“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive,
but in finding something to live for.”
from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
In my thirties — when I went through my Dostoevsky period — that quotation would have taken my breath. I would have questioned what I was doing, spun into a life-examining journal writing frenzy about it. I think, in fact, I did that, over that very quotation.
But now, my children (ha ha) I’m not the same person. I KNOW what I lived for and it’s the same thing I’m living for now.
Long ago, back in Denver, during another presidential election, I worked hard for an independent candidate. I wrote speeches, TV ads, organized events. It was fun and I believed in him. He didn’t win, but his campaign garnered 10% of the vote in Colorado. One of the events I planned was an expensive fund-raising dinner at an elegant Indian restaurant called, appropriately, The Bombay. Entertainment for that evening was a popular Denver jazz band featuring a fantastic saxophone player named Tom. It was an elegant and successful evening.
Back then I was well on my way to being a ‘mover and a shaker’ in Denver, and I knew Tom pretty well.
Time passed — two and a half years. I went to China, and I came back. Four months after the return, I was emotionally evacuated. I was homesick for China. I had also realized that my husband didn’t like me. I’d come back to the states because he was sick and I shouldn’t have. My beautiful dream was over and I was left with a bad marriage.
I walked down to the King Soopers nearest our Capitol Hill Apartment to buy stuff for supper. It had begun to snow. Outside the store a man in a wheelchair was playing the saxophone for tips. I got closer and saw it was Tom. I sat down on a bench to talk to him.
“Where you been, lady?” he asked.
“China. I went to China to teach.”
“Yeah.” How did I ask the question without hurting Tom? Finally, “What happened?”
“Oh, babe, you won’t believe it. I got the flu.”
Tom chuckled at the amazement in my voice. “I know. It don’t make sense. It attacked my spine. I was flat on my back, for six months, paralyzed. They said I’d never walk or play the saxophone again, but, a man gotta’ eat and a man’s gotta’ play, right?”
My heart was in my throat.
“I could live without walking, but, honey, I wasn’t living without my sax.” He gently pressed the keys and levers on the shining instrument. I knew how he felt about it. It was both his livelihood and his life.
Just then a young woman I’d worked with some years before approached the door. “Martha? My god! It’s been forever!!! What are you doing these days?”
Tom looked at me and saw I was about to cry. I was but at this moment I don’t know exactly why. There were plenty of reasons in that cold early-winter Denver moment.
Tom answered. “She’s livin’. She’s jus’ livin’. That’s all any of us do and if you think otherwise, you’re wrong.”
After that, I knew the goal of my life was to live. To live for life itself. It’s not so easy, either.