Structurally, books such as Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty always seem to interest me. The colorful pages filled with intimate drawings, photographs, and just the right choice of words captures my attention in many ways. I decided that I loved this book when I reached the dedication page and discovered a young photograph of Kalman’s own mother, “To my beautiful mother Sara.” I do not know why, maybe I just liked her face. But I quickly realized that I really did love this book once I read the opening sentence and then the book in its entirety- in fact, it will even make it to the bookshelf closest to my bed after the semester is through (which means that I really must have liked it).
I suppose that Kalman’s book relates to Bill Bryson’s, and not just because we are suppose to make some kind of connection between the two. After our discussion today, I find that Kalman’s work follows Bryson’s quite naturally- specifically with regard to time, life, and the relationship between the two. It grapples with the details in a life, and the importance of those details and then the unimportance of those same details.
Bill Bryson’s book is essentially a compilation of works he submitted to his column- a column, we suggested, which represents a life, namely Bryson’s. The way Bryson implements the passage of time then speaks directly to the central questions found in Kalman’s book- what then are we to make of our lives? What meaning are we to take from them? What meaning ought to be taken from them?
What I love most about Kalman is not simply found in her cool drawings and smart insights. Rather, I most love her understanding of beauty in relation to the world and a lifetime. She sees the beauty in a fun hat, a gnarled, elderly individual straining to walk down the street, a delicious fruit basket, a beautiful garden, her aunt’s morning swims in the ocean, a warm pink bed in Paris, everything in Paris and then New York, used sofas, good quotes, music, and trees. But she also understands and values the beauty in the human desire to express and then the frustrating inability to ever do so completely. She finds the beauty in the joyful and the heartbreaking, and I love that.
I find the questions Kalman fills her pages with alone to be beautiful. “Did Goethe know who he was? The question is, does one need to know? And what is it you know once you think you know?” (125) And if we are all so temporary, so impermanent, “what is the point?” (175) “The sun will blow up in five billion years. Knowing that, how could anyone want a war. Or plastic surgery. But I am being naïve. And the unknown is so unknowable. And who is to judge really?” (222) You will never know yourself fully. It is impossible. I do not know who I am most of the time. And still, there is something we can all relate to within ourselves, some semblance of something that makes us believe that we do, in fact, know ourselves. And I suppose we do to an extent, but there is far more that we do not know.
So what is the point then? If we are all going to die, and soon, what is the point? Why might we still feel a loss knowing that the sun will blow up five billion years from now (we certainly won’t be around to see it happen)? Because I do feel a loss. It would almost seem that the meaning of life is to understand that life has meaning- despite the constraints of time and how very little of it we are truly given freely. I’m not going to pretend to know the point to life, but I do believe this to be true.
I think service itself inherently helps us to understand that the meaning is meaning itself- to become aware, personally, of this. By building community and relationships with one another, life becomes meaningful. And the impossibly indescribable becomes that much easier to describe.