illustration by Brianna AshbyI work for a small natural history museum owned by a large university. On October sixteenth—National Fossil Day—my coworkers and I were called into an emergency meeting in the director’s office. Our paleontologist was in the middle of identifying a fossilized camel tooth when she was ordered in. Ashen-faced, the director told us that the Dean’s Office was cutting our funding. Most of us would be laid off in ten months’ time. Tears flowed. Our IT administrator had been with the museum for over forty years, the gift shop manager for twenty. As the baby of the office, I had been there only five years, but had thirty-five more hanging like a promise in my head. And in one afternoon, that promise was gone, leaving only a gaping hole where my future used to be.
I couldn’t look at that hole without bawling for a good week or so. Since then, I have found ways to keep myself from noticing it. Applying for jobs. Watching old episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Running until I can barely breathe. Drinking. And working, of course—there are still many things to be done. Xerox bills to pay, phone calls to answer, spreadsheets to tweak. Ten months is a long time, though when I risk a glance at that hole on the other side, I know it’s really not that much time at all.
In All is Lost, Our Man (Robert Redford) wakes to a hole punched in his sailboat by a shipping container filled with children’s shoes. Seawater sloshes into his tidy cabin, instantly ruining his laptop and radio. If I was in that boat, I would freak the fuck out. Fuck you, Nike, for making so many shoes! Fuck you, kids, for having feet! And fuck you, too, ocean! What the fuck am I going to do now?! But Our Man does not panic. Instead, he assesses the hole. He calmly ascends the stairs to the deck.
He stabilizes the container with a sea anchor. He carefully steers the boat so that the punctured side rides high above the waves. He moves slowly as he steps onto the container to retrieve the anchor, for Our Man is an old man. His weariness is apparent as he manually operates the bilge pump, but he keeps at it, steady and patient. Once that job is done, he must move on to patching the hole, which he does with the same unhurried skill. He never says a word. All is Lost portrays all of this in near real time and we’re soon reminded just how rare it is for a film to take this kind of time, to grant so much space to watching someone complete a series of tasks. Though Our Man’s plight is uncertain, director J.C. Chandor’s patience allows each scene to feel like a long, cleansing breath.
Even rarer, perhaps, is getting the chance to watch someone competent. In most other “lost at sea” films, the protagonist is a stranger to the sea. It’s easy for me to identify withCastaway’s Chuck Noland, a middle manager who finds himself stranded on a desert island with no one but a volleyball for company. In Life of Pi, my heart ached for Pi Patel as he suffered under the sun’s unrelenting glare. A gentle son of a zookeeper didn’t deserve that fate. Where those characters scream and flail, though, Our Man is silent and sure. He is in his element, and to watch him confront each challenge as it comes is to feel strangely comforted. It reminded me of the time I watched my father pull a fish hook out of his thumb. I was six, and I stared in awe as he brought the same triage skills he used on car wreck victims to his own hand. Without so much as a whimper, he pulled the hook out with pliers, soaked his thumb in alcohol, and said to my mother, “Please bring me some Tylenol.” Watching him made me feel safe. If I was ever in trouble, this guy had my back.
Our Man allows himself a moment of contentment once his boat is patched. His brow softens as he sits at the helm, watching a fiery sun set over the vastness of the Indian Ocean. The leak, in destroying his electronics, has left him well and truly on his own, yet he is largely unperturbed by this dangerous fact. I can understand accepting such risks. In my experience, no good hiking trip is without a hint of danger. Getting lost, being bitten by tropical parasites, nearly stepping on a cottonmouth—these all made for great stories once I returned home, though they were harrowing at the time I was experiencing them. Perhaps Our Man feels the same way. In the end, everything will be all right. It will make for a good story.
But the moment passes. The only thing left to do is to eat dinner and contemplate the hole. It is crudely covered with epoxy and cloth, and it gapes at him like a wounded, bandaged eye. Thunder rumbles in the distance. Our Man averts his eyes from the hole’s baleful gaze. He fills a glass with whiskey.
On my thirty-second birthday, my father called me.
“Ah, thirty-two,” he sighed, his voice a rueful rasp in my ear. “That’s when my body started falling apart.”
I’m thirty-three now, and the slow dissolve is underway. When I first started my job at the museum, fellow riders on the commuter bus would look at me and my backpack and ask, “What’s your major?” They don’t ask that anymore, though I still carry the exact same backpack. Nights I once slept dreamlessly through now haunt me with insomnia, and the pizza I used to consume regularly as an undergraduate now only leaves me sick with heartburn. Drinking three glasses of wine was once the beginning of a party. I can’t drink now without guilt, as even one leads to a morning of headaches and a burning sensation in my bladder. My neck protests against its daily duty—holding my head in front of a computer screen for eight hours at a time—with pain and nausea. Not long ago, my right elbow grew so sore from mousing that I taught myself to use it with my left hand. Now my left elbow is starting to ache.
