I love libraries. Surrounded by knowledge, the artistry of imagination and language, here with the comforting agreement of quiet whispers and furrowed silence, I look outside the window of Redding Library and see Mt. Shasta, snowbound, powerful and magic. Can all humanity’s books, all of our combined words, our crumbled, fallen and emerging civilizations amalgamated amassing of information compare against the glistening, white peak that seems to declare Earth’s billions of years of wisdom?
Still, I am comforted by the cool blanket of stacks of cataloged books. On my table, a San Francisco Chronicle, a Time Magazine “The 100 Most Influential People” edition (Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg on the cover), “Write Your Novel in a Month” by Jeff Gerke, “Gratitude” by Oliver Sacks—a collection I picked up on a near-somnabulent stroll through the aisles now not neatly but quite perfectly disorderly piled in front of me.
Oh, this feels so good!
Where to start? With yesterday’s news of basketball playoffs and water rationing? With Sacks’ achingly beautiful summary of his life well lived, written just weeks before his metastasized liver took him? I wonder if I stayed here long enough, if I lived here, slept here, ate here…never left here, I wonder if I could read all the books in this library?
A melancholy feeling passes over me.
I will never know all the information in the world.And even if I were able to somehow digest every tome ever written, what about those ancient texts lost to antiquity? What about the library in Alexandria? These thoughts lead to a sensation in the core of my stomach that knows I will die before I do everything I came here to do.
When I was a boy, no more than 11 or 12, I would lie awake at night and contemplate eternity. I was told that if I was a good boy, and believed in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, I would be able to live in heaven forever with my mom, dad and brother and all my “saved” friends. The alternative, in Seventh-Day Adventism, was not the never-ending torture of a napalm-flesh-searing sentence in hell. Rather, it was the finality of being left behind.
That’s why my mom said she wanted me to believe. She did not want to live her eternal reward without me. She could not imagine the pain of that. When I asked her how could an all-loving God come up with a system where loved ones were separated from each other forever just because they did not believe in the guy who created that fucked up system, she just said, “our minds are too limited to conceive of God’s plan for us.”
The plan where he created the sun, moon, stars and our planet, then Adam and Eve. The plan where he gave us free will but that free will boiled down to a choice of eating of the Tree of Life or the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And if we choose wrong, we are evicted from his perfect garden. Then, he sends his son to die as some kind of magnanimous miracle and now whosoever believeth shall have everlasting life. The rest of us (Taoists who never heard of Jesus, Jews who missed the news, Hindu who choose to deitize the creative energies of the universe) all get the gate shut in their face.
As I lie awake those nights in Napa, California, imagining what it might be like to survive the Holy Test of Faith and make it, somehow, to heaven (even though in some way I knew I must have snuck in past God’s all-knowing radar that could read my every thought), I tried to stretch my mind into imagining my dad, mom, brother and me walking the streets of gold forever. Forever and forever. Forever and forever and forever. No matter how many “forevers” I could string together in my mind, there was still a finite number to them. I could not count high enough to get to forever. Ever!
It was in these nights that I began to realize that my brain could fathom the vastness of the universe, let alone the god who created it. Indeed, my mom was right, I could not conceive of God’s ways, no matter how hard I scrunched up my face, tightened my brow and pressed my hands against my temples trying to focus with all my brain cells.
I began, in my waking hours, to study every book I could: science, fiction, science-fiction, philosophy, astrology, mysticism. I wanted to find out if someone had figured out eternity, if someone could explain forever.
I read Carlos Castaneda’s “Don Juan” series. I read “Maps of Consc
iousness” by Ralph Metzner. I read the newspaper. I read Kurt Vonnegut. I loved Vonnegut because, although he didn’t spell out the answer to the universe and the secret to eternity, he seemed to know it and leave great clues. I read Douglas Adams. Oh what a find! “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe” didn’t bring the answer I had been seeking but it sure did show me the absurdity of the question. I read all the philosophers. Plato, Socrates, Descartes, Hume.
I felt that I was joining a team. And that, maybe, by standing upon the shoulders of all those who asked the same questions I had, I could somehow peer over the wall in my mind that kept me from seeing forever.