In October, a formidable woman with dark, wavy tresses and black square-framed glasses asked me and a roomful of then-strangers to imagine that we were tasting honey as she slowly purred, “This…is what time tastes like.”
She went on to talk about the endangerment of honeybees and how, with all likelihood, there would be a generation in the near future that would be the first not to know what honey tastes like. Chris Desser shared many such experiences with us as she explained her project, A Catalog of Extinct Experiences (http://extinctexperiences.weebly.com/index.html) during the Invoking the Pause retreat that I came home to after I returned from Civita.
I thought of that phrase “extinct experiences,” as I left Gary Manuel today, running my hand up the back of my newly shorn hair, pulling my fingers through the long tendrils fragranced with pomade. As I did this, a bald man passed me on First Avenue, shielding himself against the howling mist. As I walked on, I thought, He’ll never again physically feel the delight that the rest of us experience after a haircut.
The feeling of a fresh trim seems small, perhaps not tragic to lose, but it sparked the question of what kinds of experiences—and how many—are endangered or become extinct in a person’s life. Some experiences, like a sunny day, have been felt for thousands of years, and will likely continue to be felt by humans for thousands more. A person’s name or reputation may live on for just as long—Jesus Christ, King Tutankhamun, Madonna—but the lives of those who knew these famous figures only go on for decades.
In some cases, geography and lifestyle force certain experiences into extinction. I know that, outside of Italy, the opportunity to taste real burrata, an Italian cheese made of mozzarella and cream, is endangered. Many people will never taste it. And there ain’t nothing like homemade tortilla chips and salsa from the walk-up window at LBJ (El Burrito Junior) in Redondo Beach, California. It is my hope that someone in the world will always know how to make burrata, and that more people will have the opportunity to travel to Italy to taste it; there is no guarantee that the folks who run LBJ will be there forever, or pass anything down to anyone when they die…or lose their lease.
Thinking back to Civita, I arrived knowing that that my experience was endangered—and that knowledge allowed me to throw myself boundlessly into the adventure. I believe that my foreknowledge of that preciousness is what made my adventure so meaningful; while I was there, I often compared the sensation of moments passing to dripping honey—long, sweet, thick. I savored every second.
Yet, from a certain point of view, every experience is endangered and therefore dear, and all will become extinct—eventually.
What experiences are endangered or extinct? There are countless in even a single day. A popular song that you’ll never hear on the radio after its ratings fall. Places in which we live or work when we trade up for different digs. Friendships. A bottle of Chateau Margaux’s grand vin, vintage 1985. Perfect eyesight. The first time you kiss someone—or the last.
Each has a unique worth, a weight all its own; the first of discovery and excitement, a wondering of how many times that you’ll get to do it again, and the last as a siren song—the culmination of every experience before it wrapped into one amalgamation of sensory memory.
Yet, while memories can evoke pleasure, they are nothing compared to tactile experience itself.
When sharing my latest news with Dan, my stylist, I realized that today is the last day in my life that I’ll anticipate what it will feel like to write a book. Despite all of the emotional wrestling I’ve felt since age six when I knew that I wanted to be a writer, there was also sweetness in the anticipation of how it would come to pass. After giving up on trying to write fiction in my 20s, I believed the possibility to write a book had already become extinct. Several years later, I recognized how much I loved writing from life.
Tomorrow, after the file is uploaded to Amazon, the driving endeavor of the past year—the past 30 years, actually—is over. I will wait on pins and needles to receive that first copy to check for color correctness, but I will never again be able to wonder if or when I will write a book someday.
As I luxuriate in these final hours of not knowing—long and delicious—I am beginning to see that the only thing sweeter than relishing precious moments of endangered experiences is dreaming up the new ones that will replace them.