Birdless sky swells grey blue against trees that stand like brushes stiff in the cold The penultimate breath of a new earth The dark disappears in a steadfast philanthropy of color: red, orange, rose blush up from the land over lakes and hills and roof slats to tell the inhabitants Night has not prevailed. Earth e x h a l e s as the Sun spills her promise.
“He told of how the trees had grown in all sorts of conditions, endured lightning strikes and windstorms and infestations. [The boat builder] said the wood taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, but it also taught us about the reason for surviving in the first place. Something about infinite beauty, about things larger and greater than ourselves.” Daniel J. Brown, The Boys in the Boat
Anticipation trails the greeting: “Happy new year!” The newness in the turn of the calendar somehow holds out hope of a fresh happiness, a better year. But I will be grateful to hold onto the status quo of a mom on duty, keeping up with the home lessons and activities, churning out the chow, running the house. Put my face on this year? Maybe! The lipstick box awaits, now organized. Host company?? I pulled off Christmas. WRITE? Perhaps I ask too much. Because I have learned to be satisfied with very little, even through the homesickness for my blog. I’ve shown up here drenched, not in the exhilarated sweat of the marathon victor, but in the swells of a twelve-month winter that have finally cast me out on shore. It’s been a year I would not repeat for any amount of money and it is with eagerness I accept the well-wishings of a happy 2017. Except that though we don’t like to think about unexpected hardships, they come. In fact, they don’t take holidays, and have left me with friends and family whose Christmas season remains an anniversary of dear losses. So maybe the relief of a tabula rasa is a luxury not within our rights. Maybe we can at best just hope to survive.
That is what I got out of the book The Martian, Watney’s desperate fight to stay alive an amplified contemplation of the symphonic battle between the harbingers of death and impulse of life we call the human condition. The farmer’s labor is a prayer, dependent on forces he attempts to harness but cannot control. And there is the businessman, the urban version of this struggle, in his relationship with market conditions. Life is conflict – in the community, family, ourselves.
“A protagonist is pretty much defined by the strength of the opposition he or she faces,” Pulitzer journalist Jack Hart quotes a writer in Storycraft. Isn’t that life? Even trees testify to the seasons they have weathered, confess their ordeal and age in their rings and core. “He talked about the underlying strength of the individual fibers in the wood. He said those separate fibers, knitted together in the wood, gave cedar its ability to bounce back and resume its shape or take on a new one. The ability to yield, to bend, to give way, Pocock said, was sometimes a source of strength in men as well as in wood.” DJB, The Boys in the Boat. There is a strength adversity builds that is of a different order than the brawn of success. It comes from just holding on and being able to look another day of it in the face. You are not capable, pretty, or smart. You just try to keep standing. Day after day.
“I continued to go [to the nursing home], and I struggled to find meaning in their bleak existence. What finally helped was an image from a medieval monk, Brother Lawrence, who saw all of us as trees in winter, with little to give, stripped of leaves and color and growth, whom God loves unconditionally anyway.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Part of my problem with suffering is that I’m surprised by it. Why can’t it all go my way?? Well, if it won’t always be California sunshine, can I at least have my greenhouse? You, at least, have been reminded. Expect a hard year, and happiness will follow somewhere in that.
“Amazingly, some of the bacteria survived. The population is strong and growing. That’s pretty impressive, when you consider it was exposed to near-vacuum and subarctic temperatures for over twenty-four hours. With hundreds of millions of bacteria, it only takes one survivor to stave off extinction. Life is amazingly tenacious. They don’t want to die any more than I do.” The Martian
I have a big house, a husband who sees to my needs, a boy I adore, and friends who’ve got my back. But these things are just the facts of a fuller story that no one in the know would envy. Who would think that I who have it all, by appearances, can understand why Facebook famously feeds depression? The Happiest Virtual Place On Earth can feel like one endless reminder of the Things That Are Missing in your life. After a ginger foray into that part of social media this year, I found myself leaving the screen disturbed – and sad – and eventually realized the feelings came from wounds that have yet to heal. Offline, I look at the people around me. My single friends would give an arm to be married. Those with families of their own each have their burden, ones I am grateful to have been spared. So why do we remain convinced others were dealt better cards, when we are every one of us in need of support and understanding?
