Sunday, September 22, 2013

Haste and Waste

Yesterday I was standing in line at JFK en route to the Canary Islands.  I was excited by the trip and had lett myself plenty of time but still the lines were long and slow...and annoying.  So I did what most people were doing.  Fanned myself with my boarding pass, checked my phone, sighed heavily.

Then I noticed a girl behind me.  She's 20 something.  Maybe 30.  In a yellow sundress and flipflops, blond hair and she's definitely impatient.  I can't tell if that's just the way she is or if she might miss her flight to Paris but she keeps jockeying for position and making very exasperated sighs.

At last I reach the security line.  The couple ahead of me is slow in taking off their belts and shoes and then they push on.  As I reach for two plastic bins, she grabs two others and jumps in front of me.  Now I don't mind if someone says excuse me but I'm going to miss my plane or just sorry, in a hurry.  But nothing.  She just plunked herself in front of me.

I read about a study recently that said that most people would prefer to wait in a slower line than in a line that moves faster but someone cuts in front of them.  In other words we prefer a wait to rudeness and that sense of entitlement.  Well I'm on the side of the line waiters. But I decided to shake it off.  Her problem; not mine.

As I was preparing to go through the machine, she was huffing and puffing on the other end.,  She had rushed through security without pushing her things on to the belt which I was left to do for her.,
I saw her grab her things and rush off as I gathered up my mine.

The couple ahead of me were still dealing with their belts and shoes and I had a slight wait, but when I went to take my belongings I saw that a blue backpack was left on the belt.  I asked the couple if it was theirs and they just shook their heads.  "Must've belonged to the girl who was in such a hurry," they replied as she had pushed past them as well.

Now I'm not going to lie.  Did I gloat a little?  Did I have a small satisfied feeling rush through me.  I did.  You see, "excuse me" and "thank you" are very high on my list of human exchanges.  But I also thought about what a bad day or flight or year that girl was going to have.  I recalled the time I'd left a bag with my journal, address book, and grandma's earrings in the back of a Chicago cab.  Or my husband Larry's story of being robbed of his backpack and all of his film the day he returned to Canada after a year of travel. Let's face it.  As travelers these are moments we never forget.

Those moments.  When we lose something.  We forget something.  The fact is had she been nicer, had she not shoved ahead, we might have caught up with her.  We might have called out and she wouldn't have forgotten her backpack. 

I don't know the end of this story.  I don't know what was in her bag, but I'm sure it contained things that mattered to her. I don't know if she remembered and went running back.  If she missed her flight.  If she got on the plane and in a moment like the one in Home Alone when the mother suddenly remembers the child they forgot to bring.  I don't know.  I'll never know. 

Travel can be disorienting.  Sometimes we are in a hurry.  But excuse me can go a long way. 

It might mean the difference between someone helping you out or just watching as you rush off to wherever it was that you had to get to.  I feel sorry for her.  I think about her.  I wonder what was in that backpack and if she lost it or got it back.

But maybe this will make her pause the next time.  Maybe she'll even say excuse me as she rushes ahead on the line.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Heading Home on the Northern

Last weekend Larry and I were leaving a friend's on Long Island, heading back to Brooklyn.  We were running a bit late and Larry needed to get to work. We were reluctant to leave. I'd just had a great swim and Larry was tossing a ball with the dog.  We were having a good chat with new friends. And the day was a kind of marker - the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.  The end of summer.  That feeling one gets every year.  Time has passed.  A moment for carefree days and cicada-filled nights, sipping rose and grilling fish with good friends was almost done. But we had to push on.

It was a clear, warm day.  A slight breeze.  The kind it would be nice to go sailing on, but that wasn't to be. Finally it was time.  Except we couldn't get the dog into the car.  That took a minute or two.  Then I realized I'd taken my friend's charger so I had to run back into the house and return it.  Then on the way out of town we had some trash in the car and we stopped at a garbage can. 

Tiny delays.  Minor interruptions.  Perhaps slowing us down by four or five minutes.  Things that in the normal course of a life mean nothing.

At last we were on the road.  South County to Station Road.  Station to Horseblock, then on to the L.I.E.  Our goal was the Northern.  That's the way we always drove home.   We were zipping along, making great time.  Then we pulled on to the Northern.

We hadn't driven a hundred feet when we knew something was wrong.  It wasn't just that we saw the brake lights of cars ahead of us.  It was that traffic was actually coming towards us.

Then we saw it.  Not five hundred yards ahead.  A tree had fallen across the highway on a clear summer's day.  All the lanes blocked.  And all the cars heading back to the city were turning around and driving right at us.

We couldn't tell if the tree had struck anyone.  If it had fallen because someone struck it or if anyone was injured.  The first responders hadn't even gotten there yet. 

"I'm turning around," Larry said as we made our way onto the off ramp, again against traffic.  It was a rather remarkable moment of human cooperation.  Dozens and dozens of cars, turning.

We last were off but we needed a detour.  The LIE was packed so I said to Larry, "I think I can get us back on to the Northern past the accident.  As we drove, emergency vehicles passed us.  Fire, rescue, ambulances.  Our hearts began to sink.  Was anyone hit?  Did they drive into the tree?  we had no way of knowing.  We just continued on.

