Every evening the big orange sun sank behind the jungle, shadows fell across the ruins of what had once been the most majestic city on Earth, and the steady high-pitched wail of the jungle insects filled the sweet humid air.
One night, as I rode my bicycle along the dirt road from the jungle-choked ruins of Angkor, back to the town of Siem Reap, I turned off into a rice paddy to record the incessant rise and fall of the wailing insects. A Khmer flute began to play in the distance.
It was hauntingly fitting.
I had spent the previous few years living in the house of my girlfriend’s older sister – a young mother – who had terminal cancer. She was a gentle, kind-spirited woman with the sort of irrepressibly infectious charm that would lift the spirits of everyone in the room, even when she was frail with disease.
One summer afternoon she died, and several grief-stricken months later, my girlfriend and I broke up. All at once I was set adrift from my ex-girlfriend and her family — who I’d been with nearly every day for several years — like a boat untied from a dock.
With nothing to keep me in the city and with a mind full with questions, I decided to visit the ruins of Angkor.
One thousand years ago, Angkor was the most glorious city on Earth. Today it is a bone-like collection of stone structures engraved with ornate Hindu and Buddhist imagery in various stages of decay.
That’s how I came to be standing that evening in a rice paddy in the Cambodian countryside, dripping with sweat and humidity, engulfed in the scream of the insects and melancholy melody of the Khmer flute, watching the sky turn from gold to orange to purple. It was eerie and beautiful – as though the jungle was projecting my feelings back to me. (I made an approximation of the sounds from that afternoon. It can be heard here).
Each day I’d work on my computer for a few hours in the morning. Then around noon, I’d bike out to the ruins and wander slowly among them, alone, taking photos, until the sun set, darkness crept across the dead city and the wailing rose from the jungle. I’d ride back to the city in the thick darkness surrounded by the scream of the insects.
I’d cry at random times throughout the day for no particular reason except a surge in the sadness the preceding years had left me with. I had questions.
I was a driven person. Until then, my desire to achieve dictated my choices and fueled a relentless optimism.
But now I was watching the greatest city on Earth being slowly devoured by the jungle and wallowing in memories of a young woman eroded by disease. In the face of death and time, my personal ambitions were absurd. No accomplishment could right the injustice of Nori’s death, nor of those I was likely to see in the future. Nothing I create would last. Time erases all.
Until then, my self-identity had been anchored in accomplishment. Now, faced with the existential futility of ambition, I was adrift.
What was I living for?
What goals could I pursue that wouldn’t be futile?
These questions turned over in my mind as I rode my bike down random paths in the jungle where I discovered tiny forgotten temples overgrown with vines and giant lion statues half sunken into the earth. I contemplated them as I gazed disinterestedly at the stream of motorcycles, bicycles, and tuk tuks from roadside restaurants with foldout tables and plastic stools.
The answer came as I stood alone, deep in a building complex near the edge of the city, gazing at a root-choked structure.
Angkor’s beauty is staggering. But the structures themselves were not what amazed me. I was most impressed that people had gone through the unthinkable effort of building them and the painstaking craft of etching intricate designs into every inch by hammer and chisel.
It was not the structure itself that moved me, it was the act of its creation. That realization led me to my answer.
Life exists not in achievements. It consists not of finished things. Life is a constant act of creation.
We are all masons; everyday we build. We build relationships with those around us. We labor at our jobs. In every moment our actions create our lives. We are constantly creating ourselves.
If we’re constantly creating, then the things we create are not as important as how we create.
In that idea, I found a new purpose.
I don’t chase achievements like I used to. Now, everyday, with everything I do, my first goal is to contribute carefully and deliberately to the life I’m creating. Whether it’s helping a single mother holding an infant to open a door, staying up extra late so I can Skype with my niece when she wakes up from her nap, or writing a blog post about death and deliberate living instead of ten amazing beach vacations.
If I do these things, my actions have a value that isn’t anchored in accomplishment or legacy; it exists in the moment that I do it, and that makes it worthwhile.
As sad as it was, I now regard my trip to Angkor as one of the most rewarding I’ve taken.
And I’m grateful to Nori for this realization. It was because of her death that I arrived at it.
In hindsight, the way I now try to live is the way she always did live, which is why everyone loved her so dearly. It’s comforting to know that even in the unjust and all-too-early loss of her life, Nori still managed to bring something good into mine.