On a rainy night with the scent of the wakening earth filling the air, I drove to a dinner where I found myself seated beside an elderly gentleman with dark and shining eyes.
After we had performed the small unfurling ceremony of the napkins, he turned to me with a pleasant look.
“And so,” he said, “What have you been doing here on earth?”
“What?” I thought. “Who was this, St. Peter come down to do an early audit on me?”
At first my mind reeled back to the time I was three and used my nap to do the wallpaper over in a bright Crayola rainbow; and also the time I got expelled at age seven for incorrigible whispering.
“Do you mean what has my WORK been?“ I finally said, since Americans all think that their work is who they are.
I thought back to the jobs I have held as a swimming counselor, and a lifeguard, as a teacher, and a chambermaid.
And then there has been this decades-long career of writing for publication, which I picture as a kind of mangy tail that I ‘m dragging along behind me, like that super-long scarf I tried to knit in Sixth Grade and had to keep ON knitting because I didn’t know how to finish it.
“Casting off” I think is the term for it. I have never learned to cast off in life.
Yet I knew that none of this is what the man meant. I could tell by his expression.
“Let me put it another way,” he said. “What have you cared about in your time here? What have you loved?”
Stated like that, the question set up in me such a whirring of mental gears that I was struck utterly speechless. Lucky for me, just then the emcee tapped his microphone and began the program.
I was off the hook.
And though the elderly gent and I never did return to the topic, his question remains with me still.
Now if you thought this was the place where I might go all sublime and send my thoughts soaring into the realm of the angels, well, you’d be wrong. The things I keep coming back to are more in the realm of the schoolyard. They are that simple.
So what are they, these things I have loved so much? Well, baths, for starters. I love baths. I love taking baths myself and I love giving baths to little people, who look so much like baby seals with their hair all slicked back you forget they have ears.
Also, bubbles. I love blowing the kind of giant bubble you can make by soaping up one hand, making a fist with it, then slowly opening the fist just enough to see that a pane of iridescence in the nickel-sized opening. I love how you can blow lightly on it and – presto! – make a bright wobbling orb as big as your face.
I love listening to small children and delighting in what they will say.
I think of the time one suddenly said to me “I like your nice fat arms,” or the time another leaned close to her mother in public to whisper, “That poor man has nipples all over his face!”
I love being in the presence of kids generally, no matter what their age or what they are doing, just because they are so funny and honest. I love the way they live in the here and now.
And I think that St. Peter might want me to live like them, open to surprise and delight as they are, with no more thoughts about mangy tails or the casting-off skills I will likely never, ever possess.