Saturday, May 28, 2011

Chance Brings Us Here

There was the sense of flying: air uplifting, lightening the weight of the body, and wings given by the engine below, just forward of the seat. And I wasn't really in the seat, or even on it. It was just a suggestion of a support. For a moment it was only me, a body detached, flying through the air of the Berkshires. Cresting a rise in the road, a voice cried from within: You are so lucky!

Lucky to be riding roads through a world still so beautiful as this one, lucky to be in this company, lucky to be at the endpoint of a thousand events (man's creating, odds after odds after odds, a machine such as this; three hundred years of English expatriates and their succeeding lineage grooming this landscape; all of history meeting in one impossible moment of a spring Sunday with me sitting at its very peak).

How I came to meet these people--a friend from twenty years and two lives ago; a new friend met by chance two years before, because a mention and a moment seized (and not that other one, or for that matter any of the dozens of possible others); another new friend who, though rarely seen because of distance and whatnot, still feels ineffably close--is either impossible to calculate, or is the only thing that could have happened.

Just because unexplainable things happen does not mean we need to find an unexplainable cause to explain them.


Lately I have been having conversations with several girlfriends who are desperately unhappy with their situations. Money troubles press in, or else money is not a problem, but there seems to be no time in the day, in the week, for anything but taking care of houses and children and husbands--Did I get a degree in English in order to make endless grilled cheese sandwiches and deal with car repairs and home renovations and arguments over how long he needs to be away for work? My only response to this unanswerable lament came a few weeks ago, when I found myself riding through a small backwater near here, one that oppressed me for the entire length of the red light during which I was trapped in it, when I realized, "Hey, I should remind them we could have been born in Wawarsing. We'd never have gotten out alive." There would have been no regrets that we could have done something with our fancy-college degrees, because that would have never presented itself as an option. Like our parents and grandparents before us, we would have graduated high school with a couple of babies already, and no chance to climb the stairs to see above the low roofs of our small place in life.

I could have been born in Wawarsing. But I wasn't.

To what do I owe the extraordinary luck of being born where I was, into a life that was nothing but an ever-rising staircase? Born into the extraordinary way the dice fell, clattering on the tabletop: doubles.

It would be more seemly to post here the results of my 2010 tax return, or my preferences in horizontal activities, than to delineate my beliefs on the existence of any higher power, but thinking on the vagaries of life does not make me feel entirely polite. So, the stone atheist finds herself sometimes bemused to the point of exasperation when she thinks in private on this subject. The only thing that gives pause to the forward march of her certainty is the fact that many people of far greater intelligence are equally convinced that she is wrong. She must be missing something, because it all seems quite simple to her. Anything that can think, will, or conceive must needs have a brain. A brain is a physical entity that evolved in vertebrates and some invertebrates. It is composed of cells. Although the universe is more filled with mysteries of which we know nothing than of discoveries we comprehend, it still seems impossible that a nameless something, even as great a one as god, could express a motive without having a brainstem. Where might this all-powerful mind be hiding its neurons? They would have to be very large.

Yet to me the mind-blowing complexity of everything is easily explained by a single phenomenon, one that does not require physicality: chance. Beautiful, awe-inspiring chance. It was by grace of this supreme mechanism that my particular conglomeration of flesh, will, and bones was poised atop a hideously complicated machine of German origin on this particular day in the company of others who came together by such an elaborate series of luck that it defies everything, or nothing.


A friend's daughter was occupying herself with a book in the Where's Waldo series. In these books, each spread is an intricate, impossibly detailed eye-twister of an illustration. In each, you are supposed to find the little figure of Waldo, but he is so well hidden sometimes you never do. You have to give up, or go mad. "I couldn't find Waldo on this page at all," she tells me. "I mean, look at it!" Indeed, there is no way to find Waldo among the many hundreds of Waldo simulacra peppering the page. "So I turned away. And then when I turned back, guess what? I had put my thumb right on him."


