At one point or another, most of us ask ourselves that one most basic and most difficult question. ” What is the purpose of my life? What am I doing on this infinitesimally small planet in this ever-expanding Universe? Why am I here?”
As one gets older, somehow finding an answer to this question seems more and more important. But that answer gets more unattainable than ever. The Universe is apparently expanding by the nano-second and now with our most powerful telescopes and satellites and probes, it seems we will never be able to do more than imagine its limits.
Courtesy NASA and the European Space Agency
So over the years, I began to modify the cosmic quality of my question and pull it down to more manageable parameters. Not the whole Universe, which tended to intimidate me since my part in it was so obviously inconsequential. But just what the meaning of my little life here on Mother Earth might be. Why was I here? What was I supposed to be doing? Apart from paying my bills and trying somehow to muddle my way through the daily vicissitudes of ordinary living.
The question bothered me. Particularly when I stumbled across a portfolio of old drawings or a pile of my newspaper columns or a photo of a young Canadian girl in traditional Indian dress celebrating some gallery opening or enjoying a social event. Vestiges of my other life. Of other times. Somehow these little artifacts always seemed to depress me and make me feel I’d failed.
It had been such an unusual life, so full of adventure and …. opportunities. I’d dreamed of a concert career as a classical pianist but had wasted my Juilliard degree, because I married soon after I graduated and settled in Bombay. India had its own rich tradition of classical music which included a whole range of semi-tones no Western composer had ever used. Five tones to a single note on my piano. I switched my attention to art and journalism and concentrated on learning as much as I could about Indian philosophy and culture.
But now what did I have to show for it? I hadn’t achieved anything. As I sat alone in my apartment in Honolulu so many years later, I ruefully listed my meager accomplishments. A few exhibitions in various places around the world. A pile of newspaper and magazine articles. I tried not to think about it. I made excuses for myself by listing the difficulties of making a living in America as a single, divorced woman. My talents were luxuries I could not longer indulge myself with.
But the guilt was always there. What was I doing with my life? And more important, what was I supposed to be doing with it.
I never expected to find part of the answer to this question in my daily newspaper. I regularly scanned the “Letters to the Editor” section of the Honolulu Star Bulletin because I quite often contributed a comment complaining about some government slip-up or praising a new project if it in any way involved planting trees. Or improving the Zoo.
But there it was.
“We Will Miss You, Mrs. DeLima”
We will miss you, Mrs. DeLima. For over thirty years, you’ve greeted us at your cashier’s counter as we stopped at the Kapahulu Seven Eleven for our morning coffee or newspaper. Through the years you’ve heard so many of our joys and sorrows. You congratulated us when we had a new baby or when a child graduated from High School. You gave us a high-five when we got promoted. You had comforting words when we had a death in our family, bad news from our doctor or our car stolen. Even the tiniest things weren’t too small for you to share and encourage or sympathize. You wore a bright hibiscus flower behind your ear every day and an even bigger smile on your face. You were part of all your customer’s lives.
We will miss you so much. But we know you’re with the angels, bringing your light into Heaven too.
A Seven Eleven Customer.
I sat there for a few moments, with the image of a plump smiling little Portuguese woman wearing a flower behind her ear, deftly counting out change and handing it to a customer. Although I’d never met her, Mrs. DeLima seemed suddenly very dear to me. And this letter from one of her customers which appeared more appropriate to the Obituaries column had somehow found its way into the “Reader’s Comments” section. Perhaps a moment of editorial laxity, which suddenly changed the way I saw the value of a simple human life.
For me a sort of epiphany. In a moment of perfectly timed enlightenment.
I was working on an article about Edward Munch at the time and photos of the five known variants of “The Scream” were on my desk. I’d never particularly liked the paintings but was intrigued by their intensity. Which is palpable.
Wanting to flesh out my article with a little background information about the artist himself and confronted with the lavish cornucopia of Internet information, I had been wallowing in the minutiae of Edvard Munch’s personal life for a week. And there was a lot to wallow in. “The Scream” … or two versions of it … had been the objects of spectacular heists, one occurring during Winter Olympics at Lillehammer. and the other eventually involving British agents and an unauthorized arrest which eventually let the robbers go scot-free.
There were personal scandals too, which I knew readers would lap up like greedy cats offered some nice fresh Devonshire cream. Insanity and excessive drinking, the staples of so many artists’ lives. The obsessive introspection where every scar is picked at until it bleeds and then the artist marvels at the color of the blood. I was so familiar with this both as an artist and years later as an art critic.
Now here was Mrs. DeLima. Her name would probably never again appear in print. Her kindness would be remembered only by the people who had actually met her and most of them would forget about her after a few visits to the Seven Eleven with a new clerk managing the cash register. She was gone. Her life ended. No paintings hanging in galleries around the world, no volumes of her poetry in libraries and not even a tree with a small plaque attached to its trunk to recall her passing through this world. Nothing.
Suddenly I remembered a fragment of a verse by Emily Dickenson ….
And I understood
Robin Photo By: Anita Gould, Creative Commons