I was having a conversation with Nate, my son who is going to turn 21 soon, about meaning and life. He was curious about how we find meaning. Almost as if meaning is hidden somewhere, and our life’s work is to search and search for this thing that will bring us to a place of peace or understanding or, lord help us, happiness. Ah! There it is! Meaning! Finally!
Nestled behind a rock in Wyoming or in a diner in Arkansas, meaning is waiting patiently for us to show up. We’re just reading the map wrong; we’ll get there one day, hopefully.
In a way, actually, it kind of is that: buried in rocks and diners. But meaning isn’t asking that we search to find it. Meaning in life doesn’t work that way. It’s not an ever-elusive concept; we were not born to undertake a quest to discover the location of meaning. We construct, we build, we make meaning with every single day we have here. That’s really the key and, I think, the reason why so many people are confused or anxious or disappointed—they feel they are searching for something that simply refuses to present itself, as if we spend our lives in some sort of game of dodgeball with Meaning.
Yesterday I returned to the place where I stay in Charlotte during the school year. It’s an absolute wonderland of flowers and fruit trees, ponds, so many shades of green! So many varieties of living things, with birds and butterflies and crickets and bees flying everywhere. The owners of this magnificent place are respectful, humble, generous and playful caretakers. And gifted with vision and creativity. The gardens, when I saw them for the first time since June, brought me to tears.
It’s so quiet here that you can hear the earth breathing. There is no sound, sometimes, and sometimes you can hear a train whistle way off in the distance. It’s incredibly romantic in all the right ways. Light here seems to take on a life of its own, as if you could take it by the hand and go for a walk together.
And if all of that isn’t enough to make my heart turn all the colors of the rainbow, the three little girls who live here have bright blonde hair and are named for flowers.
Because three months probably feels like a lifetime when you’re three years old, the middle flower child wasn’t too sure who I was when she saw me yesterday afternoon. She knows me as Coco’s mom, but since Coco wasn’t with me when I arrived, she was hesitant in precisely the way a small child should be when faced with an unfamiliar adult. So I approached her quietly and carefully. I got down close to the ground, close to her, and I let her take her time coming to me, so she could find the place in her memory that might hold a story of me. I watched her figure it out. I watched how she took her fingers out of her mouth and came closer, how she looked at my face, carefully. How I grew safer and more familiar to her, until finally she reached out her hand and I reached out mine and we became known to each other. Then we walked together to the place where the cherry tomatoes are growing and picked and ate lots of them.
Next we went to visit the peach trees, and she picked so many and kept handing them to me and it was funny because I couldn’t hold them all, she was such a good picker. We ate some, too, and they were delicious. She asked me to put her on my shoulders, which I did, so happily, since I don’t have any shoulder sitters anymore. Then I pushed her on the swing until we ran out of daylight and it was time to say goodnight.
Let me tell you what all of that is: Meaning, capital M.
Meaning is not something we seek, it’s something we create.
I could very easily have arrived here yesterday, set myself up in the cottage and gotten to work on any number of projects or things I have due. I could have shooed the children away and demanded my space and peace; after all, it’s a rare bird of a day when I have time to myself. Instead I let that little hand lead me through her magic kingdom. I let her ask me her small-person questions. The wee flower child taught me, all over again, to take the time to hang out in the garden, to eat things right off the trees, to study the frogs, to befriend the world in which we live. Together we made joy.
This is meaning: to keep learning, to pay attention to how people do things, to want to know more, to be humble with our time, to keep all of our senses open. To make today a day in which I am something that I wasn’t yesterday. This is how we generate meaning in our lives.
Before I went to sleep last night I told a friend, someone I have only recently come to know, someone whose life work is completely foreign and therefore magical to me, that I’m grateful for the window into his life, where there is language and creation of which I am wholly unfamiliar. This, too, is how we create meaning as we move through this life: by allowing curiosity to drive us to new places, by being grateful when people invite us in.
Don’t go looking for it, you’ll never find it; you’ll die trying. Meaning isn’t hiding from you somewhere far away. Meaning is rooted in your humility and curiosity, your willingness to go to unfamiliar places, the degree to which you are inclined to slow down and pay attention, your ability to see the divine in everything. Meaning is in all of our tender mercies toward one another and this beautiful place we call home. Reaching out your hand isn’t just a gesture you can make with your body; it’s a way you can live your whole life, and in that posture of generosity you will find grace and meaning, in abundance.