Saturday, September 25, 2010

Beyond My Karmic Means

With cars parked on either side, Salmon becomes effectively a one-lane street. I was riding to the right, far closer to the line of cars than I usually do, out of a vague sense that to ride smack in the middle of the street and claim both lanes would be overbearing, when a car door flashed open, right in front of me.

I had time to brake, though not to swerve: I skidded into it, and was suddenly airborne. The next thing I remember is thinking, “time to do a somersault,” and I did. My helmet tapped the street lightly. Then I was standing up. Time, which had accelerated, was now molasses-slow. In slow motion I walked back to my bike, set it upright, and walked it to the sidewalk. I gravely examined it. Remarkably, it looked undamaged.

“Never mind the bike! Are you OK?” The driver, a young woman, had come out of her car. She was agitated.

“I'm fine,” I said. I could have told her that I was moving slowly precisely because I didn't know: I was waiting for all the reports to come in. But that was more complicated than I cared to try to put into words.

“I don't know what to do. I've never hurt a bicyclist before. Are you OK?”

A teachable moment, I thought. I could say something about looking out for bicycles before flinging open your door. But if the experience didn't teach her, I didn't reckon any words of mine would, and besides, she was young and distressed. “I'm fine, really.” I went on checking the bike; the wheels and the brakes and gearing were all in good order.

I rolled my shoulders, stood on one leg and then the other, swayed my hips. I ran my hands over my arms. Rolled my head in a cautious circle. Nothing. No scrapes, no abrasions. I hadn't landed on my hands, my knees, or my elbows. What on earth had I landed on? My upper arm was going to bruise up nicely, between the elbow and the swell of the triceps, but you don't fall on your upper arm.

“That was pretty spectacular,” said a passer-by, holding a baby in her arm. “Are you really all right?”

“I really am,” I said. The driver apologized again, and this time I grinned reassuringly at her. She looked doubtful. I fetched my pack from the street and put it back in the basket I have mounted behind the seat, got back on the bike, and rode on downtown to work.

And today, three days later, I'm still fine. The bruise on my arm is the only mark on me: the only place that hurts is an abdominal muscle – whether I snagged a handlebar with it, or pulled it at some point during my gymnastics, I can't say. It objects to me doing sit-ups, and I reckon it's likely to be forming trigger points soon – muscles usually do, a couple days after trauma: often that's all that “whiplash” consists of. The check-rein muscles of my neck, especially the SCM, are a little sore, of course. But overall my lack of injury is a little mysterious. Something must have taken the impact. I'm inclined to think I must have flipped over the door, landed on my feet, and gone into my somersault from there. Extraordinarily lucky.

But I have always had uncanny luck. It used to make me uneasy, to make me feel that I was living beyond my karmic means: but now I just accept it. Landing on my feet just seems to be what I do.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

If This Box

if this box I lie down in
is not what you suppose

if it is a ship
they will push with grieving hands

if it is a fuel
they will light in the dark

I will burn and I will sail
and when the cage

breaks open the stuff inside
will flare briefly

on the water

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Gathering of the Day

The coffee tastes like woodsmoke,
the waitress is plump as a rumpled pillow,
and the radio mourns, mourns
as she reaches a braceleted hand towards my heart
and pours into my cup.

Spheres of white and black, and glitters of silver:
sparkly things that delighted once
in shops far away in a girlhood
unaccountably lost; and now
babies and strange, hostile,
struggling men. Oh, it is not
what any of us expected my dear, don't weep,

the coffee is sweet and bitter,
and the light is growing around us,
and the radio mourns, mourns
the gathering of the day.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Words and Starlings

I watch a flight of maybe two dozen birds – starlings, I think – rise from a treetop, and take a wide semicircular path to settle in another treetop. They're barely more than specks: I identify them as starlings by the jitteriness and pointiness of the individual dots. But what draws my eye is that, at this distance, the group of birds is obviously not a collection of individuals, but a creature in its own right. You can imagine, if you can't see, the invisible membranes that hold them together, their flexibility and tensile strength; a bird too far from the group is drawn back in, as if tethered by a transparent rubber band. The whole constellation flies with a graceful undulation, far more graceful, and transfixing, than any individual starling: individual starlings being actually rather uncouth and awkward birds. What to make of this creature of flickering points, riding on the sea of the air? How did it decide to move to another treetop, and why?

