“Don’t push the river. It flows by itself.” Barry Stevens
The thread on “Random Thoughts” about finding tickets to sold-out sporting events (ah the good old pre-pandemic age) reminded me of an incident in my younger days, an intersection of new age thinking and age-old sporting events.
For reasons not relevant here, one October Saturday afternon long ago I found myself with some free time in Iowa City, Iowa, on the campus of Iowa University. I noted the annual Iowa-Minnesota football game -- the big rivalry game -- was about to begin. I had no ticket and no money, but thought it would be fun to attend.
At that time I was very much into the so-called New Age, specifically the concept of Taoism and of letting the universe work itself out without consciously trying to interfere, e.g. with letting the river flow and figuring out how to flow with it. Specifically, on this day, I decided I would let the universe get me into that game.
So I walked over to the stadium and studied the situation. Typical Big Ten Saturday afternoon, crowds of people milling about in either Iowa Black-and-Gold or Minnesota Maroon-and-Gold. Band music in the background, a beautiful autumn day, golden sunshine, bright blue sky, gentle breeze, mild temperatures.
I didn’t know the layout of Kinnick Stadium*, I’d never even been to Iowa City before. I walked around it, looking for ways of ingress. Somehow I’d get myself in there, and I supposed I’d have to somehow sneak in. Probably a risky task, stadium security might not be kind to a long-haired young adult breaking the rules, even the law. But I saw no other way in.
At that moment an older gentleman, clad in stylish Iowa alum gear, beckoned to me. I walked over. “You want to go to the game,” he said in a sort of declarative question. “Yes,” I said.
“Well,” he replied, “I’ve got an extra ticket here. One of our party couldn’t make it.”
“Thanks, but I can’t afford to buy it.”
“No problem. Take it.”
And I did. The game was only moderately interesting. Iowa was not very good in those days, and the Golden Gophers walked all over them.
But I had a very good time, riding the river’s current, having felt first-hand the power of blind trust in the nature of the universe.
Unfortunately, powerful as that sensation was, I didn’t stay with it, couldn’t keep my end of the bargain, couldn’t keep trusting. I fell back into the day-to-day way of living, kept shoving my oar in and trying to direct the flow, to help it along, to be what and who my mundane mind decided.
It’s made for a long and interesting journey. But after all that, I find myself right where I was on that long-ago afternoon, on the edge of something interesting and resolving (if that’s right word) to once again back off, to once again let the river flow.
Because that’s what’s been happening all along. All my lifelong meddling accomplished was pushing myself into rapids and weedbeds, only settling into calmer waters when I pulled back my oars, and, to borrow an overworked, but nonetheless apt expression, went with the flow.
It’s what’s going to happen anyway.
*Irrelevant sidenote. The namesake of Kinnick Stadium, Nile Kinnick, was a graduate of my high school, and his portrait hung above my locker.
I heard someone speak on the radio the other day about “ambiguous” or “vicarious” loss, a genuine feeling of loss over something either undefined or that seems not to merit serious feelings of loss, but that nonetheless induces it.
I understand it well.
From time to time I posted here about a rabbit who had semi-adopted me, and vice versa. A cottontail with a damaged back leg, and we had a relationship for about two years. Now I fear she’s gone for good, and I miss more than cold reason says I should.
Cue the “Love Story” music and scenes.
We first “met” one snowy January morning when she showed up at the back door, sorting through the snow to find bits of old birdseed I had tossed out, food our lovebird didn’t want. Most noticeably, she left spots of bright blood on the cold concrete of the back stoop. I began watching for her, and she began coming back on a semi-regular basis, most mornings. I gave her the inelegant name of “Flatfoot,” because that back leg was flat, as though she had caught it under something. She made do with it -- what other choice did she have? -- but it obviously pained her, she rarely put weight on it and often licked at it.
As winter melted into spring she kept coming, and I began sitting outside when I saw her, tossing out seed for her. Somehow, we mutually discovered that she really liked Ritz crackers, and I would toss one or two of those to her. I began holding them out to her and she eventually got to the point she would s-t-r-e-t-c-h out her neck and snatch the cracker, then settle a few feet away to eat it. I changed her name to “Ritzy” at first, which grew into “Fritzy” for some reason. One time I decided our relationship should move to the next level, so I held out my flat hand with birdseed on it. She slowly came up and began eating the seed out of my hand, but got confused as to where the seed ended and where my flesh began, and incidentally nipped me, hard enough to draw blood. I yelped and pulled back my hand, she ran for cover. But the next day we were back to our old routine.
And so it went. Many mornings she was waiting outside when I got up or would run up to me when I walked out, while any other rabbits bolted for the bushes. Sometimes, when I sat with my laptop on the back deck, I would see her make her careful route around the edge of the yard, against the fence, eventually ending up at the front porch. I suspected she was a “she” because from time-to-time she seemed to have enlarged teats, as though nursing babies. Sometimes she would pay me the ultimate rabbit complement of stretching out and relaxing not far from me, something rabbits only do when they are at ease.
