Saturday, July 25, 2009

Me: The Serial, Part 1

What follows is something I recently wrote. And read, out loud, to some people gathered in a schoolroom down south. I don't know if it's the afterword to a book
written quite some time ago, or if it's
the foreword to a book yet unwritten.
So I offer it here, in three parts. The next comes next week.
Unless you tell me to stop.
* * *

Once upon a time, I fell asleep. It was a long sleep, and it carried me down under the waters of forgetfulness. Yet I was buoyant still, and I would not be held down entirely. Thoughts and visions of movement down swift roads appeared, disappeared. But sleep on I did, a dark slumber of motorcyclelessness.

When I awoke, it was eleven years later. And everything had changed around me. But inside, where it counts, I was to find that nothing had. Because I had already been changed, a long time before, by the machine that specializes in altering cellular structure, the equations of desire.

What awakened me was the loud and brutal crashing of an edifice coming down, blown from its foundation by the dynamite of divorce. When it happens to you, you think that no one in the world has experienced this, this profound and dislocating destruction of everything you have carefully built. The shock waves radiate out and out, slowly taking in everything: where you live, who still wants to have you at their dinner table, the spark of fear you sometimes see in your child’s eyes.

Later you find, of course, you are not the only one. Hardly. But before realizing this, you are isolated by woe. It feels a little like you are undergoing a very painful operation. One that goes on for, like, nineteen months. But inevitably, at some point, the anesthetic starts to wear off. Your dreams become vivid then. And in a large percentage of them, motorcycles appear.

I was coming out of it.

Bikes were going to take me the rest of the way.

One moment stands out in clarity as the turning point. As is usual of these moments, it takes you by surprise, in the most mundane surroundings--your fairly dirty office, sitting at the paperboard cabinet that houses your aging computer and a thousand ignored Post-Its. Through the portal called “YouTube.” Everything in the world is there. So to stumble on one particular sight that will change the trajectory of your life is in the category of finding a piece of the Holy Shroud in the drawer with your kitchen towels. I have, unsuspecting of miracles, opened a video clip of some guy somewhere in Europe with a shaky grasp of English taking a ride (“in the montains”) on a Moto Guzzi 1100 Sport. The camera is mounted somewhere above the instrument panel so it gives a view of the tachometer, the triple clamp, and a piece of foggy gray road ahead. But it is what comes out of the single speaker behind the monitor that reaches out, goes inside my chest, grabs hold of a vital organ and squeezes till I feel the pulsing of blood in my ears. It is the sound of a big twin, the aria of an exhaust note that sounds impossibly beautiful, a tone that rises and falls within the high sweet spot of the power band.

I could never have expected what happened next, which is exactly the operating procedure of turning points. Tears, pooling at the rims of my eyes. The only other music that has ever made me weep is that of J.S. Bach, and I realize at once that the two share a metaphysic: pure cold mathematics tinged with longing by virtue of being worked by mortal hands.

It is also the sound of my past, to which I now feel a sudden wide yearning to return.

I had forgotten so much, but now it began to flood back. E-mail messages in the Save file from three years before, when—in one of those sporadic moments of buoyancy—I had apparently been sounding people out about finding a K75, the only other machine besides the Italians that turned my head; there was something about those lines, inexplicable in the way that the essence of this whole thing is beyond reason.

Up in the attic, packing to leave my home, I find another buried sign, in the boxes that hold sixteen years of my life. When I come upon these three, I stop to remember packing them eight years before for their journey from Brooklyn to here, two hours upstate.

Why am I keeping this? I thought then; I have built a life that cannot fit a bike, with a child, a husband, a dog, a house, and a progressing series of other interests. But I could not let it go, either, this jacket spotted with vague memorials to so many insects’ lives, these gloves, a second skin permanently shaped in the form of my own hands. You don’t get rid of your skin! And you owe them something, these things that have seen you through: rainsuit, brake bleed kit, battery tender, lock. Also, the gnawing sense that if, just if, you have made a mistake, it will cost a damn fortune to replace. So into the boxes it all went, and then up into the attic.

I think I knew. I may have left riding, but it could not possibly leave me.

What it does is change you chemically, and this is the first of the secrets you learn, the ones that hold you together with your ilk, against all those who don’t, and aren’t, and won’t. There is the sense, even the first time, that you have come back. Strange, yes? But not at all: you know it is working with that flow of electrical fluids originating in our animal core, the glandular lab of the brain, and that this is something we were fundamentally built to do. This is why it feels so right. And this is why no one who has never done it can understand—because the rightness is contained within, in the mirroring of the intricate circuitry of your body and the equally complex astonishments of the machine. You look at it, and it looks back at you. There is no place here for someone else.

