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Our Life’s Purpose

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By Priscilla Long


 

What are we here for? What’s our purpose in life, yours and mine? Or, as Louis Filler, my old history professor at Antioch College, used to challenge us, What are you good for? On some days I’m good for nothing more than keeping house—raking leaves and dusting the living room. Many of us are here to raise children, and I can’t think of anything more important. Perhaps we are here to find out, through work and love, why we are here. My own purpose in life, I often think, is to make art—in my case, poetry. Or at least to give it my best try. To paraphrase the writer Frank Conroy on his purpose, I just want to be part of literature.

But wait. There’s another reason for why we are here. Living in my eyelashes are several thousand of the world’s smallest arthropods—you know, those exoskeleton types like lobsters, crabs, insects, and spiders. Stiff outer shells and jointed limbs. These microscopic mites, Demodex folliculorum, inhabit the eyelashes (as well as the eyebrows, scalps, and cheeks) of nearly everyone on earth. They are—like spiders—arachnids, with eight legs. They don’t bother anyone, except rarely, on rare individuals, when they multiply to the point of infestation. They live in our hair follicles, that is, in the pores from which hair grows. They also live in face pores. Some think they are a cause of hair loss, but many people with no hair loss host this mite, which lives head down in the follicle and feeds on dead skin and skin secretions.

How gross. And here is my life being put to a purpose I did not vote on. Okay. I know I’m part of nature. I know I don’t get to decide on everything, or even anything.

But wait. There’s more. Where there is life there is sex. (This is not entirely true, but never mind.) At night the mighty male mites come out of their home pores and crawl about on the face looking for females to mate with. The females—well. They are game. They emerge willy-nilly for the tryst and then return to their home hair follicles to lay their eggs. Nice.

At least I’m good for something.

Priscilla Long is the author of The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life and Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry. Her essay “Genome Tome,” which appeared in our Summer 2005 issue, won the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing.


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