Written on the Body #42: September 6, 2021, The Meaning of Life

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (the date varies on the regular calendar, but is always on the first day of Tishri, the seventh month in the Jewish calendar — almost always in September or early October. Ten days from now is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and these ten days are traditionally called The Days of Awe: a time for reflection on the past year, the changes we need to make to turn toward a better life; a time for taking responsibility for our lives, for forgiving others and forgiving ourselves. And also a time for hope — hope for health, for happiness, for peace, for sweetness — for ourselves, our loved ones, our community, and the world. We make honey cakes and eat apples dipped in honey.

Surely a good time to think about “the meaning of life.” It is — but this column was also prompted by a dream I had a few weeks ago (during the month of Elul, when people prepare for Rosh Hashanah, doing a kind of spiritual/emotional house-cleaning). Like many people, I have been having vivid and strange dreams during the pandemic, elaborate stories that disappear into the mist when I wake up. Sometimes a few details are left — a frog chasing a smaller frog, moving to a new house, feeding someone’s dog, meetings with people I haven’t seen for years. Some people think these dreams are prompted by the cutting back of our activities during the pandemic, so our minds provide extra excitement while we sleep.

In one particular dream, I was going on a camping trip and specifically chose campsite #42: a detail I remembered when I woke up. When I mentioned this to Roger, he immediately replied that 42 was the number for “the meaning of life” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, which I have heard of but have never read. It is also the title of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, a film, which I didn’t see when it was first released in 1983 but which we watched recently on tv. This felt important: an existential question. The pandemic and other world events, have made these questions loom large, in the undercurrents of our minds if not in the forefront. And my dealing with cancer has heightened my awareness of “the meaning of life,” casting light and shadows on the minutiae of everyday activities. Not that I think about it all the time — but it certainly made sense to dream about it. And, in dream-language, to connect with the number “42,” even though, consciously, I was not aware of the connection.

But what is special about 42? (which is, not so coincidentally, the number of this blog post). Did Adams choose it at random, or was there a reason? I looked up the number on google and found it has many mathermatical complexities, most of which are beyond my understanding (look it up, you’ll see what I mean.) But one interesting thing is that it has many factors, including even and odd numbers (2, 3, 6, 7, 14, as well as 1 and 42), and 4 prime numbers (1, 2, 3, 7). Also, looking at the number, 4+2=6 and 4×2=8, with 7 (often seen as a mystical number) in the middle. And apparently it is the angle, rounded to whole degrees, at which light from a rainbow appears most intensely (the critical angle).

In Egyptian mythology, notably The Book of the Dead, it turns out to be the number of questions asked of a person making the journey through death (42 “negative confessions.”). If the person answers reasonably well, she or he can go on to reincarnation; if completely successful, she can go on to become a star, giving light and creative energy to the universe (a comforting thought, and linked to the idea that we are all made of elements of “stardust.”). I haven’t found out what the questions are, but have thought of doing some writing about this. And in Jewish Kabbalistic tradition (mysticism based on numberology), 42 is the number with which God creates the universe. There are more examples. Howerver, in Japanese culture, 42 is considered unlucky because the numerals when pronounced separately—shi ni (four two)—sound like the word “dying.”

To return to the present, with the concerns about the climate crisis, social and economic justice (including justice for woman and people of all genders), the question of the meaning of life is vital — as it has been in many other criticial times. Sorry to say — this blog is NOT going to tell you this meaning. Mainly because I don’t know the answer — and my answer is probably not the same as yours, though there may be similarities. I think that perhaps there is no one answer, and the search is not a treasure hunt — like finding the “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow. And it is not a secret code, to be deciphered by experts. Rather, I think that we make the meaning of our lives as we go along; human beings are “meaning-makers.” (The origin of the word “meaning” is related to the word for “mind.”) The quest is a continuing and ongoing process: as Ursula K. LeGuin says about love, “it doesn’t sit there like a stone./We need to make it every day, fresh, like bread.” Perhaps, indeed, love and the meaning of life are connected, interwoven. Love (of many kinds, including for life and the world itself) gives meaning to our lives, and our search for meaning can deepen and expand our love.

Warmest wishes to all of you for a healthy, happy, sweet, and creative year ahead.

honey cake with apples, baked by Ellen: baking gives me a warm connection to my mother, and to my great-grandmother, who taaught my mother to bake. August 31 is the anniversary (yahrzeit) of the death of my mother, Viola, in 2009. Her memory is, and may it remain, a blessing. And the same for my father, Harry, and my aunt Jackie (Viola’s sister), who each died on August 10, 1993 and 2010 respectively. Both my maternal grandparents, Rose and Lou, and my parents married in August, too — so it is a month rich with family memories — some bitter, most sweet as honey cake.

About Ellen

I am a member of The Writers Union of Canada, the League of Canadian Poets, and CANSCAIP. I have received grants from the Ontario Arts Council for both writing and teaching. I currently work with Learning Through the Arts and Living through the Arts, programmes run by the Royal Conservatory of Music that enable artists to work in schools and community organizations. I have also taught in many other school and community programs, and have been a judge for various writing contests for both young people and adults.
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