Quetzals, Ecclesiastes, and Slinky Dresses (OR: Date Night Photos)

Quetzals, Ecclesiastes, and Slinky Dresses (OR: Date Night Photos)

“Tell me what you’ve been thinking about lately,” I said to my husband.

(This is—a friend pointed out to me recently—a classic Jen HW question. I like to hear people’s deep thoughts: what they’re wrestling with, who and what they love, what they’ve always wanted to do with their lives. You’d be amazed how deep you can go with party small-talk if you add a few extra degrees of How so? Why?)

So Rob (husband) and I were out on a date…

and I asked him this question—”What have you been thinking about lately?”—and he surprised me. Which still happens once in a while, after all these years.

“Pretty often,” he said, “I think about the meaninglessness of everything.”

I started laughing. Which I know sounds cold of me, but this wasn’t a sign of bleak despair; he’s just an Ecclesiastes kind of guy, philosophically speaking: “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?” Or, in another translation, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity…”

This meaninglessness thing is also funny because Rob is forever doing humbly generous and meaningful things for the people around him.

“People build all this stuff,” he said, gesturing at the gaudy vaulted ceiling of this restaurant, “to build themselves up, or make themselves look good or whatever, but none of it’s going to matter in a couple hundred years. And even the things we do for our kids—okay, that feels more meaningful, but in a hundred years, we’ll be gone too, and no one will remember that either.”

I’d known this was his basic philosophy, but not that he reflected on it regularly.

“Does something have to last forever to be meaningful?” I said. So we started talking about what confers meaning. Is meaning tied to cosmic purpose, or goodness, or permanence? Does existence require a grand Designer to be meaningful? Does something have to impact the lives of many people to be meaningful? Does it have to be large? What do we mean by meaning?

• • •

This is a picture Rob took of me that evening.

Date night is a weekly ritual for us. We have two boys, age 3 and 7, and Rob and I take shameless advantage of our parents’ babysitting and try to go out for a date once a week. I don’t remember when photos became part of this ritual, but I love getting dressed up, and at some point in the evening he usually takes a picture of me—which he often posts on Facebook—which sounds shallow and lasciviously exhibitionist—and maybe it is, a little; but it’s also playful and fun and it’s our thing.

Date night photos are the epitome of ephemeral vanities,
right? (Maybe surpassed only by selfies.) Of course this tradition plays to my vanity. (Which is, honestly, a lovely feeling when you spend much of your time with two small boys who wipe maple syrup and snot on you.)  Not just vain but ephemeral: Each of these photos is also a fleeting thing. (Yes, I suppose it lives forever in that nothing dies on the internet, but it’s a wisp of electrons, and really the internet won’t live forever, either.)

Date night photos also have no redeeming social purpose—unless you count the fact that friends sometimes confess to me that these pictures of us looking happy also make them happy. They like that we have been married 12 years (and together 22 years—yes, since junior high) and we still are fond of each other. I wish I could put a disclaimer on these photos: We don’t have the flawless storybook marriage these photos might seem to imply. Who does? But it’s true we remain best friends and still make dirty jokes together and love each other deeply and love these dates.

All this just to say: there’s no lofty purpose to these photos. They’re not, like, eradicating the Zika virus. There’s nothing virtuous about them.

Therefore. Vain, ephemeral, no greater social value: meaningless, yes?

I suspect the picture is maybe a container for meaning.

When my husband takes these pictures, I know he still likes to look at me. (Spouses: I recommend you try this for your lady.)

When I get dressed up, he knows I still like him to look at me.

This is important especially on the nights when we are frayed at the edges and annoyed with each other.

We could just as well keep it private, but honestly, I like that he likes to share. Feeling beautiful is still a pleasant novelty for me. The circumstances of my adolescence put me through the wringer, and it took a long time before I felt at home in myself. When my husband takes a picture of me, I feel like an ugly-duckling-turned-quetzal. I’m the weirdo I always was, but maybe an occasionally lovely one.

This is why I also love telling other women, total strangers, that they look beautiful. It always surprises them. They glow. I don’t have a good philosophical argument for why observing the beauty of a thing (or moment or person) is meaningful; but I believe it in my bones. (For a wonderful poem that meditates on this, see Galway Kinnell’s “St. Francis and the Sow,” one of my favorites.)

I wonder how many things we dismiss as “meaningless” because they’re not curing cancer, or nobody will remember them in a century, or they’ll never make the hagiography if we someday finagle sainthood.

Blessed frivolity, like the days I surprise my kids with ice cream. And yes, we can’t live on ice cream alone;  C.S. Lewis claimed our desires were not too strong for God, but too weak, that we are “fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us.” And generally I agree (and professionally I’m supposed to agree because I deliver the occasional sermon); but I get tired of striving for eternal enlightenment and depth (and good behavior) all the time. Sometimes I just want a Founder’s Dirty Bastard and a night in a clingy dress.

I wonder if these desires—for the holy, for the occasional indulgence of vanity—are really so at odds; or if in fact, at times, I have strained so hard toward squelching my little vices that in my efforts, I’ve missed the infinite joy entirely.  

The lavish little mercy of slipping ice cream to vanity once in a while: I feel grateful it’s been done for me. What a pleasure to do it for others, too.

This is what I’ve been thinking about lately.

We had a good talk, Rob and me. He took some more pictures. I took some of him, too. 😉


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