The novel Dandelion Wine is one of my favorite novels by my favorite author, Ray Bradbury. The moment that stands out to me is the moment when a main character realizes he is alive. It’s not that there’s anything particular about the day—it’s just that the character realizes he is human, he is alive, and he has the ability to do things with those two facts.
I was talking to my husband the other day. As an introvert, I do sometimes prefer to stay away from people from time to time, and we were talking about why. I mentioned that what I object to most about human beings in general is when they squander time and opportunity. What I meant is, I resent when humans don’t realize they are alive.
Though I’m not particularly into country music, I can’t help but think of Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying.” Like Bradbury’s novel, the song wishes that the listener one day get to experience the true blessing that is life. When we understand that life is short, that some chapter is about to draw to a close, that we are about to lose a loved one or our health or an opportunity or a house or anything, we start living more deliberately. We tend to see the positive—what we’re about to lose—than the negative.
Unfortunately, it often takes an emergency or a crisis to realize that one is alive. It often takes impending death or loss to realize what we have. I hate seeing people wish away time, counting down days until whatever—Christmas, high school graduation, the weekend. What they don’t realize is that they are wishing away time. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: we are never promised tomorrow.
One of the things I love about literature is that it often tries to remind us of this fact, to remind us of what it means to be human, and to encourage us to go out and do. Live. Ayn Rand’s heroes embody this idea. They commit to their identity, and they do everything in their power to realize their potential. Not all characters—or people—are so sharply focused. But even those as hopeless as Meursault in The Stranger finds himself contemplating the gift that life is—or, for him, was.
For Christmas, one of the gifts I received is a stuffed Bastet from Squishables. A fun toy, no doubt, but it has some serious connections to my musings.
The history of Bastet is complicated and not fully understood, but in short, it is an Egyptian goddess in the form of a cat and a protector of various elements, depending on which myth one reads and which part of early history one studies. I received it because the ankh, the looped cross on its forehead, is featured in my recent young adult novel, The Man with the Crystal Ankh. The ankh is an Egyptian symbol of life, and ever since elementary school, when I made a paper mache model of a pyramid, I have been fascinated with ancient Egyptian’s fascination with eternal life. It always seemed to me that they grasped how sacred life was (though some of their practices suggest they did not apply that sacredness across the board…), that going through life they always had something in the back of their mind making them wonder about their place in eternity.
In my novel, the primary antagonist seems to be obsessed with life—holding onto his years. The ankh becomes his symbol as he struggles to extend his life beyond what is promised to even the oldest human. To me, he’s an antagonist because he’s missing the point of life. To be human means to be limited in the life we are promised here on earth. Being a hero doesn’t mean finding a way to extend that life unnaturally; rather, it means finding a way to make that life meaningful.
It’s why my heart soars each time I re-read Bradbury’s epiphany in Dandelion Wine and why I love new works of literature to see the ways characters choose to make their lives meaningful. It’s why I detest when people count down the days to one event or another—because they are squandering what comes between then and now. And it’s why I love finding fellow human beings who truly appreciate the gift of life and find ways of making each day meaningful.
Here in the real world, we don’t have magic. We don’t have a supernatural ankh we can wave around to extend our days on earth. But as humans, we have our own “magic.” We are alive. Each and every day we are conscious, we have the opportunity to plant seeds, to put down roots, to make connections to others that will live on long after our time is up. That is the true gift we are given as humans—the gift of being bound by time, and in being so bound, to be inspired to transcend it entirely.