Reasons We’re Sure Everybody Is Happier Than Us*
1. We are unsatisfied with our lot, no matter how it turns. The human condition is not, in the language of mathematicians, an equation but an inequality: My life < The Ideal. A literary metaphor would make us an unfinished story, which is why our hearts beat for more. More money, more time, more joy, more toys, more love. We bring to the table our fractured perspective, limited understanding, hopes conceived of an unresolved past. We will never, by the bootstraps of our humanness, be able to complete our relationships because we can’t complete ourselves.
2. Our sense of entitlement. Conflict in these imperfect relationships gives us away and pride declares, “I deserve better. He owes me appreciation, recognition. She should’ve given me the benefit of the doubt.” Disgruntled where we are, how nice and green is the grass on the other side.
3. The myth of perfectionism. I borrow some insights from Alain Botton, author of the NY Times article Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person, on our misguided notions of love because nowhere else do we so generously spin our fantasies of happiness. In a recent roundtable entitled How We Choose Our Spouses, Botton spoke of the reaction his article had garnered:
What was interesting was that people were overwhelming relieved. Look, it’s like telling people you will have an unhappy life…I think that often we suffer from a burden of shame around how difficult it is that we find it to live, to love, to make good choices…And the reason that there is something oppressive in being told that only perfection will do as the basis of marriage, is that so many of our marriages, under that kind of judgment, have to seem below par and it can seem rather punitive and oppressive as if we have failed to measure up to a standard which most of us simply cannot measure up to.
We allow Facebook and blogs to perpetuate the hope in fairy tales, the expectation that we grow up and live happy, photogenic lives.
We should learn to accommodate ourselves to ”wrongness,” striving always to adopt a more forgiving, humorous and kindly perspective on its multiple examples in ourselves and in our partners…We don’t need people to be perfect in love. We need people to be good enough.
4. Love, according to Botton, is not an impulse of feeling but a skill. It isn’t pay dirt at emotional Roulette but “with all of us deeply broken, a chance of success in love means being able to deal with our brokenness, both inside ourselves and in a partner.” I’d say this truth holds for all our relationships. “Compatibility is ultimately an achievement of love. It shouldn’t be…the precondition of falling in love.” Love is something you work, and often work hard, at. You manage expectations of spouse, friend, self, and life, being able to explain your craziness as you grow in self-awareness. But we somehow believe life doesn’t exact so much effort of those around us.
Jumping off track a bit, let me share that my About page earned 2000 likes this weekend. I didn’t get to the celebration video, a toss-up between Yours Truly kicking up heels to Great Balls of Fire or crooning into the mic in a red dress. So hopefully this will do. Your gestures of affection and regard have meant a great deal to me and I appreciate every one of you. When Facebook gets me down, psh, I’ll just come back to my blog.
*HW won out in the argument with her twin The Grammar Mafia and managed to keep the vernacular with the objective pronoun.
we felt so grown up when we were kids and now wonder that we are so old when we're not yet grown we started losing our parents to time and frailty. in the cycle of life things go upside down sometimes you rush d o w n the rabbit hole into a world above the logic of sorrow and find you are so small, but remember: Mom's high ceiling, your sure ground. see the sky and trees in your pool of tears they're the other side of life. how beautiful things are when they drown how clear it is underwater. you long to run to the garden beyond that door but you don't fit life would feel deformed under the weight of loss if it weren't for the faith that was bigger than the life that shut down she archived her fears and hopes in her kids, did anyone hear the story in between, did anyone look? hold fast your heirloom assurance the midnight of your dreams is really a new day. for HJ & anyone else who would like it
1. Develop amnesia. Find some way to forget what he did. Or didn’t do (again). Go without sleep or spin 50 times to reduce cognitive faculty. Stick a finger in the socket.
2. If biting your tongue hurts too much, pop some chocolate. Sure, every time.
3. Lie. Tell yourself he’s listening. The short-lived delusion will reap a harvest of peace for the home, the good of the kids.
4. Use your imagination. He mistook medication for digestive enzymes and is suffering severe side effects. Yeah, that’s it. He’s sick.
5. Count to 10. No, 40. In Portuguese – or Swahili. Lose yourself in a dictionary. Hec, decide to master a foreign language. You’ll get there in no time and can have any job you want. (Let me help. I can count to 1,000,000 in Korean.)