I have never been so deeply aware of how unlike most human beings I am, of how hard I have to work to keep up with the normal world and present acceptable personas to it. I spent much of my thirties and forties berating myself for not making more of my gifts, literary, mathematical, visual, analytical. Now, in my fifties, I am beginning to think, not only that all that judgement is a waste of energy, but that any proper accounting would also have to weigh how well I did, given my disabilities: my crippling shyness, my inability to integrate with the flock, how rapidly social interaction floods my circuits and renders me passive and stupid. I also often simply blank out if asked to switch tasks: I can concentrate on one problem for longer than most people can, but I make silly high-level mistakes. I'm perfectly capable of working intently for fourteen hours on a problem without ever noticing that it actually is irrelevant and doesn't need to be solved. And once shaken out of my problem-solving trance, I'm dopey, automaton-like: it takes a hour and a half of walking about and mental idling before I'm good for anything again. Gifted I may be, moderately, but I am also neurologically – what? Disabled is possibly too strong a word, but it's the aptest one I can find.

I would call this something on the Autism/Asperger's spectrum, but it doesn't fit in two ways. For one, I am intensely, even excessively verbal. I am a slow and awkward speaker, but I'm acutely sensitive to writing, to its shading and nuance, and I produce it with alarming ease. One of my gifts is linguistic. And the other is that I don't usually seem to have any deficit in empathy, any difficulty in reading social and emotional information, in understanding the language of facial expression and gesture. Still though there are strange gaps in my understanding, and my emotional memory is notoriously unreliable. My current emotional state floods back through my past: when I'm unhappy, I imagine that I've always been unhappy, and when I'm happy I imagine that I've always been happy. I recognize this intellectually as distortion, but I find it very difficult to counter, and I have to rely on other people for access to my own emotional past. And I make from time to time emotional mistakes which no one of ordinary intelligence ought to make.

I could blame this on my family history, on my gender, or on my culture (or perhaps on my awkward placement in that culture, half in and half out). Or upon my neurology, as my current immersion in Oliver Sacks' books disposes me. Or simply on my own peculiar weakness of character. But however I play the prologue, the action of the drama is the same.

We understood each other better before ever I opened my mouth. I quoted that to Martha, after a difficult conversation recently. (Maturin to Dillon, or Dillon to Maturin, after they finally break silence with each other, in I think the second volume of the shelf of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels.) “I can never say what I mean.”

“But you're so good with words,” she said.

“No. I'm not good with words. Words are good with me, that's it,” I answered.

Words lead me on, plausible, clever, entrancing: endless varied swirls of those 26 letters, those 47 phonemes. Word after word after word, each with its ancient history, crusted with past meanings or shiny with new use, forming brilliant mosaics of sound, of movements of the throat and tongue, of patterns for the eye. I follow where they lead, until they vanish, and leave me in a cold dark unknown street, where all the doors are locked against me. No. I am not good with words.

Monday, September 06, 2010


When he lost his color sight he said the world
was made of metal: gray fruit, gray skin;
black tomatoes; a sky of filthy white.

What greater disaster for an artist?
He thought of swallowing a pile
Of dirty grayish pills; hanging himself

With a coil of rope like shining leaden guts.
But life went on, and art went on. He began
to paint in black and white, ferociously:

sunsets made of glare and stabbing jet,
shapes and gleams, insignias, rising forms
against the infinite gradations of the light.

He took to evenings walks, and nightclubs,
where his sight was better than yours or mine,
catching hints and traces that for us

are flooded by the blare of color, and at last,
when some thought they might have a cure, he said
he could not be bothered. He had work to do.