A Strange Sunday of Marathons and Existential Dread

[originally published here in October of 2010] Today has been a strange day. Strange in that it does not cohere, does not congeal into a narrative the way we like our days to behave. Most days are well behaved. Our routine makes them so. We wake, we dress, we look at the clock four times more than is necessary to see that we are not running late. Those of you lucky enough to have hair are unlucky enough to have to brush it. Then we commute, we work, we commute again. A spouse or parent or child thoughtfully asks us for the story of our day and we tell the abridged version prematurely. Then the next third or half of the day begins. Perhaps you, like my wife, change clothes again. Or maybe, like me, you loosen your tie, un-tuck your shirt, and affect a style that is the mullet of the middle aged professional: We work hard, and we play hard, it says. Only we don't, most of us. We watch our news or cartoons or game shows according to our predetermined age and demographic. At some point we eat, maybe with family at a dinette table, maybe on the couch, maybe standing in the kitchen as close to the microwave and sink full of dirty dishes as possible. At some point we realize that the story of our day needs a climax, and if it isn't provided by a favorite prime time show we check the internet for some email that isn't spam or call a distant friend or look for someone closer to kiss goodnight. And then the story resolves into sleep, with perhaps that epilogue of a bad dream or an anxious waking to double check the alarm clock before it wakes us and calls for our attention four more times the next morning. That is the plot of the day. That is a day that has behaved.

But today has been unruly. First of all, it had the temerity to start on a Sunday. That makes me immediately uncomfortable because I stopped going to church over a year ago and haven't figured out a defined routine for professed agnostics. I usually try to avoid this discomfort by writing until three or four in the morning (my worship, confession, and communion hour, I suppose), then sleeping as late as my wife and son will allow. But today was the Portland Marathon, and we had friends and family running, so we woke early, dressed for the predictable Portland rain (it didn't disappoint), an drove an hour and a half before I usually wake up. We made it in time to cheer on one of my best friends. When I shouted his name he was so focused, and I was so bundled in a coat, a sweatshirt, and a stocking cap, that he looked at me with utter incomprehension that verged on anger. It was a look that said, “Who the f*&% is this idiot?” He quickly recovered and apologized for not recognizing me while still on the run, which was above and beyond the call of duty, but that look was unsettling and fit the tone of the day.

We cheered on our other friend, then met up with my brother-in-law and nephews to cheer for my sister-in-law. The enormity of these runners’ accomplishment was both impressive and humbling. Not only can I not do what they were doing, but I honestly don’t believe I ever could. Sure, my body is capable of training for it, and I have the time and means, but I don’t have the necessary willpower to adopt that kind of discipline. It’s just not in me. Realizing that is a bit depressing. Stupid Sunday.

We came home after lunch with the family. On the way up we’d listened to NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and on the way back we listened to The Bugle, two of my favorite podcasts which tap into my preferred vein of humor: irreverence at the current state of the world. These are the kinds of shows that I tell my students about only if they are knowledgeable about current events. Still, while the shows lighten my mood, in the context of the realization about my own lack of willpower they made me feel guilty about my cynicism. I can’t even train to run a marathon. What right do I have to laugh at the world?

When we got home I took a long nap. Apparently I can be exhausted just by watching a marathon. When I awoke I took care of some household business, and then we put my son to bed. We’re past the climax of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but my son interrupted tonight’s reading of the story’s denouement to ask about one of the character’s deaths, and where people go when they die. This was a tricky moment for two parents, one of whom is a Christian and one an agnostic. I tried to explain that our bodies are buried, but some people think we go to heaven, and some people think we just cease to be. I told him that I’m just not sure, and asked him what he believed. This dichotomy was complicated by the fact that the character, Cedric, returns as a kind of ghost. My son announced first that he wants to go to “Jesus-land”, which I told him was great, because it sounded like an amusement park. He wondered if, because we would both be old when we die, I would be his age. I told him that could be, or maybe we could choose our ages and he’d be older than me. He preferred the idea that we’d both be kids of the same age, so we could play together, and I said I liked that idea a lot. My wife told him that she was particularly excited about the chance that he’d get to meet her grandfather, who passed away before my son was born and who was, truly, a wonderful man. Then my son changed his mind. “Maybe I’ll be a ghost. I would come back to my home and my video games. And I’d play pranks!” My wife and I had a good laugh at his delivery of these lines; he used a drooping voice that hit its lowest notes on “home” and “video games”.

But then he became more serious. “But what if there really is nothing?”

“Well then,” I said, “it would be like sleeping with no dreams. Very peaceful.”

“Like a nap that goes on for a thousand years and forever?”

“Whatever happens after we die, it goes on forever, but maybe we go to heaven and maybe we sleep. I don’t know.”

“I hope it’s Jesus-land,” he said.

“I hope so, too,” I told him.

When my wife went to sleep, I decided to go for a run. Partly, this was because I was inspired by my runner friends. Partly it was because a colleague, Tom, has encouraged me to compete with him to see who can run the most miles, and I’m more motivated by a fear of embarrassment than by anything else. I loaded a new audio book onto my ipod and headed out. The Circle K is two and a half miles from my house, so I took my credit card and ID and planned to buy one of those tiny orange juices that come in the barely translucent, cheap plastic containers with the orange milk jug lids. I thought I’d down one of those halfway through a five mile run and be healthy. Instead, I found that they don’t sell those (they might not even make them anymore, for all I know), and Kool-Aid in squeeze bottles hardly sounded like the healthy drink I was hoping for. I bought a kiwi-strawberry Snapple. I misread the label and only when I was at the counter did I realize it’s a “juice drink”, which means it could be roughly anything. Back on the road and listening to my book, War Dances by Sherman Alexie (excellent so far), I got to a story where the protagonist finds a dead cockroach in the bottom of a carry-on bag and wonders if, in its last minutes, it felt existential dread. I realized that was precisely what my son had been expressing.

“But what if there really is nothing?” he’d asked.

So I took out my iPod touch and started writing this while walking in the dark. This is less dangerous than it sounds, though I did walk off the sidewalk once and stuck a foot into some very wet grass. It also served to remind me that, though some writers might also be runners, I will always be one and not the other, as I instantly chose my preferred hobby over my reluctant obligation.

So here I am, walking through the darkness on a silent road at 11 at night, thinking about the plot of our days and existential dread. Tomorrow I will be teaching my Creative Writing students about plot. I’ll tell them about rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. But I think I’ll also point out that these things are like grammar. We need grammar to make sense of our writing just as we need plot to make sense of the stories of our lives, but the most interesting writing plays with grammar, upends it in carefully selected ways. Our lives have plots within plots, but they do not behave as Aristotle said stories should. Perhaps we do not come to a marvelous conclusion about existential dread and how to cope with it, or how to protect our children from it. Perhaps we write in the darkness. Perhaps we stumble into the street and get run over before there’s been any climax to our stories. And then maybe we go to Jesus-land.