Monday, December 18, 2006

The dog food incident

Today I was at the local Costco buying some dog food. Everything starts this way.

I stood on line for five or ten minutes, patiently awaiting my turn. There were two lovely young women- both in their twenties- doing the register and packing. I know them both by sight, having seen them many times.

The girl on the register is very attractive but given to wearing a bit too much makeup. This reveals a certain hidden insecurity. From her posture, however, I routinely see that she thinks quite highly of herself- she knows she's a beauty (at least with the right makeup, anyway) and is selling it. The fact that she's selling it, unconsciously, in the service of biology is immaterial. She thinks what she has belongs to her, and at that age it's normal. Only when time begins to visibly strip it from her line by line- in growing old, it's always the mirror that delivers us the cruelest of betrayals- will she realize everything she had was only out on loan.

The other one, the packer, is a blonde. She has things wrong with the way she looks: her nose is too big and it's crooked. She has that condition where one eye wanders off in its own direction, making her look wanky, and she's gawky, awkward and selfconscious. All in all, however, she looks remarkably sympathetic; her collection of flaws oddly trumps the standard aesthetic.

And those flaws bring wisdom, too: I think this one already knows a bit more. Life cheats us with the illusion that we're beautiful, and superhuman, but we're all just clumsy bags of skin and bone, grasping for things we cannot see with eyes that don't point straight.

As the opposing impressions of these two young women struck me I was overwhelmed by an emotion I cannot describe, and tears came into my eyes. I was touched by their youth, their innocence, and by the temporary nature of the moment. Here we all are, after all, the rich, the poor, the beautiful, the gangly and the middle aged, all participating in this mass event called life, and none of us really know what it is. It's drab, colorful, reassuring, confusing, alluring, and repelling, all at the same time.

And it all ends in death.

It was this temporariness that struck me the most, struck into my very bones in a tremor of inner gravity. From the moment we are born, each of us is a leaf hanging from the branch of life, just waiting to drop. I could feel the ground shaking under me, the branch shaking over me. Everything was somehow perfect, but there was no security in the midst of this perfection.

Incongruously, I began to sing the doxology softly, spontaneously, to myself.

"Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him all creatures here below
Praise Him above ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost."

I don't know why I began to sing that but it seemed necessary when faced with this brief vision of perfect beauty so irrevocably rooted in the shadow of the valley of death.

My own mortality- the mortality of all that we are and everything around us which looks so vivid and alive- it weight upon my soul then. Somehow I briefly tasted not just my own death, but perhaps even- impossibly- death itself, in that moment.

I can't describe what it tasted like, but it called something forth from the depths of my soul, and that something was not despair, or fear, or horror.

It was praise.

God bless all of you today.


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