Adventure, community, Determination

Audentes Fortuna Juvat

Baltic Human Chain

This is a story about a Metrobus and a jacket.

Yep, as primary returns roll in and the future of our too-fragile (we now realize) democracy hangs in the balance, this is fluff about public transit and rush hour stress.

Maybe this is the best I can manage. Maybe the chilling prospect of the Fourth Reich overtaxes a mind until it can bear no further weight. Maybe getting up early to vote means the work day was long and a girl is weary.

Maybe it’s just because this is what happened.

On a day when the temperature creeps up to 60 degrees, the leather jacket needed to ward off the morning chill becomes an encumbrance by 5:00. I heft backpack, lunch bag, jacket onto the bus to head home. It squeals to a stop, I hop off and walk about 50 yards before I realize.

Backpack (check). Lunch bag (check).

Jacket. . .?

I stand frozen for a full 15 seconds. The bus is long gone, heading north on that crowded rush hour artery. Riding quietly in the back is one of the nicest pieces of clothing I own. The fine leather was a gift from my sister maybe 15 years ago. Trim and versatile, it’s grown buttery with time. It’s one of those rare possessions that helps me feel less poor.

When it goes, I won’t be replacing it. Coats are like the rest of our wardrobe now: Hand-me-down, charity from Grandma, or Goodwill.

I start to run. Not towards the bus, though. Towards home. Backpack and lunchbag flopping against my back, I run through the park past the strollers and dogs and teens shooting hoops. The dog can wait. I pull out my keys and leap into my car.

Where does the bus go? Think think think. I’ve never taken it further than my stop. It must go to the Metro here before it heads further north. I wait at one light, then a 4-way intersection, lines of cars, a polling station. A bus pulls out onto the road ahead as I turn right before I realize — too late — that it was my bus. I crawl through the Metro parking lot back to the main road. Another red light. Another line of cars, another polling place. Idling, I pull out my phone and bring up the timetable. It’s 5:25 now, the next stop is a couple miles down the road, at 5:31. Can I get there?

Nope. Intersections, commuters heading home. Cars and bikes and pedestrians. More buses, the wrong buses. I just miss another light and sit there clutching the wheel for too many minutes. It’s 5:28, then 5:30.

Then the tears come.

They come riding a cold gale of thoughts: I hate rush hour, screw this soul-killing, congestion, this is why I take the goddamned bus, that jacket is one of the last nice things I have, somebody probably stole it anyway, why does everything suck?

And without even a blink of a transition, local winds swell to global catastrophe.

That self-promoting demagogue is going to be president and I’m so fried and weary I can’t even keep track of my stuff let alone do anything good for my kid’s future and here I am DRIVING a BUS ROUTE, as if the apocalypse isn’t coming fast enough already, Smirk.

I hear the swell of self-pity and anxiety, and just when it’s about to drag me under, my tears stop. Click, just light that. A quiet grin creeps up from somewhere buried. With it, this:

I choose my mind.

So I decide, right then, that chasing down this jacket is not a burden. It’s a quest. The light turns green. I crank DC101, roll down the window, and peel out.

Onto the main road, a snaking ribbon of taillights. The lanes widen from two in each direction to three then four. It is 5:37 now. The timetable tells me that my bus will be leaving the monstrous new Metro station at the heart of the mega office-commuter-consumer district at 5:45.

Eight lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic fan out before me. Buses are turning in and out from every direction. The station is connected to a shopping mall and parking by an elevated footbridge over this surging mass of cars. I have no idea which way to go, so I turn right because why not? But all the buses are the wrong bus, and now it’s a mall entrance —  wrong wrong wrong.

I turn then turn again, back onto a different major road. I pass over the Beltway, its travelers trying to squeeze on and off its ramps into unbroken chains of cars. I cross eight lanes, turn again, go al-l-l-l the way around a second mall (they’re a matched set!) and now it’s 5:44, and the Metro station is somewhere ahead of and above me, and where are the buses? Where is the parking?

Another bus bay. Big red signs say “AUTHORIZED VEHICLES ONLY.” And there, at the end of the queue, is my blinking chariot. I swerve right, pull up behind, and hop out.

My driver is stretching his legs by the shelter, counting down his last minute.

My driver!

I jog up to him. “Hi! I think I left my leather jacket on your bus!”

“That’s your leather jacket?”

“Yep, it’s my leather jacket.”

He steps on board and opens up a cabinet near the front. There next to the fire extinguisher is my soft, folded baby. He hands it to me with a smile.

“Geez, thank you. That would have been one expensive bus ride.”

I stride back to my car with a stupid grin on my face. I pull back into traffic and my driver pulls right out behind me. We inch our way south now on the same road we just followed. He keeps going as I veer off into the first chain restaurant I see, order a plate of fish tacos, and wait out rush hour in the company of my New Yorker.

I am tired. Not like that bus driver is tired, driving back over that same loop again and again, but tired all the same.

Tired of nursing my precious helplessness. Tired of letting crippling thoughts limit my capacity for action. Of depression’s terrible lies. Of assessments based in archaic narratives no empowered person would ever choose.

