In Philipp Pullman’s vision of the afterlife, all human souls go to the underworld: a chilly place guarded by mean harpies who see every malicious twist within each soul, love to torture people, and are sensitive to lies. Those mistresses of the underworld have only one weakness: they have no idea of what being alive is like. So if you tell a truthful, honest, felt-through story of your life up here, they will listen to you, wide-eyed, and then they will let you go.
And do you know whose stories these immortal beasts love to listen most? Italian grandmas.
Yep. It’s not the story of a scientist deciphering the age of the universe, of a politician deciding the destiny of entire nations or of a successful entrepreneur that hook them the most: it’s the preparation of pesto sauce.
They want to hear it all, right from the midday when you collect the bunches of basil, warm under the sun and wash the tender leaves feeling how the scent of the plant, subtle at first, surrounds you like a cloud. How you grind them in a century-old stone bowl with rough grains of sea salt, by hand— because extracting the precious essence of basil can be trusted to no machine. And how your hands start to hurt, and the smell becomes intoxicating. Then comes the oil, the cheese, the pine nuts, and your blissful break on a shaded terrace, holding an aromatic dish.
If you ever find yourself in front of those harpies, you are free to use this as an opener.
When you are released from your earthly duties to unite with the Universe, don’t try to surprise it with your elaborate thoughts on the meaning of life. But if you really want the stars to listen, tell it about the pins and needles that seem to pierce your leg when you’ve sat on it for too long. Or better yet, tell them about scratching a mosquito bite. What a celestial body would ever know how it feels to scratch a mosquito bite?
When you meet the angels, don’t talk with them about ideals, equality, or justice. Tell them how taking a shit feels like. Hold their white clothes if they turn away, tell them how hard it was to defeat a devil when he comes in the shape of a pink-blue frosting of a doughnut, winking at you through the window at 3 a.m.
Tell them of muscles that ache, of bones that break, of the air so old that it burns lungs from the inside, of the smell of gasoline, and of a newborn baby’s hair; how the hands grow bigger and clumsier with age; how the skin breaks and regrows, but keeps the signs.
Tell the all-knowing Cosmic Consciousness what a new book smells like. How the back cracks when you open it for the first time, and how the crispy the pages are.
Tell the Matrix of all the times you got disconnected from the Matrix: of the way your body twitches when you fall asleep sometimes, misinterpreting it as falling down.
Tell the eternal harmony of celestial voices about the sensation of sneezing. And that treacherous nature of a sneeze that can come, interrupt you in the middle of a speech, a thought, a makeout session, or declaring war with the neighboring country — and then just simply fade away.
Made of mud, fueled by blood, controlled by selfish genetic spirals, you stand here, discussing ideals, philosophies, and creeds, fighting for what’s right and what’s wrong, solving the mysteries of the world, pondering tirelessly what’s the greater meaning behind all of this. You, an ape attuned to harmonies and perfection. This is impressive.
But maybe, just maybe, in your search for greater meanings, you are missing the point. Maybe it’s not the big things or high-level concepts that make your journey special, but those tiny, imperfect, carnal, random, ridiculous traits of a lived reality of a human being. Fleeting, insignificant, and life-altering, like butterfly’s wings. Maybe this is what you should pay attention to.
So, tell me, really, how was that pesto? Or any last thing that you ate?