(excerpted from my essay in Tin House magazine, March 2012)
Last August my oldest daughter got married. The ceremony took place at a farm in the little town of Wells, in Maine, against the backdrop of rolling green meadows, a white wooden barn, and the sounds of a classical guitar. Each member of the wedding party stepped down a sloping hill towards the chuppah, while the guests sat in simple white chairs bordered by rows of sunflowers. The air was redolent with the smells of maples and grasses and other growing things. It was a marriage we had all hoped for. The two families had known each other with affection for years. Radiant in her white dress, a white dahlia in her hair, my daughter asked to hold my hand as we walked down the aisle.
It was a perfect picture of utter joy, and utter tragedy. Because I wanted my daughter back as she was at age ten, or twenty. As we moved together towards that lovely arch that would swallow us all, other scenes flashed through my mind: my daughter in first grade holding a starfish as big as herself, her smile missing a tooth; my daughter on the back of my bicycle as we rode to a river to drop stones in the water; my daughter telling me the day after she had her first period. Now, she was thirty. I could see lines in her face.
I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs. In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away. All that we see around us, including our own bodies, is shifting and evaporating and one day will be gone. Where are the one billion people who lived and breathed in the year 1800, only two short centuries ago?
The evidence seems overly clear. In the summer months, mayflies drop by the billions within 24 hours of birth. Drone ants perish in two weeks. Daylilies bloom and then wilt, leaving dead, papery stalks. Forests burn down, replenish themselves, then disappear again. Ancient stone temples and spires flake in the salty air, fracture and fragment, dwindle to spindly nubs, and eventually dissolve into nothing. Coastlines erode and crumble. Glaciers slowly but surely grind down the land. Once, the continents were joined. Once the air was ammonia and methane. Now it is oxygen and nitrogen. In the future, it will be something else. The sun is depleting its nuclear fuel. And just look at our own bodies. In the middle years and beyond, skin sags and cracks. Eyesight fades. Hearing diminishes. Bones shrink and turn brittle.
Just the other day, I had to retire my favorite shoes, a pair of copper colored wing tips that I purchased thirty years ago to wear at a friend’s graduation. For the first few years, all I had to do to keep the shoes looking spiffy was to polish them. Then, the soles began to wear down. Every couple of years, I would take my wing tips to a small shoe repair shop I knew and have new soles installed. The shop was run by three generations of an Italian family. In the early years, the grandfather worked on my shoes. Then he died and his son took over the job. The resoling kept my shoes going another twenty years. My wife begged me to surrender. But I loved those shoes. They reminded me of me in my salad days. Eventually, the upper leather of the shoes became so thin that it cracked and split. I took the shoes back to the shop. The cobbler looked at them, shook his head, and smiled.
Physicists call it the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It is also called the arrow of time. Oblivious to our human yearnings for permanence, the universe is relentlessly wearing down, falling apart, driving itself towards a condition of maximum disorder. It is a question of probabilities. You start from a situation of improbable order, like a deck of cards all arranged according to number and suit, or like a solar system with several planets orbiting nicely about a central star. Then you drop the deck of cards on the floor over and over again. You let other stars randomly whiz by your solar system, jostling it with their gravity. The cards become jumbled. The planets get picked off and go aimlessly wandering through space. Order has yielded to disorder. Repeated patterns to change. In the end, you cannot defeat the odds. You might beat the house for a while, but the universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player.