I attend to these loosening ends as best I can. I lift weights. I drink a lot more water than I used to. I eat kale and melatonin and antacids. I should probably moisturize. But every time I try to batten down one of these figurative hatches, something else seems to come apart. And I’m still young, relatively speaking. I am lucky enough that diet and habits work, for now. Others are not so lucky. Five years ago, I met a new friend over a plate of gooey cheese fries. Three beers later, she spontaneously invited me to an S&M party. Now, she is crippled with a metastasizing list of chronic pain issues. First it was interstitial cystitis, the same bladder problem I have, except that hers is so bad she has to wear ice packs in her underwear. Then she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which cramps her mousing shoulder into agonizing knots. Then came endometriosis. Pain pills don’t work. She no longer dreams of having children. She’s often too nauseated to eat. She’s thirty-five.
Though several degrees of suffering separate us, we both look with growing dread upon the coming years. Our baselines have shifted; the lives we once led before these changes have now been given up as lost. We look to our bodies and ask, “What next?”
A storm approaches Our Man in the night. His struggle to ready his craft for the coming violence is valiant, and in vain. He retreats below the deck to wait it out. What happens next is terrifying. All we see is Our Man in his cabin. We are left to imagine the terrible waves and winds that turn his tiny, fragile world upside-down. He tumbles amongst his things, which fly like the white plastic motes in a snow globe. It is a miracle he survives with only a minor gash on his forehead.
The sun rises upon disaster. The mast is gone. Water floods the cabin. Redford has always been a subtle actor, and All is Lost is his master class in the quiet reveal. Every expression and movement conveys Our Man’s thoughts as clearly as any spoken word, so clearly that I often failed to notice the film’s lack of dialogue. The foremost thought that directs his weathered hands is “What next?” He must abandon ship, or perish. He salvages what supplies he can and tucks them all into a rubber orange life raft. Chandor’s choice not to give Our Man any sort of backstory gives the viewer’s imagination room to roam, and mine soon wondered over the items he chooses to save.
Chief among them is an old-fashioned sextant, kept in a water-tight box that appears to have never been opened; it is so pristine. It is paired with a book on navigation—its spine similarly uncracked—as well as some maps. Our Man, being a practical gent, kept these items as backup in case he ever lost GPS contact, though he’d never used them. I like to think the items were a present from a well-meaning daughter or a wife, determined to give the man who so rarely voices his wants something he can use. Maybe her name was Virginia Jean. Maybe he named his boat after her.
He settles in to watch the Virginia Jean sink. He has lost so much, he is in danger of dying of thirst or exposure, and yet he perseveres. He keeps trying. He unfolds his glasses and begins reading the book. Though he can’t steer the raft like he could the sailboat, he at least wants to know where he’s drifting. He has nothing but time to learn.
He soon discovers, however, that he has no time at all.
Once upon a time, the Buddha stood on a mountaintop and told 1,000 monks that everything is on fire. This sermon, unsurprisingly, is called “The Fire Sutra”. And if you’re the kind of Old Joy stoner-philosopher who likes to (mis)use the language of quantum mechanics to describe the mysteries of existence, then yeah, ever since the Big Bang, literally everything has been on fire. But that’s not what the Buddha meant:
Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye—experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain—that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.
In other words, absolutely everything we perceive is on fire with our desire to have things the way we want them to be. I love flying to see my parents in Hawai’i every Christmas so much, I wish I could do it every day. Many Native Hawaiians hate that they have to live in crappy apartments while time-shared condos owned by rich folks stand empty and unused. No one wants to acknowledge just how much climate change is going to affect everything. The world is constantly punching holes in our lives, and regardless of whether we ignore them or stare them down, we burn. We want things to be different.
The biggest hole of all is the fact that our lives will end. I spend hours in a meditation hall every week trying to come to terms with that damned hole. Sometimes, I grow numb with despair. What’s the point of riding the bus, recycling, picking up the trash left by rude middle school kids on a museum field trip? If it’s all going to end, why bother?
The answer to that question, as best I can fathom it, is a non-answer: “Chop wood, carry water,” that old Zen adage, as banal as a bad joke. Or “Just keep swimming,” a similarly goofy bit of advice from Finding Nemo’s Dory. The point is in the trying. Here is the fine line between working to distraction, and simply working. I can keep busy in order to numb myself to the hole in my life, pretending it isn’t there, or I can do what needs to be done. I work, I live, and I am mindful of the hole.
And when it comes to it, I can, like Our Man, step through it.
Gray Hendryx is a writer on the move between West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Peru. Next year, she’ll end up in Pittsburgh with her beloved husband and chihuahua. You can follow along with her travels at Material Spiritualist.