6. Don’t repeat your requests and be called a nag. Text him the list of Honey Dos (even if you’re sitting facing him) after breakfast when glucose has hit the brain before he plans his day. Lunch is too late, what with food coma and that sweet nap. Cap it at three tasks or he’ll ignore ’em. Reward him with a drink between tasks. Your head hurts? The mental tap-dancing was your cerebral exercise for the day. You’re excused from the Times crossword and Sudoku.
There. You might find yourself mangled, bruised, or diabetic. But gosh darn it, you are loving each other to death. Nothing worth having spares the suffering, and he is so worth it. Because when the amnesia wears off, you’ll remember: he said I do. And in his helplessly human way, he has.
Now, why’s the AC dying again? We just fixed it. Weird. Car’s sluggish, too.
Mph: 70. 60. 50. 45.
Ok. Gotta pull over. I run the hazard lights and crawl over two lanes to the shoulder. Just in time. The Sienna gives out and it takes me a minute to realize the hood’s smoking. My eyes fall to the cubbyhole where the mobile usually sits. Great. The day I run out of the house without it. Noted, husband. Noted. I can make out Pyrite Exit, 1/2 Mile up the freeway and all I can do is hope for a gas station there. I collect my hat, keys, and the little water I have but don’t go five yards before deciding, “Not in these sandals. Not in this sun.” Turning back toward the car, I do the only thing left to get to a phone. I stick out my thumb. As the minutes wear on, I’m not sure what strikes in me greater wonder. Finding myself “hitchhiking” or seeing that nobody was stopping. I am also a little nervous about who might want to come to the aid of a lone woman.
Before I can worry too much, a car horn interjects and I spin to see a beat-up truck behind the fence. Cozy in the front, three Latino men who look to be in their twenties wave. Apply every politically incorrect stereotype and judge by appearances, and these were not guys a sober helpless female would turn to for help. Here goes nothing. My New York sense of adventure moves me forward.
“Hi. Can you please call my husband, tell him I’m stuck on the 60 and need AAA?”
The men smile and three cell phones appear in a flash. The guy nearest me in Shotgun beats his friends to it and waiting through the rings, apologetically swings a tattooed arm to keep his cigarette smoke from me.
“Honey, it’s me!” I call out to prove the call is no prank.
I’m told help is on the way and decline the men’s offer to stay with me. As they pull away, the guys point behind me and looking back toward the freeway I see a young man in something like a Corvette smiling as if to ask, “Anything I can do?”
“Thank you so much but my husband is coming.” I nod my thanks and in a few minutes make out a police car in the distance. California Highway Patrol stops to make sure I’m okay and offers the cooled vehicle for a waiting room but I’m not feeling venturesome enough to climb into the backseat I associate with a jail cell. And then my knight in shining armor pulls up.
Later: “When I heard a man’s voice on the line saying, ‘Your wife…’ your life flashed before my eyes. I thought I’d lost you and saw myself putting T in school. And writing on your blog.
Over my dead body.
Forty-two days after burning in a horrible fatal crash, Lauda got back on the Formula 1 track – before the skin grafts – to defend his championship title against Hunt. Single-mindedness. Insane resolve.
The film Rush opens with a portrait of Hunt as a handsome, charismatic, successful racer; the world at his feet. Popularity and raw talent smile upon him. The pursuit of dreams for Lauda, on the other hand, is a fight from the get-go. Unable to lean on his illustrious family name, he risks everything to raise support and to bargain no-holds-barred for his first contract. Lauda becomes an expert on auto parts and aerodynamics, and exacts the fastest race car possible out of his engineers. He will find himself in his fiercest battle in the hospital. Both men embody greatness in their own way, “desperate to make a mark, even to die trying.” But Lauda has my attention in the life-altering crash that almost claims his dreams and the way he handles the tragedy.
