The other night, in the middle of the night, I decided not to think about death anymore. When you get into your eighties, it’s a subject that naturally comes up. Things go wrong here and there in the body. You’ll see. If you let them, the night thoughts will turn morbid. The trick is not to let them.
Early in December, we were driving home from a perfect evening in New York—excellent dinner, Manhattan seeming, for a moment, pretty much like its old self, all Christmas-y in the crystal December night. Coming home, we were on the Taconic, way upstate, going about sixty, when an enormous buck flew out of the darkness from the left and—now everything happens in slow-motion—the car’s side mirror sails off in pieces, and across the windshield in front of us, from left to right, so vividly we can almost count the points (which are many) of its antlers and, as it passes, can make out the individual hairs of its pelt, the big deer silently zooms and disappears into the dark behind us.
We are shaken, but we plow on, ten minutes to home, with the badly dented front end scraping the left front tire; but the headlights and the motor are all right and we make it and get out saying, thank God—we could have been killed. Or something.
I don’t know if the buck survived. Our old station wagon did not—the insurance company pronounced it a total loss (a melodramatic way of saying it wasn’t quite worth repairing). The deer in our part of the world practice stochastic terrorism. This is the second car we have lost to one of their strikes. My nice old Audi sedan was similarly a total loss when, just at dusk, a fat doe hit it on the driver’s side and popped the airbags. It happened on the county route, just in front of the post office. The doe lay down, stunned, on the asphalt for a moment and then, collecting herself, bounded off into the pines.
My younger son not long ago was talking about the great asteroid out in space somewhere, that has the earth’s name on it and will, when it hits (100 years, 400 years, 1,000 years from now) bring on another ice age. Was the Star of Bethlehem an asteroid? Opinions differ. Google doesn’t know. I suppose that each life, big or small, is an asteroid or a meteorite or some such object. That big asteroid may be regarded as a cosmic buck.
Trotsky liked to say that things happening around him in the world were “unforeseen but not accidental.” (A wagging of the Marxist eyebrows here, with a hint of the sophomore who tells you solemnly that “God” is “dog” spelled backwards.) You may decide the universe works 1) on “not accidental” principles, or 2) on dynamics of the stochastic—meaning, the random. I have been beguiled now and then by the fact that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day: February 12, 1809. Coincidence? Events mystically compensatory? Darwin shook Christianity to its foundations. Lincoln meant that the United States would survive.
There is more, if you’re in the mood: On January 19, 1809, about three weeks before Darwin and Lincoln came into the world, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (proto-anarchist, famous for writing, “Property is theft”) was born to a peasant family in Besancon, France. He began his working life herding cows. Proudhon adopted a stochastic view of the universe. He wrote: “The fecundity of the unexpected far exceeds the prudence of statesmen.” What exactly did he portend? His diaries disclosed, among other things, a ferocious hatred of Jews and women. He once proposed to write an article calling for “the expulsion of the Jews from France . . . The Jew is the enemy of the human race. This race must be sent back to Asia or exterminated.”
Catastrophes come upon the world in different ways, in different forms—Holodomor, Holocaust, for example. Asteroids that emerge from ideology, or as may be, from some well of evil in human nature.
For a man who said he wasn’t going to think about death anymore, I seem to be morbid enough. Why, on Christmas Eve, would I remember Proudhon, prince of bitterness, who should have stuck to herding cows?
In the stochastic world of the twenty-first century, with its sometimes-horrible surprises (mass shootings, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—a variation, you might say, on Stalin’s Holodomor in Ukraine of 1932–33), we still, despite all, console ourselves with the accustomed and predictable calendar—the coming of winter and with it, of Christmas, and, if we are lucky (though aged), still are given courage by its meaning: Hope, the secret of everything. The mystery of grace.
One time, I adopted a goldfinch for a couple of hours. I held the bird in my palms, keeping it warm and out of trouble while it recovered from having been stunned by flying abruptly into the underside of my car when I was rolling along a road on our farm. The bird had been sitting on the road with his flock and had been not quick enough to fly clear with the rest of the birds. I stopped the car and walked back and picked up the bird and called it Oliver, for no particular reason—held it in my cupped hands for a long time, until it recovered and stirred. I felt its feathers struggle back to life. When it did, I opened my hands and, in a little flurry of gold, Oliver flew away.