See. There. I have just explained the biker’s in-joke, the sticker that reads, “If I have to explain it, you wouldn’t understand.” Even more to the point is the one displayed on the helmet of the man who perhaps embodies above all others the essence of the motorcyclist, the one who simply wishes to do nothing else: “If I have to understand, don’t bother to explain.”

I had thought, at one time, that I had said all I wanted to say about bikes. I was pretty much through with them.

Uh, no. For I had no idea they could also save you.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Child Threatens

"I have a little Nelly. And I'm not afraid to
use it."

--boy, age 9,
July 13, 2009

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Reading Maps

Unpacking after a move is a road map of sorts--to one's past. Former enthusiasms are reflected in box after box of books: apparently I was seriously interested in film, on the evidence of two bookshelves' worth (my annotated What Is Cinema, Andre Bazin, pretentiously dated the day I bought it, in a girlish hand, 1978). I had almost forgotten. Who else was I? Photography, one and a half shelves. Modern poetry, one shelf. Philosophy--s**t, almost two shelves, and all nearly incomprehensible to me now. Is it the loss of brain cells, or is it just the inability to focus in that manner of the youthful book-eater?

No, I still have the capacity for enthusiasm. Lord knows, I still have the capacity for a whole line of temporary insanities, or at the least, very, very bad judgment.

The vinyl collection reflects times frozen in amber. High school: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (I still remember slow dancing to them, but not the person with whom I did it; music lasts while young love does not); almost all of David Bowie, and when I stop unpacking to listen to Changes, it has some new resonance. Later, I see, I had collected the entire oeuvre of Talking Heads and its offshoots; I also managed a fair amount of Bootsy Collins and Parliament Funkadelic--we used to dance ourselves silly in college. Here comes R.E.M. and XTC. UB40, the Clash, Beastie Boys (Let me clear my throat!). And look--Robyn Hitchcock! Now I sing with him as I try to put things to rights in this new place, in a new time ("Brenda's iron sledge . . . Please don't call me Reg, it's not my name"--you really can't beat that, can you?). Of course, I should not be playing these records at all with this old cartridge--or, for that matter, with what I assume is a rotten belt, since the drive is making funny noise all the while--but the combination of being both a lazy SOB and broke never bodes well for having equipment that works right. And so nothing I have quite does.

The other evening, after humping boxes and furniture and books and clothes and toys and pictures and records for eight days straight, having stayed up till 2 a.m. the night before carving a path through the ancient detritus left by the movers in what would, in the best of all possible worlds, become a living room, I finally allowed myself a respite. A glass of Campari and soda, and a dinner comprised of hors d'oeuvres ("a Melissa meal," in the term of one of my college friends, since some stripes do not change; or, to spin it another way, I was serving tapas to people in place of meals before it became fashionable to do so). Then I sat down with the maps. Paper maps. (I had just unpacked my map collection, as well, and it too is a record of the past I had forgotten: is it really possible I have been to all these places?) I am going to make my first big trip of a new life the old way: no GPS, no radar detector. Sharpie'd directions written for the map pocket, and pray it doesn't rain, because the tankbag rain cover obscures it, and then you have to go on memory. That which I have no longer.

There is nothing, nothing, better than dreaming over maps. The first one I consulted, between handfuls of smoked almonds, was the map of the eastern U.S. that, eighteen years before, had gone with me on a journey of five thousand miles. The route was traced in green highlighter, and so it was the ghost impression of trips past, left on the windowpane through which trips future are glimpsed.

Yesterday at the auto parts store at the Kingston Plaza, where I'd gone for bulbs and fuses and the bits and pieces that will be stowed in the topcase for a few days from now, another man at the counter was looking at me, noticed my jacket and my helmet in hand. "Nice day for ride, eh?" he said in a longing voice. "Absolutely perfect," I agreed. He told me he used to ride, but had now quit. I told him I had once quit, but now I was back. I told him he could go back, too. And wouldn't regret it. "Yeah," he allowed. "I'm beginning to think maybe you can quit riding, but riding never quits you."

As the sun set, I drained the glass, refolded the map that was coming apart at every seam, taped and retaped. This time I am not trying to re-create the past. I am trying to live in the present, in this exact second, unaware of the next, and trying to make it last for miles.

