feel how they live, and how short a time it is, and I know that I’m an animal like them living under the same rules. I can feel the pulsing in me, the blood flashing, the steady cell–flame, wanting to be here always. Even though I can think and talk and write and drive, we’re cousins, on the same planet, descended from the same dim ancestors who’d never recognize us. And the flowers, too, the violet–blue and yellow carpet they’re nibbling at, they’re part of the family. Cousin Bluebonnet and Cousin Baileya.

(Do the flowers know they’re beautiful? I don’t think so—and what don’t I know about what I am?)

Wouldn’t it be better if these horses were here forever? I don’t know, would it? They’re here for exactly as long as they should be, it seems to me. Why would we want them forever? Isn’t there something just as good that could take their place?

And when one of them dies, does that make the scene worse? Horses–in–world are still here.

We want to think that we’re special, that it won’t be that way for us. We want to think that the flaring, pulsing life in us is not our real life, but there’s something more, some higher essence not dependent on oxygen and carbon and water, which, when we burn to ashes, will go somewhere else and be welcomed.

Why? Who would want to preserve us everlastingly, and for what? It seems to me the height of impudence to think that God made us for some purpose other than exactly what we see here: to live on this planet and metabolize our bodies and act our dramas. If he hadn’t wanted us for that, he might as well have created us as angels, nor not created us at all, since he already had angels.

The only thing an infinite being can’t do is be finite. He needed to create us to find out what finitude looked like, felt like. He loves finitude–so much, we are told, that he came down here at least once to be among us.

Our finitude is exactly what is precious to God. If we were eternal, we’d just be pointless low–grade angel wannabes.

What do we expect? Is God going to summon Shakespeare and Mozart and Einstein and Newton unto himself and invite them to seats around the table? He doesn’t need Einstein and Newton to explain the universe to him, or Shakespeare and Mozart to suggest what to create next. He might smile indulgently at how much they figured out, but that’s all. Thinking we’re more than that is like a child, when the house has been burglarized, thinking that the police are going to ask him to join in solving the case. It’s like the flowers on the dinner table thinking that they’re going to be invited to take a seat and join the conversation, rather than be enjoyed for a day or two and then tossed out.

The great thing about our beauty is that there’s always more of it coming along from someone else. No one of us is needed for very long.

Thinking like that can send shivers of terror through me, and maybe you. We want to be comforted, to be told it isn’t so. But we know it’s most likely that it is so. We want to be told a story to make it better. But maybe best would be just to sit it through until we don’t need a story.

We hope to find, at the end of it all, that there’s a higher existence and we’re eligible for it (two things that are not necessarily the same, by the way). But look at the horses. No life is higher than theirs, and no life is lower. It completely fulfills its purpose here in the world of sky and sun and soil and water. Blood, bone, skin, muscle, nerve, and marrow are the height of existence.

The only purpose we can be sure we were created for is to live rightly in this world. That’s why my ancestors never bothered much about an afterlife. They knew that all God wanted of them was to be human. To ask for more is greed.

If there were heavenly beings, ours is the life they would long for. They’d be lining up for a chance at it, no matter how short—especially if short, maybe. If one of the horses were lame or were having labor pains or were crazy, do you think the celestial beings would hesitate? “Let me be that lame horse, that horse in labor, that crazy horse!” They never have such great times up there.

As Marilynne Robinson says in GILEAD, p. 57: “In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”

And from an old American folk song, “This Old World,” my motto since I first heard a folksinger—David Bromberg? Steve Goodman?—sing it at the Ark coffeehouse in Ann Arbor, c.1970:

I’d rather walk down to the corner store
Than sing hosannas on your golden shore—
This old world, this old world.