Demagogues rise in part because each stunned and disbelieving individual fails to act in some way — any small way — to stem the tide.

This isn’t a story about a jacket. It isn’t a story about a Metrobus.

It’s a story about choice. And about power. And about the moment when those two snap together and the truth becomes clear: they are a force, a matched set.

A whole.

Choice + Power.

Choice = Power.

If a series of small acts can buck DC  area rush hour traffic, put the lie to the anonymous self-interest so easily ascribed to strangers, and land my beautiful leather jacket back in my possession, then maybe I — maybe we — have a little power.

Just a little.

But a little is more than nothing.

And that’s all we need, each of us, as long as we keep our purpose in our sights.

Even when we don’t know the way. Or when a thicket of obstacles blocks the view.  Or when — especially when — we break down and want to give up because we have no idea if we’re going to succeed or even if we’re doing the right thing at all.

As long as we choose to hang onto each other and keep tracking what we hold dear, we have power.

As long as we don’t let anyone — especially ourselves — steal our capacity to choose our minds.

We have power.


 Image: Baltic Way, a 600+ km human chain linking Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 1989 as they demanded their independence from the Soviet Union be recognized.


Love, Relationships

Flushed and Fleshed

Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.

– E.M. Forster, Howard’s End

So we stand in the low sun and try to flush out need with questions. As if need is the fat, slithering shush roiling the fallen leaves. As if words are the stick driving it to face us.

Smelling of mud and green apple candy, we lean against each other and try to flesh out need. As if our voices can give shape to something that may have just been a hiccup in the breeze.

I remember when love was a surging state. It had to rise up and flood the senses and then loving acts followed. Much like confidence. Like hope.

This was truth unexamined.

When does the possibility of bidirectional causation emerge? Is it when you grow up?

Or does seeing the relationship turn back on itself finally make you grow up?

Now I understand this: Act as if the capacity exists and you make it appear. You make it appear to be so, yes, and also to take shape, to arrive. Accumulate enough instances of contrived appreciation or optimism or boldness, and you become enamored. Hopeful. Brave.

Maybe like me, you don’t buy any of it. You’re sure you are fooling yourself and it might all come crashing down. Maybe you sort of wish you believed your choices are good ones and could possess the kind of conviction that clarifies each subsequent decision. Maybe you sort of envy the positive thinkers (upbeat or certain or — worse yet — both).

Like me, maybe you suspect the equanimity that must accompany conviction will never balm your fears. Indeed, doubt may itch at you until the day you die.

Face it. You are too far gone for faith. Or maybe too much here. You would never seal those doors lining the corridors of perception. A mind that knows (knows!) it is always missing something only needs a pinhole to chase light to its source. Your curiosity is the thrumming, silver string. It is one note that strikes at your key. You could no more still it than you could give up sight. Or sex. Or speech.

Like me, you want to move towards something. Like you, I want to stop moving and be.

We pause and hold the map between us. We start to draw along the contours. Instantly, the delineation becomes a perimeter. A boundary.

Even just tracing a route with our voices, we hedge.

Precision is folly. Orderly sequence is illusion.

Because the trail we choose forks. It always does. Yellow blazes then green and then maybe none at all. And here is a river, and here is a burl on a dying oak in the shape of a devil with a broken horn. Here is a sound like a creaking open door. Here is the shush, the movement at the edge of sight, the tunnel out from under the bounds (the bonds) we trusted held us to this place, and this place to the earth.

We lean against each other, word as breath drawing need.

Drawing it out. Filling it in.

We decide it is in fact a snake. With nothing more to go on than a single word from me, you step into the now-still leaves. I sense it. You name it. We add it to a collection that includes a single yellow butterfly and five slender minnows darting from their shade.

Today’s choice is the only one.

To you, I hold.

Like you to me.

Choices, Growing Up

Fill in the Blank

Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true.

– Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

Is silence, by definition, cowardice?
Impossible. There is no silence in silence, after all. Language is always there, elbowing and grunting its way through the heady determination shut up I’m trying to be quiet of quiet. Thought is all voice. But without throat and tongue to give it an address, where does it land? On the page, perhaps. In the letter she writes with the pen squeezed in her fist but never sends. In the steel echo of a John Lee Hooker song bouncing off the walls of his skull. In the clanging, fists-swinging noise of ideas backed against the ropes. One thought after another dripping sweat, conceived and voiced in some halfway-way.
Courage? Certainly not. But neither is the nascent thesis cowardice. It is something between. Suspension, perhaps. A pause in the action.
Truth needs a shape, though, yes? One can’t just hesitate forever.
She sits across from him, across and far and maybe nowhere near him. The silence is every possible word pushing against the roof of her mouth. Finally, she speaks. “I don’t understand you. You make no sense to me.”
He recoils from her and says, “There is something wrong with you.”
Every other thing, not spoken. Every other statement about everything also right exactly here, unchosen. Every other truth, from the draping leaves of the ceiling-high houseplant to the taste of sourdough still clinging to their fingers. Every other possible scaffolding on which they could build some structure to hold is left there in a heap. Rebar cascades away in waves. It washes offshore when the tide comes in. It drifts to the bottom of the sea.
She says, “I need to catch my breath.”
He says, “Goodbye.”
Language is multiple choice without an “all of the above.” Choosing a word, even if it is only one, is courage. Even if it is the wrong one. Maybe especially then.