The leg seemed to get better for a while, then worse. She put weight on it only when she had to, and sometimes used it to scratch her ear, but would always lick at it. The claws kept growing longer and at odd angles. But she adapted.
Two years this lasted, with a few absences of one or two days, but she always returned.
That back leg always bothered me, and I wished there were something I could do to help her. I thought about a wildlife rescue, but doubted they would be seriously interested in a cottontail. They would, at most, euthanize her, and that didn’t seem right. She always seemed so lively and uncomplaining about the leg, and it seemed wrong for me or anyone else to decide otherwise. I considered trying to catch her myself and putting her in a cage, but read too many stories of wild rabbits beating themselves to death against the wire, trying to escape. Perhaps I could have convinced a vet to do some sort of surgery on the leg, but I doubted I could afford it, even if it were feasible.
So I did nothing, which was probably the proper course.
The last time I saw her was about six weeks ago. I looked out my front window and saw a rustling in the hostas, then she kind of raised up, with a couple nearly-grown babies hanging on her. She licked them, then limped off. The next morning I came across her lying in some hostas in the backyard, and she seemed a little off somehow, even though she moved on.
But something told me that was the last time I’d see her.
Sometimes now I see young rabbits in the yard, no doubt at least a couple had been hers. One seemed to hang around a bit, and I tossed it a Ritz, which it ignored. Would have been nice if the rabbit had run after it, a sort of passing the baton to the next generation, but it didn’t happen.
I sometimes wonder how her life ended, though I don’t like to ponder it. Rabbits run many risks, and three-legged ones even more. I hope her ending was sudden. I don’t know what or if rabbits have memories or thoughts, but I am glad she no longer has to endure the pain of that bad leg, even if I have to endure the pain of a lost friend. Because that’s what she was, and I really do hope that, somehow on a rabbit-level, she considered me the same. We had a real relationship that meant much to me.
Goodbye, Fritzy. I truly miss you. My mornings are emptier now. Thanks for two years of trust and sharing.
I want to want to write. I know I do it well and I have all reasonable resources at my disposal: a workable laptop with access to online resources, a well-stocked library of hard-bound resources (Oxford American English dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, various writing guides, a quiet place to work at a functioning desk, good lighting. I get various suggestions and prompts from sites I follow. My health is reasonably good, my find still sharp, my fingers still agile on the keyboard. And, above all, I have ample time.
What I’m seeking is the power to get started on something. I know that when I get going (like this) words flow and I fall into the rhythm and cadence of writing, and everything else becomes irrelevant. At those times I know I am a writer. But sometimes the ignition doesn’t catch, the engine won’t turn over.
I guess what I need is to get out of my head and onto paper, but it can be hard. A lot like “trying” to fall asleep. It can’t be done directly. I tell myself I have no reason to write anymore. I used to think I had or could have fresh insights into life, but now it feels as though I am sometimes borderline sappy or boringly restating maxims. I don’t really have any urge or expectation anymore to become well-known as a writer, so there’s that. What other reason is there to write? Thinking Samuel Johnson’s “a man who writes for anything other than money is a fool.” (paraphrased).
The obvious answer seems to be, well, the obvious one. I should write because I love the process of writing, and that love is my version of Sam Johnson’s currency. Also, I should add if I’m being honest, I sometimes write in a larger forum, like this, because I like to be liked, I value feedback, I treasure feeling I belong to a larger community of like minds, larger than my audience of one here in my workspace, or of two or three, if you count my wife and my daughter.
And so, here I sit, having postulated and answered my question in the same blog entry. The way out of one’s head and onto paper is simply and starkly, to get out of one’s head.
Thanks for reading this, for bearing with me as I wandered through my mush of thought. Now back off, I just might have some serious writing to do.
When I was 11 years old we moved from a small town to the fresh suburbs of a larger city, our clutch of houses nesting amid residual scraps of farmland. One of those scraps was still being used to pasture a herd of dairy cows owned and managed by a Catholic convent. (This being the early 1960s, when convents were still a going concern).
I often roamed alone in the wild grasses of that pasture, out of sight of home and civilization, soaking in the essence of the prairie seasons. Toward the center of that semi-wild space, on a rise, a huge cottonwood spread its branches. A few large stones and the ghost of foundation suggested a long-gone barn or other structure.
A farm wagon rested beneath that cottonwood. An everyday working wagon, metal wheels and wooden frame, likely once used to haul hay out to the cattle. Saplings, young trees really, had wormed themselves around it, some through the wheels. Clearly the wagon hadn’t been moved in a long time. It seemed sound, though, the wood being solid and the wheels and hardware, while rusty, seemed strong underneath.