What do daredevils do with the fear? Bury it under the adrenaline? Just swallow it? Hunt, who seems to laugh at danger, throws up before every race. His eyes also betray the gnawing anxiety every time he comes across cars incinerated off the track. At the eleventh hour of the famous 1976 Grand Prix in Germany, Lauda calls a meeting to boycott the race in the face of the torrential rain. He has no peace about the circuit’s safety arrangements. Going through with the event is obviously asking for it. Hunt turns the room full of men who are scared alike, flouting Lauda as a self-serving coward unwilling to allow others a chance at the win. Classically high school, afraid of looking chicken as terrified as they are for their life, the guys put it to vote and the race goes on.
Lauda punctures his fuel tank, crashes at 170 mph, and the Ferrari erupts into flames. With the rescuers having trouble getting him out, he is trapped for over a minute in the inferno.
That he lives is a miracle. Lauda resists death by sheer force of will. The graphic hospital scenes, not for the faint-hearted, depict the human spirit at some of its most astonishing heights. On Day 28, the doctor comes to vacuum his lungs and warns it’s not going to be nice. The staff slips what looks like a very long thick metal rod down his throat to hose grey water and blood back up through a tube. Lauda grips the bed for life. And through roasted eyes that barely open, he watches Hunt on TV shaking his trophy. “Do it again,” he orders the doctor through bruised lungs. All the while, he’s bedridden as Hunt takes race after race on the screen, gaining upon Lauda’s lead in the world championship. You cringe with him the day he attempts to put his helmet on over the raw skin that is his head and face.
Ready for another victory on the tracks of the Italian Grand Prix with his rival out of the way, Hunt is stunned to learn Lauda has showed up six weeks after the accident. The movie doesn’t show him peeling off the blood-soaked bandages he really did undo on site. Hunt approaches his arch nemesis in one of several poignant exchanges. He admits responsibility for swaying the vote that fateful day. “Yes, I watched you win those races while I was fighting for my life. You were equally responsible for getting me back in the car,” answers Lauda.
Lauda pushes himself to higher ground off the best of his opponent. No excuses. Not the ear he’s lost along with almost half his face and head. No matter that charred lungs protest every breath and his skin screams to the touch. He concentrates on what’s louder, the vow to remain equal to none. Rest? Heal? He might as well hand the years of his sweat and showdown with death over to his enemy. Lauda has fought many times over and there remains nothing but to preserve all he has built and achieved from scratch, the record of his undying determination. To be ruthless with his foe is to be so with himself.
The roar and smell of engines come at Lauda – trauma and inspiration. I wonder on the things that assaulted his mind as he waited to spring forward once again on an impossible road. He in reality admitted to having been absolutely petrified, our most credible hero. It’s extremely difficult getting behind the wheel again after any auto accident.
The cars take off – and one after another pass Lauda. Sluggish, he weaves onto grass. Then drivers collide in front of him and he manages to clear through the alarming confusion. He surges forward. I won’t say how he places in the race but the crowd that rallies to this champion afterward reveals something of our longing to look up to, even worship, those who conquer themselves and light our hope.
Every race that follows the crash revisits the question of wisdom and foolhardiness, of fear and courage – and offers the men the chance to choose security over risk. The finals for the world title in Fuji finds Lauda at 68 points to Hunt’s 65. And it’s pouring. This time it’s Hunt who tries to call if off but the forces that be push the event forward. Drivers gun their engines at the starting line and you see Hunt and Lauda, grim inside what look like sleek coffins.
I rein in the eagerness to comment on the climax of this saga, as I’ve divulged enough to those who would like to see for themselves. But some beautiful moments that speak of relationships and character redemption sparkle throughout the edgy drama. They explore what competition does for us. In speaking of the final match where Hunt risks all to burst through the ranks, he later says to Lauda, “Yes, I was prepared to die to beat you, and that’s what made it so great.” In a high-stake sport like racing, victory seems a triple glory: you’ve subdued your will, vanquished your adversary, and evaded death. Hunt lets us in on the thrill of live-wire living: “the closer to death you are the more alive you feel.”
The photo above moves me to see Lauda looking upon it from the other side of time. There he sits three years before the accident after which doctors had given him up for lost, three years before he would find himself permanently disfigured. The picture tells of dreams, talent, hope, fortitude – a destiny. Though Rush gives us glimpses of the answers, I am left to wonder. What lessons did he take away from the years battling Hunt? Did he gain what he desired? Did loss redeem triumph? Has he ever let himself down in racing? Did victory bring joy?