What Matters

After a few days of delightfully comfortable weather, the icy fingers of winter clawed back with a vengeance yesterday afternoon. Today’s high temperature is forecast to reach only 46°F, after a much colder evening. Temperatures are expected to edge back up to the mid-60s by Wednesday of next week, but next Thursday may be a repeat of yesterday, except worse. At the moment, forecasters call for freezing rain by next Friday. By next Saturday morning—more than a week away—we can expect temperatures to drop to 21°F. A lot can change between now and then, of course. Meteors could rain down upon Earth, causing the oceans to spawn massive tsunamis. And the celestial invaders, super-heated by friction as they plunge through the atmosphere, could could turn the seas into boiling cauldrons. But I’m not expecting it.


Yesterday afternoon, we visited a friend from church. After having long promised to take her one of my favorite soups, I finally made good on the promise. I made a big pot of some North African lentil soup early yesterday morning. Aromas of onions cooking in oil, combined with garlic, cumin, coriander, turmeric, paprika, and cinnamon filled the house. I associate those smells with the odors I imagine I would encounter in an outdoor market in Morocco; I’ve never been to Morocco—I’ve never been to Africa—but something about the scent of those spices cooking in oil tricks me. Those aromas conjure memories of visiting places I’ve never been, eating foods I’ve never tasted, and hearing a cacophony of unfamiliar voices speaking languages I do not understand.

My oldest brother lived and worked in Algeria for a while, several years ago. If my memory serves me, he took advantage of his time while there to travel to other African and Middle Eastern countries. I think he used his home base of Oran, Algeria as a launching point to travel to Europe, as well. I recall, only vaguely, that my sister went to visit him while he lived in Oran; either to take his two sons to visit him or to visit the three of them for a while. I think she was involved in a minor automobile accident while in Morocco. But my memory is deeply unclear about that period. I’m not even sure how old I was when my brother was in Algeria. But I recall, again only vaguely, that at his behest I bought him a piece of high-end audio equipment and shipped it to him in Oran. I wish I had, at that time, made a habit of writing about my daily experiences. Today, without that kind of extemporaneous evidence from those times, I cannot depend on my memory to tell the truth.

My friend, the one we visited yesterday, spent time in Denmark a number of years ago. Unlike me, when she was younger she kept a daily record of her travels. And she wrote letters home to her family, which they kept. She now has in her possession the letters she wrote home. She is in the enviable position of being able to read what she wrote in her own personal records and to compare that with what she wrote in letters home. One legacy of the decline—more like disappearance—in letter-writing is the effective erasure of memories. That really amounts to  the elimination of experiences, to some extent, because experiences we cannot remember may just as well never have happened. Ach! To borrow a phrase from the lyrics of a song by Tom Paxton, “it’s a lesson too late for the learning, made of sand, made of sand.”


I’ve maintained one of my other blogs, one to which I have not posted in quite some time, because I recorded some experiences in it that I do not want to forget. I captured one such experience, about twelve years ago, with these words: “Dissatisfied, alone, wishing I could pin down what’s on my mind that’s making me feel morose and disconnected and acutely aware of the fact that I don’t matter.” A friend told me at the time that I was experiencing “a dark night of the soul.” That was her explanation, based on her religious beliefs. I did not accept her explanation then and I do not accept it now. I think I explained my feelings as having arisen in part from my oldest sister’s death a few months before this particular post. I wrote this: “It’s shocking to realize that a powerful piece of one’s life can be irrevocably ripped from it with no explanation, no reason, and no recourse. One’s “power” quickly comes into question and a realization sets in: one has no power of any consequence. The world is capable of instantly rendering powerless and irrelevant one’s control over even the smallest aspect of one’s life.

My relationship with my sister was very different from the one I had with my brother who died recently. And I have grown more used to the idea of mortality, including mine, during those twelve years. Still, the emotions I felt at the time following my sister’s death were not entirely different from the ones I continue to harbor today. I sometimes think “normal” for me is that bleak existential angst I have so often written about; happiness and joy and appreciation for life and all it offers is abnormal. It’s a deviation from that sullen consistency that’s been my companion for most of my life. Fortunately, I suppose, the oscillation between depression and joy is not as frequent nor, usually, as dramatic as it has been in the past. That makes for less troubling lows and less enjoyable highs. I’m not sure tempering emotional extremes is as fulfilling as we’re led to believe.


Once again, I could not stay asleep, thanks to my horrendous congestion. I finally got up around 4, after trying to fall asleep following my 2:30 awakening to pee. Sometimes, the large array of medications prescribed to improve my breathing seems to help; other times, not so much. Last night, it was not so much. I felt like I was breathing through a warm, wet cloth; and I whistled every time I inhaled and wheezed with every exhalation. Now that I’ve been up for close to two hours, I can breath just fine and the maddening noises emanating from my mouth have gone silent. I suspect I’ll attempt a nap sometime after dinner tonight, as I’ve been wont to do of late. At least that will give me a bit more sleep than otherwise I would be getting. I know from experience this period of suffocation insomnia, as I call it, will disappear before too much longer, only to be resurrected later. What triggers either the cause or the cure eludes me. I wish I knew; I would pay myself big bucks if I could uncover a way to quickly and completely control this annoyance.


Last night, I watched a few YouTube videos that offered instructions on how to polish solid surface countertops and how to remove scratches from such countertops. The idea that I might be able to take an old, dull counter and give it new life, making it as a shiny as new is appealing to me. I’ve watched a number of other “how-to” videos, most equally interesting to me but also probably equally irrelevant. I do not have a need for most of the knowledge or skills these videos offer; only an interest. I think I can trace that interest to the fact that I’ve spent my entire work life doing things that ultimately do not matter. Shuffling papers. Talking ideas to death. Discussing policies. Revising policies. Conversing with people about how to achieve results without ever actually doing anything that would lead to measurable results. So, watching “how-to” videos is refreshing. They show how to actually accomplish a measurable objective: remove a scratch, make a countertop shine, replace an auto’s headlights, repair an automatic closer for screen doors, etc., etc., etc. People who create products or who grow crops or raise animals or repair broken stuff are happier, by and large, than people who write about creating products or growing crops or raising animals or repairing broken stuff. The actual DOING of things rather than THINKING of doing things. Although watching a video is not really DOING. But it’s more satisfying to THINK about being productive than to talk about the concept of productivity.

Okay. None of this is always true. But it is, sometimes. I want to accomplish something of which I can be proud. Build something. Repair something. Create something. Art, at least, is a creative emotional exercise in which thoughts are translated into something tangible. Rather than just more thoughts. I sometimes think writing is an artificial outlet. It has no real outcome other than to demonstrate an enormous number of ways to organize and present a limited number of letters and spaces and punctuation marks. But there’s no substance, for the most part. Obviously, some writers perform magic with their ability to organize letters into words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters. But most of us just spill letters onto a screen in haphazard fashion, hoping that some of the ideas that accompany the spillage will capture the interest of a Nobel Committee; not really. But we do engage in outlandish fantasies that have as much chance of taking place as I have of learning brain surgery by listening to a cassette tape. Ultimately, some people do things that matter. All people want to do things that matter. But there may be only a limited number of things we can do that really matter.  Yet everything matters. Or does it?


Something that matters is this: the flooring guys left a window in my new house open when they left yesterday. I need to remind them today to be more careful in future. If it has been open during the heavy downpours of yesterday morning, new subfloors might have been needed.


Okay. I need to have something to eat, even though it’s rather early. I am inexcusably hungry.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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