All suggesting that the wagon had been placed or left there, rather than having been abandoned after breaking down. Perhaps encroaching civilization had so reduced the acreage that there was no need for a wagon any more; perhaps mechanization had made it superfluous. Or, as seemed more likely to me, the wagon had been left there on what had been intended as a temporary basis. Something unexpected had intervened and the days turned to months, to seasons, to years, time piling up around the wagon until it slipped from awareness, left to itself and to nature, until any idea of moving it again, should such idea have risen up, would have been abandoned as involving more effort than gain.
I felt an immediate kind of sorrow for it, in the way adolescents do, left alone out there for no fault of its own.
Many years later I feel a touch of that sorrow when I think of the wagon, but that feeling tends to get buried beneath a sheen of symbolism. I see it as manifestation of the idea of unexpected endings. In my heart I know someone meant to come back for that wagon, but never, ever, did. That the wagon had done well throughout its working life but that life had been ended without warning, that it was unintentionally left behind, waiting until it became, not a wagon abandoned, but an abandoned wagon, finally defined by its uselessness and archaic nature. What had mattered and moved had become a symbol of sad stasis.
That wagon comes to mind whenever I think about my writing, or, as has been the case more recently, my lack of writing. I find myself wondering at what point those story lines I keep meaning to pick up on, those half-done drafts and half-baked ideas, will settle into absence. Or, maybe more precisely and more disconcertingly, whether and when I will reach the point at which the idea of writing becomes just that, a symbol buried beneath thoughts and dreams and hazy memories. The soft tapping of saplings in the wind becoming the final ticks of time.
As I mentally prepared for my upcoming solo skydive this past weekend, I kept thinking of the TaeKwonDo blog entry by @O.M. Hillside and my response to it. Specifically, I described how I let fear control me, rather than trusting my teacher’s evaluation of my ability. I resolved that no matter what it feels like as I prepare to jump, I will trust that when my Master told me I was ready, I would go, regardless of any fears. In the case of TKD, it had been Master Kim, a veteran and highly-regarded teacher; in the case of skydiving, it would be Bo, a competent and experienced skydiver.
The morning classes were quite rigorous, a lot of simulated jumps from various devices, and a lot of video and teaching about what to do, and what could go wrong. A lot of mental preparation stuff --mnemonics about how to control your animal reactions, and about the steps to take. The temperature was around 90, the sun beat down from a bright blue sky, and whenever we were outside the sweat ran down my brow. I wished I had brought a sweatband.
Funny, I thought, how hard it can be to remember the simple things under pressure -- I quickly learned the “Circle of Awareness” to be gone through as soon as one left the plane: Heading, Altitude, Body position, and to Breathe.” But for some reason it was hard to recall them on command. The same with the evaluation of an open parachute, “the three S’s”: is it Square, Steerable, and Stable? (even now, in the stillness of my kitchen, I had to search a few moments for the third element).
And so on.
The physical parts were even more demanding, making sure I knew where the main ripcord was, the reserve, and the cut-off mechanism activator if the main chute goes bad. Hard to remember to look, and exactly where they were. And all the hand signals I should make, and that my accompanying instructors would make.
And so on. I started thinking about @Iain Aschendale and @EFMingo, and thinking what it would be like if this were a military organization and I had to learn all no matter what, and learn it well. I envisioned long hours of drills until I got it right or died trying. But we didn’t have long hours of drills, only this one morning. Oh well, I thought, and again resolved to leave all the year evaluations and decisions to Bo.
For the first time ever I felt old at my 70 years. I was at least 30 years older than my cohorts (and all but one of my instructors) and I sensed how much slower some of my reaction times were than theirs. And my body felt more tired and sore than I thought it should, but they all seemed fine with it.
After the morning classes we were given a written exam to complete. As I sat alone at a picnic table, Bo sat across from me. “I’ve been watching you, and I have some concerns.” We talked for awhile, and it soon became clear what his message was. “I’m not interested in making money,” he said, “I’m interested in safety. I just don’t think you’re able to do it.”
As I had promised myself, I accepted his words at face value, hard though they were, and opposite to what I had envisioned. I don’t like to fail or to wash out.
I next accepted his offer of doing a tandem dive instead, but one in which I played the primary role, including pulling the cord and all the rest including altitude checks and steering. At least I wouldn’t go home without a dive.
And it was wonderful. Not the cramped ride to two miles up, but the cold buffeting wind and the patchwork farm field below, the bright blue sky and wispy clouds, the jerk of the opening main chute at 6,000 feet (I made sure it was Stable, Steerable, and Square), then the slow circling approach to the landing site, and the smooth sliding to earth.
I think the Master was right, even though his words stung. Better to settle for disappointment than to die because of vanity. May not impress the ladies as much, but no point in impressing them by plunging to earth.
Separate names with a comma.