Freshly shorn, not really by choice, I reactivated my internet dating profile, welcoming any distraction during the worst possible time to lose cock: finals. He, with whom I had lain days before, not terribly photogenically smiled out from my monitor. I blinked back at him; laughmoaned; really, dear okcupid, of all the men within 25 miles, you pick him? Months later, I asked the robot to sort Chicago men by compatibility, and let’s just take a gander at who inevitably rises to the top.
As a purely mathematical issue, there are at least a dozen men in Chicago and another dozen in London who fall within one standard deviation of his numbers, even if the computer stubbornly insists that he, across all measurable categories, has completed the Grand Slam. And to be fair, I ignore messages from his numerical peers, and from many others who are numerically inferior. I can’t view online dating as anything other than a particularly superficial exercise: I look at pictures before I look at anything else, and nothing can really sway me from that draconian determinative factor. That said, given that I rarely find a man physically attractive until after I’ve found him intellectually attractive, all of this seems like a futile exercise. Why my brain and loins work this way is a mystery I’ll probably never wrap up; but in the meantime, I abide, because I’m lazy, and it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
Paul Auster spends a significant chunk of Collected Prose explicitly grappling with coincidence, and the statistically improbable, if inevitable, connections that we find between moments in our lives. The fact of the matter is, if I’d never met this man, I’d probably have skimmed his profile, noted that he was shorter than 6’5″, and never looked at it again, except perhaps if he someday messaged me of his own accord, and I wanted to refresh my memory shortly before again declining to connect.
I consider it truth that coincidences are just that, and that there is no inherent meaning within them. That an algorithm continually suggests that a man I could’ve loved someday is The One, after we have been apart, in no way means that he is such, or that we have made a mistake in being apart. And although I know this to be true, I, mostly amused, but still just a tad bit heartbroken, rue silly questions and math and SparkNotes for intruding into my life, having the gall to do exactly what I had asked them to do.
I have never, and doubt if I ever will, believed in God, but treasure Sunday Eucharist anyway. Born of orphans, I’ve done what they refused, or maybe just refused to admit, and have always found myself drawn to ritual, to rite, to songs that I think connect me to the near-complete mystery that is my family history.
My dad started going to church again when he became fast friends with a classmate’s father, who happened to be an Anglican priest (having recently relocated to California from Hong Kong, shortly before the reversion). The Episcopal church was that with which he had been raised, kind-of; and this reminder, or coincidence, was enough to get him, and me, back to its nonjudgmental space.
We began attending church semi-regularly about eighteen months before he stopped driving; maybe I still go because this was the last time my dad could even feign independence. I felt completely lost in this foreign service, despite the booklet to guide the way. And then, I was amazed: because, to my right, my dad didn’t need the book at all, and sang songs I imagined he hadn’t heard since he was a child. The Nicene Creed was etched into him as deeply as his wrinkles were into his forehead.
He, and C.S. Lewis, and my sister, and myself, and countless others, have said we like our Anglican tradition because it is a Thinking Man’s Church. And the Episcopal Church especially suits me (or, I just think it does, because it’s the only one I know, so I’ve grown up to suit it): no matter how drawn from ancient traditions, it is a thoroughly American being, with quirks and hierarchy and lack thereof, and an elitist, merit-based tradition that dovetails nicely with our own American Dream aristocracy. That said, I’d been looking forward to parish-shopping in London: even if everything else went wrong, at least I’d be able to find somewhere that felt somewhat familiar, where I knew the process, and could recite the marks, and fit in in a space that facilitated thinking about something other than fucking law school.
Sleeping through all the Sunday morning services within three miles (which, given my current location, was approximately 45 different parishes’ worth), I set out for an evening service at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, which billed the evening service as one that hosted a young crowd — not surprising, given our sleep patterns.
The church was first built in the 12th century; Shakespeare was a parishioner; and it is one of the only churches to have survived both the Great Fire of 1666 and the WWII Blitzkrieg. And yet, I walked in and found myself in an evangelical Texas megachurch. Wikipediaing it now, I guess I could’ve been warned, but, needless to say, the service decidedly did not hew along the lines to which I’m accustomed.
Every fucking sentence came back to our eternal life. Seriously. Everything! was about how we are living not for this life, but because we can live forever. We should do good things because they’ll get us to immortality, etc. I did meet lots of really friendly, nice, welcoming humans; but, the idea that this life doesn’t matter at all, and that the only reason why we should do good is to get immortality, completely diverges from how I perceive life.
Was it just this parish? The turn from Easter to Pentecost? A different country? The time of day? What the hell? Because as much as all Christian parishes, especially this time of year, discuss how Christ died for our sins, and that he is risen, and will come again, my church had never been the one to harp on “we do good things because we want to be immortal” (and yes, I know, I’m being very judgmental and dramatically oversimplifying the message).
Everybody grapples with the meaning of life; we are desperate to imbue our existences with some sort of overarching purpose. Why we don’t find it sufficient to just live, without placing ourselves in some sort of greater scheme, I have no idea; and obviously, I fall in line with everyone else.
So to these particular parishioners, the meaning of life is to achieve endless life? I’m sure I’m just being a jerk, and refusing to acknowledge their perspective’s merits. Child-Atheist Kari delighted in privately scorning her religious classmates, likening their blind faith to a refusal to let go of the Tooth Fairy. I thought it was a cop-out: they got some book to tell them what to do, while I, with my interminable self-martyrdom complex, bore the cross of figuring out my own code for myself. Even a six-year-old knows that “[a] man’s gotta have a code.”
But it is a bit of a strange situation to both (a) be convinced that there is no inherent meaning of life and (b) insist upon living your life in a meaningful way, anyway. So we find substitutes, attempting to place our Tennessee jars in every moment of our lives. We latch on to shit like coincidence; we pore over our histories, looking for threads to united narratives. We break up with each other, and then go back and measure those ghost relationships’ empty futures against synthetic markers we know are completely irrelevant.
No matter how idiotic I find this exercise, of course I’ll keep doing it, and so, most likely, will you. I, and people similar to me, think there is no meaning of life. So we construct our own meanings. Mine is to live my life in a manner that, in the end, serves as many people as possible, and actually makes shit better. I know this is silly, and unfashionable to admit, but it’s true. So I can construct those broad contours, but, of course, aligning your day-to-day moves is a bit trickier. But we try again, anyway; and we get better at it, and the thing they don’t tell you, is that we get worse at it, too. But I suppose, as long as I know when I’m getting worse, I’m net getting better. Or something.
When the day comes, as the day surely must,
when it is asked of you, and you refuse
to take that lover’s wound again, that cup
of emptiness that is our one completion,
I’d say go here, maybe, to our unsung
innermost isle: Kilda’s antithesis,
yet still with its own tiny stubborn anthem,
its yellow milkwort and its stunted kye.
Leaving the motherland by a two-car raft,
the littlest of the fleet, you cross the minch
to find yourself, if anything, now deeper
in her arms than ever — sharing her breath,
watching the red vans sliding silently
between her hills. In such intimate exile,
who’d believe the burn behind the house
the straitened ocean written on the map?
Here, beside the fordable Arctic,
reborn into a secret candidacy,
the fontanelles reopen one by one
in the palms, then the breastbone and the brow,
aching at the shearwater’s wall, the rowan
that falls beyond all seasons. One morning
you hover on the threshold, knowing for certain
the first touch of the light will finish you.