[There will be no post next week, since the person responsible for writing them will be here and also because she has been spending too much time in front of maps/boxes/Campari to have been able to write anything in advance. But she might have good tales to tell the week after next. Nelly, by the way, is going to Camp Janet, where she will eat better than most upper middle class humans.]

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Free and Not So Easy

Nelly is finding places to be at home in her new home: yesterday afternoon, she hopped into the laundry
basket, and curled up on the dirty clothes. See, dogs are not like you and me. Trust me, there was some really ripe stuff in there. She looked so peaceful and happy. I suspect that will be where this evening will find her, when we all celebrate some vague memory of something that none of us truly appreciate or understand anymore. I am not talking flag decal on the pickup here. I am talking slog to the ends of the earth, to the ends of tolerance, to the ends of what a human being can withstand.

We hear what we want to. Talking politics with someone you care for but do not yet know is a frightening business, maybe more so than delving into personal past history. Which, when you come to a certain point in life, can be more potent than anything that could come in the future. And that is frightening too. Because what occurred in the past occurred in an ethos of endless hopefulness and unseeable boundaries. That is why, I guess, I kept carting around this vast tonnage of stuff--some of it was going to be useful in one of my infinitely numbered future lives: dishware to serve the crown prince; enough pictures to line the great hall of a Tudor mansion; evening wear for whatever gala or prize bestowal might pop up in years to come. But now I finally know I won't have twelve more lives of differing intensity; I might just get to live this one out in some modicum of happiness, occasional pleasure, and decent output of work. Enough for me.

I am still not certain what to do with my wedding shoes, however. I look at them, metallic leather winking at me from inside their tissue paper nest, and try to imagine throwing a box containing shoes that cost many days' wages, that were meant to make me feel like a princess and did, into what feels suspiciously like a dumpster at the Salvation Army. Uh-uh. I can't. But neither could I imagine wearing them at another such ceremony, even in the unlikely event of a water landing. I put the box away again. Perhaps something new will yet occur, for which beautiful bronze pumps will be just the right thing.

Offloading the detritus of the past--after carefully turning it in your hands, marveling that you have such chances, such moments, and so very, very many of them--is a kind of freedom. Not so hard-fought as the one we eat popsicles and watermelon in honor of today. But one that is just a little difficult, because it requires letting go. Once the ballast is gone, though, see how high you can fly!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Back, and Gone

Moving is such a special hell. Get out the trowel, and dig. Dig under the hairy roots of vines, hit rock. Break shovel. Throw away. See something peeking up from the dirt; recoil in morbid terror but reach out with irresistible curiosity. What forgotten thing from the past is coming up from under the dirt? Put it in a cardboard box. Take it with you.

Driving the station wagon across the reservoir on moving day--I moved the bike to the new house first thing in the morning, because I was already so tired that later on the exhaustion would have made it like riding drunk--I was ferrying another load of stuff and listening to anthem rock from the eighties blaring from the radio. I was wondering how I'd gotten here. No, not via 213 to 28A. I mean toward the brink of freedom. Joy was peeking out from behind the clouds, sending its rays to glint against the priceless drinking water belonging to the great city to our south. (The drinking water into which one summer day I dipped my naked body some twenty-five years ago; someone had a great sip of me later that week.) Pain and regret and fear were also tearing at me. It was wonderful, it was awful. It was life. And in that moment, realizing this, and that this was my life, and that it could not have possibly been any other way--this move, at this point in time, in the midst of this curious passage on the other side of which is I don't know what, which is both blessing and curse--I found myself laughing out loud and sobbing in the exact same moment.

The Town of Olive dump has views so magisterial they could make angels sing. Two of my friends appeared, at different points in the packing and lifting, but unbidden both, just when I needed them most. They can have no idea what it meant to me; possibly that I am connected by live wire to their hearts. I can still receive a signal from WVKR, because though I am much farther away, I am also 300 feet higher in elevation. I get to drive across that reservoir, in the witness of a cradle of mountains, whenever I want to visit my old haunts. I am one mile by the clock from wood-fired pizza. The frogs play the banjo all night long in the woodland swamp out back. I have a blank slate on which to make the first tentative chalk marks of a new life.

I have my own place.

These are some of the gratitudes I bear. There will be more to come. I wish I could lift furniture by myself. I wish that I did not have so much stuff. But I lift it tenderly out of its cardboard vaults, and turn my past gently and wonderingly in my hands. Then I look for somewhere to put it.