My Plans For Life Shattered On The Floor…And I Laughed
About two years ago I read this blog post on boingboing.net explaining how an eccentric game designer created a sort of “hour glass” to represent his life. He has two glass “vessels,” with each filled partially with colored beads. Each bead represents one day of his life, with one vessel representing days that he had already lived, and the other vessel representing days that he had yet to live. The originator of the idea, Chris Crawford, had 29,216 total beads in his two vessels. Each morning, he moved one bead from his “yet to live” vessel to his “lived” vessel to help him focus on his own mortality.
I thought this was a brilliant idea, and I had to do it! I went about sourcing my glass vessels and beads. Plastic beads purchased online and two glass vases purchased at the local craft store completed my materials list. I used the life expectancy calculator at liveingto100.com to determine that I might live into my mid-90’s. I had about 34,000 plastic beads, divided into colors representing various stages in my life (high school, college, etc.). Fortunately, the beads were packed in packs of 500, so that helped to reduce the amount of manual counting necessary.
After the two vessels were constructed, I resumed counting one bead each day from the “future” vessel into the “lived” vessel. I conducted this ritual daily, and it did help me to focus on my life a bit. However, after a while I lost interest in the bead moving ritual, so I decided that I would spend some time on each of my birthdays counting out the past 365 days from one vessel into the other. This was much more convenient.
About a year ago there was a minor crisis involving my bead vessels. We had house guests for a weekend – a friend of Lisa’s and her son. We were in the foyer chatting, and I heard a strange rustling sound from the living room. I looked over to discover the 9-year boy with his hands in the vessel, mixing the various colors of layered beads vigorously! With little effort, he was scrambling the days of my lived life – mixing college, my 20’s and high school into an even consistency! There were blue beads among white and yellow! I yelled for him to stop, which upset both him and his mom. She said something like, “Well, they look like a child’s toy, so you can’t blame him.” Clearly, we don’t have kids. Fortunately, Lisa helped me to sort the colors back into their respective places that afternoon.
The vessels were refilled and placed back on the bottom shelf of the bookshelf until today. I was dusting the book shelves, and I thought, “I’m going to dust off my life beads. I mean, I should take care of them after all!” I took one of the vessels off the shelf and the books, which were being book-ended by that vessel, fell and knocked the “future vessel” off the shelf and onto the floor. The glass shattered, sending twenty-thousand beads scattering across the living room floor. “Oh fuck!” I yelled. Our pet parakeets went crazy and launched into flight. Lisa came running. “What happened?” I responded, “My beads! They’re ruined!” And then we started laughing.
What a fitting end to this experiment in creating an abstraction of my life. Inherent in the “future vessel” were plans for when I might make changes in my career, or expectations about what my life might be like at certain ages. These assumptions were based on ego-minded ideas that I have control over the direction of my life – all abstractified into two glass jars filled with plastic beads. Surveying the living room floor strewn with representations of my not-yet-lived days was a perfect way to remind me that no, it is not entirely up to me when my life will change, or especially how many days I have left to live. Reflecting now, our 9-year old guest was trying to improve my design when he mixed the beads last year. Even if we could control when we make change in our lives, those changes are not definitive. They are gradual and graded. We slowly evolve as humans, and are constantly becoming who we are.
Yet, what a wonderful success my bead vessels were. I meticulously arranged my valuable beads in these delicate, frail vessels, deciding when I would declare major life changes. In my egotism, I assumed that I would conduct this annual ritual into my old age – moving beads each year on my birthday. But that isn’t how time works. Something so delicate – like a glass vase, or a human life – is inherently frail. The moment a thing is created, or after a person reaches a certain age, chemical bonds and cells begin to break down into more basic chemical structures. Sometimes, an unexpected event can cause the thing to shatter, abruptly scattering the accumulation of meaning.
I couldn’t foresee at the time that I created my two vessels that they would teach me such a beautiful lesson, but today a living room full of 20,000 plastic beads and shards of glass taught me more about the fleeting, yet incredibly valuable, nature of life than a well-organized, intact vase of beads ever could have.