Happy 100 Days: 68

“Mommy, did you know shapes are everywhere?”
I am half listening as I pack up our water bottles and snacks for a trip into town. “Uh huh? Shapes?”
“Yes, shapes. Like that light is a circle.”
I see he is staring up at the ceiling. I pause. “Huh. You’re right. It is a circle.” I look around for a minute. “I see rectangles.”
I point. He smiles. “The laundry doors!”
“Can you find a diamond?” I heft our bags and remind him for the third time to put on his shoes. He looks around, sees the slats of the wine rack. “Diamonds!”
Soon, we are in the car and driving on the freeway. The dentist has squeezed me so we have no time to lose. Bug is drifting into a half-nap in the back seat. I whisper that the drive is long and that he should rest. He is almost under, but as soon as we exit into the business district, he rouses himself.
“It’s okay to sleep, kiddo. We still have a ways to go.”
“But I want to look around at everything,” he says. He is quiet for a minute. “I see rectangles and circles,” he says. “The stoplights. And that sign.”
Right now, I am trying to navigate traffic. Still, I can’t help but look.
“What about a crescent? I wonder if we can find any.”
“What’s a crescent again?”
“It’s that half moon shape, sort of like a C.”
We find the letter C on trucks and buildings, but no proper crescent. We have no luck with triangles until we spy the architectural flourish on the roof of an office building. We see a half-circle dome on another. Bug sees more diamonds (pedestrian crossing) and arrows (one way). He sees traffic cones. Octagon stop signs. Stars on the American flag. Square windows in buildings.
This neighborhood houses my office and my daily walks. Tee and I once lived in an apartment here. I cover these same blocks every day on my commute. I have never once noticed this simple fact: Shapes are everywhere.
In the back seat, Bug is making a chart of all the shapes he notices. The catalog grows to 13, then 14, then 15. We park, pay, and head across the plaza. We pass storefronts. “I smell Thai food!” Bug cries. A Thai restaurant, a Japanese restaurant, a hair salon, a gourmet grocer. On one of the doors, the brass handle catches my eye.
“Bug! Do you see what I see?”
He looks then his face lights up. “Crescents!”
Every store in the plaza has half-moon door pulls on the glass panes. “Before, when we were driving, we could see big shapes but we weren’t close enough to see the little ones,” I say. “So we didn’t see any crescents at all.”
“Now we see so many crescents, we can’t even count them all!” Bug hops over the bricks, holding my hand tight.
In the dentist’s waiting room, Bug and I spot one of those plastic shape-sorters babies use. “Isn’t that silly?” I laugh. This is what we have we been doing all day, and here is this toy, right here!”
We turn it over. No crescent. We disagree about the rhombus. Bug insists it is a half-octagon, and we argue about how many sides an octagon cut in half would have. We decide that whatever the shape, we will try to find one outside sometime. I figure this might be tough, but it’s worth a shot. I’m sure western architects abhor the rhombus as much as they, apparently, dislike the crescent.
Does vision exist at the place where classification and determination meet? Perhaps the taxonomy of experience is up to each of us. How you decide to sort will inform the gaze.
Shapes are everywhere. A lot of _________ are everywhere. Fill the blank with your abundance of choice.


Happy 100 Days: We the Undersigned

in 100 days we will say good
night to this year. We will rise in the dark
January morning to a new
I do not remember
my resolution when this year began. I probably did not
find the courage to make one.
This morning,
the cool light of the equinox
returned it to me.
This is my contract
With Joy.
The agreement is made and takes effect on September 23, 2012 between myself, hereafter known as “first party” and the creative juice of the universe, hereafter known as “second party.”
The provisions of this agreement are as follows:
During her tenure, the first party will
Stay alive
stay awake
trust her gut.
Greet her sadness
before letting it blow past,
shake hands with anger
then release her grip.
The first party commits
to noticing one beautiful thing
for every one that brings her sorrow,
watching her step
for quicksand
and seeking a way
Her service requires
when her face has forgotten how
glancing at the moon
when she would rather stay blind
speaking gently to herself
as if she already is the woman
she is becoming.
The term of this agreement is 100 days and shall be open for re-negotiation on January 1, 2013.
During the aforementioned term, the first party commits to choosing a minimum of 100 moments of happiness.
Each one, a pause:
She will submit a record of one each day
in writing
and when possible, speak
her gratitude for it.
For services rendered by the first party,
the second party,
maker of joy, will take care of the quality
of the goods
and the timing
of the deliverables.
The second party provides non-payroll benefits in the form of insurance
against despair.
Documentation of service will take the form
of punching the clock and ticking
the box.
One glimpse of beauty each day, a promise
small yet signed in a scratch
of autumn light at this, the first of the last of the year
in which two parties give
to a single promise
of renewal.