The Meaning of Life as Lived on a Bus

There is a single chair, white, with individual rails or boards on its back evoking the image of Quaker furniture, simple, direct and to the point. It is resting in a short row of almond trees. Its back is against the trunk, its face toward the sun. There are no other chairs and no evidence there ever were other chairs.

Still, it’s my chair.

I have never sat in it, my face toward the west and the sharp lines of the Sierras in the distance, but it is mine. It is an immutable reminder that alone is our true condition and that that condition is largely meaningless. 

I am not allowed to say this.

The truth comes out too harshly. Yes, there is beauty like the flock of birds which just now landed on the flat, squat pond out my window or the golden green hue of things in Spring. There is also love between us which means that I can see you and appreciate your struggle is not unlike mine. And there are times when the excitement of creation sends a rush of blood to my heart. 

It is not enduring. What remains is the noticing of life even when life itself has ended in some way. I am free also to acknowledge that nothing is truly lasting beyond the idea of it. We are born of dead stars, ideas are birthed and live beyond the life of their creators.

When my children were small I would hold their chubby bodies in my arms and feel I could walk across the planet five times. I had a sense of power and destiny. I was born for this, I would feel, kissing the tops of their heads smelling of shampoo and baby sweat. There was no me, only us.

Then pre-school and grade school crowded between us with the opinions of other children, teachers, parents and media. Our us became burdened until the chord could no longer hold, they left my arms one normal day on top of another-school, recess, cartoons and finally a home of their own. The chord stretched and broke.

Us ended.

Did it ever really exist? I don’t know. I suspect my children were never mine but always, instead, belonged to themselves.

My daughter is speaking, her hands gesture with long fingers fluttering as her green eyes focus briefly upon me. All else falls away. “I love her” circles back through me and I want to carry her in my arms again. I see this, feel this and then it is gone. She has errands to run, adult business to conduct.

The short time of us, for the lovely delusion of meaning and importance re-appears and vanishes.

Conversations filter around me. They are mostly false.

A man is behind me on the bus. He is asking someone if they have vacuumed and bought a coat. He is discussing his trip on this bus to take to a place where he’ll buy a new car he will drive back to wherever he is from. The person he is talking to does not really care, they are asking no questions as he drones on. He does not really care either repeating himself often about strings of nothing, “I should have wrapped my ass in bubble wrap”, “Yea I’m sitting her three or four hours at a time”. He mumbles loudly on his cell phone and ends most sentences with the word “shit”. I have no idea why. But then, who does? Certainly not he.

This is most of life. It is too long.

There is only so much distraction, curiosity, pseudo reality to keep occupied.

I am on this bus for those reasons. I took a ride to San Francisco with someone, a friend  I suppose, but preferred sleeping in a bus station and turning a five hour drive into a sixteen hour grind just to avoid hearing him speak a second time around. On the way down his chatter was equally inane as it was incessant. He washed his words over me so encumbered by hateful judgments toward all people, living and dead, that he suffocated me. The thought of returning to that sound was more than I could bear. I made no excuses. Perhaps it is a stinginess, a lack of personal generosity that prevented me listening to him, but I could not. I could not be generous in that way. Not again. Not another minute.


A mother emerges with her young daughter at another one of the endless stops through dusty California towns in the middle of nut groves and littered with gas stations and “food marts”.

She stands outside the bus smoking while her child in dirty diapers, too tight shoes and so beleaguered her small arms hang limply to her side, shuffles in tiny steps from side to side behind her mother. She does not reach up and in fact bats her mother’s hand away as the woman tries to absently stroke her small head which hovers below her free hand.

The little girl is not yet two and already tired of the life she has with this woman assigned to be her mom. Why does this child have the smoking, absent mom who is not making even rudimentary efforts for her welfare when right now there is another girl, her same age, propped in a comfy car seat in the back of her smiling mother’s Mercedes mini van surrounded by air conditioning and Brahms as she slides up the highway with a full stomach and an unquestioning mind?

There is no answer to the question. There is only the slow crawl of time and more questions in the too long life of that girl, should she make it to adulthood. She will ask it forever but it will go unanswered like so many of our questions.

It is neither wrong nor right, good nor evil. It simply is…suffering. She may curse God or whatever powers she perceives as running the life she doesn’t want but it makes no difference.

She will suffer because it cannot be avoided. Even the girl in the back of the Mercedes will suffer. She will lose her smiling mom to cancer, her dad will take to the bottle..something will happen. She, too, will ascribe meaning that isn’t there so that she may satisfy her longing for answers and continue breathing. We are taught that we must continue on. Quitting is a great sin. She will not engage that kind of sin.

An old man is getting on the bus. He has Parkinson’s disease. He is shaking and trembling as he grips a copper colored cane. He woke up one morning and noticed his hand was trembling while he drank his first cup of coffee. He supposed he was not yet fully awake on that morning until he noticed it stayed with him, a shadow, a possible sign of things to come that could not be stopped. Now it has spread to his whole body. It is not reversible any more than it’s his fault. Depending on how the disease assaults him with force and rapidity this may be the last trip he can take on his own. He relishes his steps up to the driver and on to his seat behind me.

A young autistic man tumbles out of a concrete shack next to the Greyhound bus depot. He stares at the bus, approaches the door then paces in a circle appearing to be silently counting something on his fingers. He keeps looking, pacing and circling as a monk dressed in brown with a large orange cloth bag stands looking out from the sunken wooden porch of the depot.

The monk has no expression, the young man seems anxious and they are unrelated to each other except for the proximity of the moment. The bus pulls away and both remain behind. Perhaps one day the autistic man will get on the bus.

He lives in nowhere. Eventually the bus arrives somewhere. Is that what he is looking for as he counts out his stiff steps in a plaid dress shirt and loose ladies jeans hiked up a few inches higher than most.

The monk is waiting for something or someone. He can wait all day. He has patience.

The Zen Buddhists outside the tidy meditation hall sweeping sidewalks in a snowstorm taught me during my brief stay there a few years back that the only way around suffering is to know there is no way around it. Brace for it, accept it, know it will not last. They said that the cause of suffering is wanting something you do not have or fearing something that has not happened. It’s all about the theoretical that makes us suffer. Sweep the snow off the sidewalk. It is about the sweeping not keeping the sidewalk clear.

The snow will return. The sidewalk will need sweeping.

As the thought emerges in the folds of memory the blush of life burns on my tongue. Sun briefly warms me through the window. Nothing hurts. Existence amplifies itself. The moment speaks itself to me and I am here. Alive.

It is meaning in the second of satisfaction. The intellect drops away and the heart takes over. Breath circulates. Meaning is not created. Nothing is created. It was never born. Life is being lived in me, through me. It is eternal although I am not.

The sky is an early Spring blue of powders and darker hues. It has clouds curling upon themselves and under the groves there are small, soggy paths going to a sort of nowhere that looks like it may be populated by gnomes and elfin fairies who flutter on wildflowers and dance with butterflies. There is a rattle to the bus beneath me that is constant and comforting. Cows take refuge under a tree not yet in bloom and fatigue is settled in me making everything more poignant but less real. Imagination is pulling me off to the watery places of my youth where I huddle with spiders on glistening webs and caterpillars resting on damp rocks with moss beneath their furry feet.

There is a chair with a rail back sitting under an almond tree facing the west. There is a beautiful bareness and it has a ring of reality to it.

It is a chair of reason without any reasons. It has left such things behind.


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