In Circling the Deep I walk the edge of the canyon, circumambulating deep questions. The conversations continue with anyone willing to write or talk–sometimes my family, sometimes myself, sometimes you, sometimes the dead or imaginary.
When the kids were little, we began tossing them big questions.Where are your dead grandparents? Where do babies come from? What is a good person? What’s bad? If the house were on fire and you had to grab one thing, what would it be? These videoed interviews took various forms: storytelling, metaphysical speculation, flights of fantasy, competition, bullshit and blather–exactly like adult conversations. Here’s the first interview from The Big Questions series.
The “kids” are now in their late 20s, and their big questions have changed, but we still pursue them in our various arts, over dinner, or on video. Cailleah and Bryn have grown and left the nest. Susan and I age and wise up. As David Suzuki says with characteristic candor, I’m now in the death zone. I don’t plan on going soon, but even if the end is tomorrow or 20 years away, the end is always near if you ride your bike on the street or at the edge of Canyonlands (as I did when turning 50).
The approach of death hasn’t made me more efficient at sorting out what’s big and what’s small. Both the philosophers and my mother assured me that nearing death help me figure out what counts and doesn’t. She grew more religious as cancer began to take one breast, then a lung. As I age, I have more questions, and I wrestle them as I used to play-wrestle our kids. Mom told me I asked too many questions. Dad agreed. When he died, he carried a big question to his grave: Did I kill your mom by smoking? Two nights before he died, he said he knew you couldn’t “catch” cancer, but thought he caught it from Mom, even though he confessed his smoking probably led to her cancer. He quit smoking way too late, a few months before his death. What the doctors thought was pneumonia was, in fact, lung cancer. But he didn’t died of that. Instead, he died of cardiac arrest after the removal of a lung. The siblings’ view: two years without Mom was enough. He was ready to go.
What’s a big or little question depends on how big you are and where you stand. Little things are smaller than me. Big things are bigger than me. The difference depends on size and perspective. From the top of a canyon things at the bottom look small. Zoom in with a camera or telescope and tiny things look big.
What are the big questions? Make your own list. Edit it. Rearrange it, big ones at the top, smaller ones at the bottom. Rewrite generic questions so they become your question. Make poetry out of the questions. Sing them.
- How shall I die? Why do we die? Why should my wife, child, or friend die? What does death mean?
- Why hold this marriage together? Why break it apart? Is marriage sacred? What’s sacred?
- Why be born? Why give birth? Why have babies?
- Why am I employed this way? Should I quit? Change jobs? Are there true vocations? Callings?
- Why this pain? When it hurts, what kind of a person do I become? Did I do anything to deserve this?
- Where does life come from, and why does that matter to how I live mine? How important is human life?
- Should we eat meat? Are fish meat? Are plants sad when we eat them? Trees, when we cut them down?
- Why music? Why art? Why write? Why do you care? Who cares if nobody cares?
The answer to a deep question is rarely verbal; it’s a life lived in resonance with the question. The only answer is to become identified with the question, to circumambulate it, to digest it. Pick your metaphor.
Big questions make sense in a landscape, a description, a family, a culture. Big questioning makes sense if we see questions as the driving force of a story or piece of art. “Why art?” makes one kind of sense if I am a artist trying to make a living and support my family, another kind of I’m a consumer. “Why pain?” makes one kind of sense if I am about to have a minor operation and another if I have excruciating, chronic pain across decades. Why eat meat, is one question to a farmer’s son, another to Hindus, another to vegans in big cities. Big questions are mind-numbing unless you put them in context and inquire about the motives. Why does this question matter now? Here? What leads to your asking it? What’s invested in posing it? Why do you care? Who gives a shit?
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