At a gas stop, while we briefly shared (helmets off to talk) the separate but combined experience that is the group ride--such luck as this!--I heard my phone ringing. It was another new friend, at the end of his own ride in the same state but for another, far more epic, purpose. Riding has many, many purposes. He had attained a difficult and hard-won goal, well over a thousand miles in under twenty hours. He told me of another rider, on a similar but possibly more difficult quest during the same day and night (a twenty-four-hour rally) who had hit two deer at different times in the same ride. On hitting the first, he stayed up. Only to then hit the second, which brought him down. What were the chances of that? And he was able to get to the awards ceremony, so he was lucky. But he hit the deer, so he was unlucky. Both at once.

There would be no way for me to comprehensively explain how it was that I came to be sitting at a picnic table outside The Creamery in Cummington, Massachusetts, with a collection of old and new friends on a collection of old and new bikes at two in the afternoon on May 22, 2011. I could have been in Wawarsing, watching my great-grandkids. I could have been in Delhi (India, not New York), bent over a washbasin. I could have been an amoeba. But for one thing: luck. Incredible, inconceivable, inexplicable, beautiful luck. In the absence of anything else, I'll take it. I have to. Because the world hadn't ended the day before.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

This World

I had forgotten about them. Until they sent their beams out to my eye, and caught it fast. The wild columbine is blooming at the edges of the woods. One would almost think (would love to believe) that they are there, within easy reach of our too-limited sight, for our surprise: a remembrance that beauty persists. Or so we can only pray.

As Nelly ran on, toward the siren call of a scent hidden at the base of some bushes--the terrible rictus of some dead beast greeted me, sharp teeth smiling from a mat of brown fur, in which my dog was joyfully rolling to daub herself with that inimitable perfume of rottenness--I was thinking about the impossibility of flowers. It suddenly came to me: Do we deserve flowers?

Just as quickly, the other part of my brain (the one that answers dumb rhetorical questions with a sneer) answered, They're not for us, silly. We are merely collateral beneficiaries. Their existence, and all their strange, complex gorgeousness, is for themselves.

As I walked farther down the road, having enticed (ok, pulled her by the collar away) Nelly from her particular Chanel No. 5, I found myself spiraling down into a pretty awful funk. I had recently seen world population projections for 2050, and a flash of angry red blinded me for a moment. It was a selfish anger, of course: I would likely not be around then, to witness the final shovelful of earth hitting the coffin of the world I had known and loved--but my child would be. In fact, he will be the same age I am now. And therefore he will not have the chance to walk down a road, near his own house, so lightly traveled that his dog can run ahead, so lightly used that he might go a mile without the scent of exhaust in his nostrils, and the mean wind whipped by a speeding greedmobile. (I know: yes, I own one. We all do, because we have constructed a society in which it's nearly impossible to live without one. No matter how much one hates them.) He will not have the wild columbine (translucent rose shading to yellow, a gilded crown for wood nymphs to wear in their revels at dusk), because there will be no woods left. Here, a mere two hours from one of the world's greatest metropolises, the fields and streams and forested hills will be stripped of all they are. To become a continuation of a single suburb, wall to wall with us.

Lately I've been dipping into a fascinating book on the science of love and romance, and from it it's clear that we possess one highly complex and powerful apparatus to ensure our survival. The tip of the iceberg is the plumage of the female of our species, done up in bustiers and what are appropriately known as f**k-me shoes. Everything we are drives to one thing, and one thing only. It's highly successful, and it puts to shame the intent of the flowers: pollinate me, they whisper to the birds and the bees, with their come-hither colors and alluring shapes. We will beat those flowers yet.

My hypocrisy knows no bounds other than the one that ends at the tip of my nose. After all, I procreated too, as I was made to do.

I turned to walk back home, after greeting the fuzzy darlings of the Canada geese, waddling yellowly after mom and dad (another success story in the population wars), and then I thought: We are running out of road. (That is in fact the title of the informative environmental website of a friend of mine; it is irredeemably true, but the scary thing is, none of us--from Malthus to Al Gore--knows exactly when. We are somewhere in the middle of a horror movie, but we don't know the moment at which the killer is going to burst through the basement door.) This road, the one I am on. And that road, the one that takes us all to the end.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Girl Cave

The concept of the man cave is one I get. I really, really get it. Indeed, I even appreciate it: it's pretty funny. It pokes gently at the core truth of those simple, primitive desires of many men--all I need, mate, is my machines, a pretty calendar to lay my eyes on every now and again the kind with nice headlights if you know what I mean, the calming scent of gas in the air, and enough time to work on my grease manicure--at the same time it's bizarrely pre-feminist, and a touch repellent for that. It posits women as the enemy, the perennial naggers who need to be escaped.

