We Don’t Exist, Therefore We Write

Matanuska Glacier, which no longer exists in the form  it did when this picture was taken.

Matanuska Glacier, which no longer exists in the form it did when this picture was taken. Near Palmer, AK.

Lately I’ve been writing about a friend’s dad, let’s call him Mr. Roberts, who claimed that we don’t exist. Mr. Roberts had a PhD in chemistry, worked at a major consumer goods manufacturer and had the fortitude to sail solo around the entire U.K. He was, in two words, no dummy.

But I was 12 when I knew him, and couldn’t get a grasp on his reasoning behind why we don’t actually exist. I still don’t understand. The idea stuck.*

It is, in fact, haunting me as I sit here in Seattle, on a laptop, and scratch my head about Alaska. Did we really spend the summer there, in the rain, among brown bears and salmon? Was it all just a dream in fast-forward? I feel like a human boomerang. Catapult north, through Canada! Arc around the fingers of the Alaskan landmass, accelerate through stilted boreal forests and return, you polished little boomerang you, to your roost in the city!

The thing that was real yesterday, or a year or a minute ago, is nothing but a visual imprint now. I’m back staring into my laptop, a flat edifice of plastic and silicon which itself is only a doorstop unless it has electricity or internet. Being back in a familiar setting, in a city, feels like Groundhog Day.

Yet something, inexplicably, has changed. It might take years to understand what. The only way to know is to write about it.

“Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life,” Eudora Welty once said.

Life might be ineffable, but at least we can order events. In writing, memories stay alive. It reanimates a past that cannot be repeated. Eudora Welty’s Mississippi, Jack London’s Alaska, Jonathan Franzen’s Midwest, your New Orleans, my Alaska. These places may not exist, according to Mr. Roberts, but they live.

* I encourage all adults to throw out similar truisms in the presence of tweens. It’ll give the young tribe something to chew on. Phrases like “I am a solipsist” or “radical empiricism is truth” just wouldn’t have had the same effect.

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