We took a long detour but at last we were on a ramp that took us back on to the Northern ahead of the accident.  But, and this was the eerie thing, we were the only car on that road.  The tree had blocked the Northern and no one else had taken the detour. 

We drove along on that ghost rode in silence, realizing that those tiny delays, the things that don't matter in the course of a life, that are easily forgotten, may have made the difference between a horrific accident and the fact that we were sailing down a vacant road into New York City.

I recalled that Sufi tale.  The appointment at Samara.  About the servant who runs into Death at the market place in Baghdad and races home, begging his master for a horse to escape and ride to Samara.  His master didn't hesitate.  But later that day the master also ran into Death at the market place and he asked Death why he had startled his servant that morning.  And Death replied that he didn't mean to startle the servant.  He was just surprised to see him here in Baghdad because he had an appointment with him tomorrow in Samara.

So it wasn't our time.  Not our appointment and we hope no one else's with Death.  Still.  A ghost highway, a silent ride home.  Those tiny delays.  Just dumb luck or fate.  We got away and we made into Brooklyn faster than we ever had before. 


Monday, September 2, 2013

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Swimmer

 A few minutes ago Diana Nyad completed a 110 miles, fifty hour swim from Cuba to Key West.  Without a shark cage.  It was her fifth attempt, her first being 35 years ago at the age of 29.  Now she is 64 and she said this would be her last.  Well, she made it. 
When asked by a reporter what advice she'd give to others, she said "Never give up.  Follow your dream."  And something else that CNN managed to loose.

I've pretty much been a swimmer all my life.  I'm not very good or very strong, but if you put me in water, I'll just stay there all day.  I'm closer to a dolphin than a human at times.  I don't swim so much as dive up and down.

I've tried to do distance swimming, but the problem is I'm also a writer.  Writing is very solitary as we know.  And swimming is about as solitary a sport as you can find.  Not only are you alone, but you aren't even really in this world.  And yet I love it. 

But not laps.  I don't like to swim laps so much.  I don't like to count.  I just like to move in water.  It is hard to go from one solitude to the next.

Many years ago I was incredibly moved by the book and then the film of Alan Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.  I can still see the montage that runs through the boy's mind as he runs through the woods at the reformatory where he has been sent to pay for his crimes.  The solitude of the boy with his conscience and his running, with the swimmer and the writer (or any artist really) it is all the same, isn't it.  A montage floats through our minds.  We see images one after the other.

In the end despite its solitude only swimming can soothe me after a long day of writing.  It is Philip Roth's chosen sport as well.  I read once that the best way to relieve anxiety is to exhale.  And swimming is all about the exhale.

So we soldier on in our solitude, searching, swimming, trying to accomplish what we never thought we'd do.  And I don't think any of us - whatever sea we're swimming in - has the safety of a shark cage.  To paraphrase, rather badly I'm afraid, Henry James, we swim in the dark, we do what we can. 

And the rest if the madness of art.  Or swimming if you will.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Children at the Beach - Milwaukee, 2010

We were driving out to Long Island this weekend and listening to Seamus Heaney's poem, "Railway Children," in an NPR podcast.  The Nobel laureate had passed away last week and we heard these words.  "We were small and thought we knew nothing worth knowing.  We thought words traveled the wires in the tiny pouches of raindrops."

These words brought me back to another poem about childhood, my favorite poem really in the English language, "Fern Hill," by Dylan Thomas.  It's a poem about a farm and what it means to be a child, living in the moment, and how we know nothing of time.

When I got home and was going through some pictures for other reasons, I came upon these.  A couple of years ago I went to Milwaukee to visit my mom.  She was very old and demented and it was depressing and sad to
see her.  I woke up one morning.  It was a beautiful summer's day and I couldn't resist a detour to the beach.  All my life I've gone to Lake Michigan whenever I could and this day was no exception.  I'd always found the lake restorative.

I put down my blanket, my book, a hat on my head and thought I'd relax.  But I hadn't been there long with a group of children came and started playing right in front of me.  I'm not sure why the rope is there.  I think it was corralling them in.  Anyway I couldn't resist.  I had my camera with me and I got a lot of pictures.  To me these children represent childhood and all its happy memories but especially those of the beach.  And the innocence of these children -
their ignorance to anything that might stand between them - touched me.  In many ways.

 I suppose these are sentimental snaps, but no apologies.  I loved these kids and for an hour or so they made me very happy.  I think about them now.

 They are older, walking, talking, in school.  Are they still playing together on the beach today?  I think of that wonderful story by Stephen Milhausseur - about the boy who doesn't want to go into the water for his first swim of the season because he senses that when he comes out of the water something - his childhood, his innocence - will be behind him.

I loved snapping pictures of these kids before they'd had that swim.  I believe it was Matisse who said that he had to grow up to be a child again.  Maybe that's really what an artist is.  Whatever.  I loved these kids and was happy taking pictures of them.

They brought back to the last lines of "Fern Hill" which some may find morbid or sad, but I find stunningly accurate - one of those truths about life that only the poets can put their finger on. "Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his time held me green and dying/though I sang in my chains like the sea."

With thanks to the poets.  And to these kids.  Wherever they may be.