I am here to tell you, though, it's women who need a girl cave. Upstairs or down, there's nowhere to run: the dust bunnies mock you (they have a particularly wheedling voice, too), the Lego-strewn boy's room weeps, the stovetop begs, the stack of permission slips, applications, bills, and plans looks dourly on: I bet you're not going to deal with me today, either? I thought so.

No, we're going to the Girl Cave, where we can escape into a world of relative order (admittedly because there is simply less stuff than in the main house) and where there's supposed to be dirt, so we don't ever feel a duty-shirker here. Some kitty litter on the oil stains, a quick broom, et voila. Peace, quiet, and motorcycles. Oh, and whatever's playing on the college radio station. It comes in on the radio in the Girl Cave, though not in the house. Magic, eh?

This is my secret world. There's the Lario on the right and the Teutonic Hornet on the left, ready for an oil change. (Unseen behind them, under its black shroud, is a friend's old Kawasaki, awaiting resurrection after two years--oh, what a day that will be, anticipation growing with each new arrival of parts in envelopes and boxes.) I love my small collection of parts and tools and fluids; I love that they stand at attention on the shelves, patiently waiting for their moment. I rarely get rid of anything so long as it has once belonged in, around, or on a motorcycle. This is therefore a museum of my own making, of my particular history. (To throw a piece of it away would be like, say, disposing of a letter my father wrote me when I was away at school. Never. A part of him, and of us.) Also, you never know when something might come in handy. The weirdest odds and bits can be just the things you need--they are comforts for the future. Who, for instance, would have thought that I'd ever have a Lario again? Certainly not me. But in the bottom of the toolbox I find some bolts and sockets that fit only her.

This is where I escape--from the place that would hold me back, on a Sisyphean slope where the same household tasks, done, must be redone upon the morrow. This is where I escape--to the place of wishful dreaming and forward motion.

How can you tell this is a girl cave? Here's a hint: see the chandelier?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

More and More

Why is it that I don't exactly feel gleeful about a death this week?

I am aware that no one, including me, wants an outline of my half-baked opinions on the subject of the most notable death of recent days. For one thing, the evidence speaks for itself--and when we read between the lines, we find there a strong comment on the disingenuousness of the official statement. Of course; it's an official statement. That's its nature, eliding and eluding the exact truth. (A "firefight"? Not the word I'd use.)

For another, I don't know half enough to expound knowledgeably on this subject. I understand that a million other bloggers have already endlessly discussed the proper way to react to this news--with joy? With regret? With some manufactured, thoughtful admixture thereof?

I only know that right now I feel something a little sick and uncertain. About what has really happened, and about where it will lead us. It is a vague echo of the way I felt, exponentially more powerfully, on September 11, 2001: extremely sick, and lost in an ocean of uncertainty.

The night after the most recent event, I was talking to Mom. I found myself saying, without really knowing whereof I spoke, with some degree of belligerence: "This all began a long time ago, several wars before, so that Americans can unquestioningly continue to drive their bloody Ford Explorers." That sure ended the conversation. The very next morning, I happened to be driving behind a car on whose back windshield was written in large white letters: Thank you Navy SEALs! He is dead!!!

It happened to be a Ford Explorer.

Loving can be seen as functionally analogous to killing. Give away your love, and it comes back and back. Kill, and it too returns, more and more.

Last night, I chanced to go to yoga at a new place. The instructor ended the class with a prayer. In light of the event last week, the words sent a chill, as if from beating wings, through the air. Then we went out, my son and I, to walk a labyrinth in the churchyard. Around and around we walked, toward the center somehow.

Buddhist Prayer

If anyone has hurt me knowingly or unknowingly in thought, word, or deed,
I freely forgive them.
And I ask forgiveness if I have hurt anyone knowingly or unknowingly
in thought, word, or deed.

May I be happy
May I be peaceful
May I be free

May my friends be happy
May my friends be happy
May my friends be free

May my enemies be happy
May my enemies be peaceful
May my friends be free

May all beings be happy
May all beings be peaceful
May all beings be free