Thunder Roll

US - MILITARY - MEMORIAL DAY - ROLLING THUNDER

Blue-white needles frosted with summer rain squat fat and still over the roar.  Every passing growl is a Doppler crescendo lifting away another earthling.   One, maybe two.   Each made the choice to ride.  Every roar for days, hours into night, dawn into searing noon.  The rumble approaches and retreats, again, approaches and retreats, again.  Each one another one.  Each one new.  Each one here, each already gone.

 This freeway usually crouches behind its soft noise, a wash becoming nothing.  Surf without storm, wind over low dunes scoured clean of all breaks.  It fades into air itself, hiding passage in the press of blank white.  Ears become deaf by necessity or maybe laziness here on the other side of the sound wall, deaf to each human pressing on towards the singular objective of a fragment of day.

Now, here, these motorcycles demand attention.  They are designed for notice.  Each growl is a call to the hairs to rise, the jaw to stiffen, voice ready.  Who’s that? What’s there? When is this?

Now, it is now, it grumbles, it rumbles.  Another now, here it comes! There it goes. . .  A neighbor, a choice, a journey, a calling.

 What now?

A pleasure.  A burn.  A rebirth.

Coursing over the tarmac and weaving through white gashes, each in a pair, a pack, a battalion, or one lone rider.  Glove and leather, denim and chrome.  Each thunder roll is a choice to grip between thighs that saddled machine.  To clutch at gears, to stay upright, to cling to blacktop while soaring up, past, through and away.

Who’s that? What’s there?  Time, one moment. 

When is this?  Choice, forward motion, action, revolution.

Drive in, charge in, bite in and swallow the same air that churns out from belly, esophagus, throat, motor, rubber, grease, grit, sky.  The growl is gulp and belch.  It is breath and howl.  This is another man’s life here, passing, gone.  This is another woman’s ascent, crest, recede.  Each a doppelganger in flag starred ink and road scarred steel.

Claim it.

The rumble barks.

Claim you. 

Each single ticking humming second, each imperceptible sweep of the minute hand is one that only goes forward no matter how hard you press against the brakes and crank into reverse the resistant gears.  You can’t erase the odometer, can’t fly backwards down the on-ramp and start again with open road.

You only have this stretch here, the one outside your window behind a spill of ivy and shattered glass, this low sun bleeding over the sound wall and carrying your stunted roar up to smash like shell, yolk, skull, and cry against the day’s vanishing light.


Image: Vladen Antonov, AFP/Getty in Huffington Post from the Memorial Day 2014 Rolling Thunder ride in Washington DC

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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.

 

99. Things I Can Light: Story from Flint

What men call adventures usually consist of the stoical endurance of appalling daily misery.

– Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves

Do we choose the journey or does it choose us? How much say do we really have?

I imagine I’ll tell the story of now as a gritty trek through a wild and scouring place. It will be the reason for the deep cuts and silver streams lining the map of me. I’ll marvel at my strength (grown out of necessity in this restless soil) and adopt the progeny of my mistakes as my own kin (oh, how very many of them).

Something will reveal itself eventually. It must. It always does.  Continue reading “99. Things I Can Light: Story from Flint”

Takes a Licking

We do not comb our hair. We shove our feet into old sneakers. The dog dances around our knees.

The stained coat is good enough. At least it is lined and will keep the wind out. “Hold her tongue,” Bug tells me. He means for me to squeeze her snout closed to keep her from licking him. I do not do this. It would be easy but he has grown stronger with the latest surge. He is rough with the dog now. He is approaching her weight. He torments her with the grooming comb and scarves from the dress-up trunk. Instead, I place her head against my knee and try to force her still while pretending to be gentle. I try to model tenderness but it is hard when my most regular company is a 72-RPM boy and an oaf of a dog. Continue reading “Takes a Licking”

Happy 100 Days: 24

Train platform, new friends (hello! hello!), young boys not much older than my son approach me to shake my hand and say, “Nice to meet you.” I am so stunned I almost forget how to respond. Metro cards, turnstiles, find a car. Kids spin around the metal poles, “Sit down! Sit still!” It does not work, they are all maps and windows and new new new. The littlest ones cry, both wanting the window seat and the seat next to daddy. Once we are zipping along, tears dry and the traffic, tracks, sky, tunnel mesmerize.
 
Then, up onto city streets. Dusk. Lights, crosswalks, thousands of cars. “Stay close! Stop at the curb! Don’t run ahead!” The boys slam into each other, their bodies pin-balls pinging between Pennsylvania Avenue office buildings. The caravan growths thin as it stretches down a city block. Two boys race ahead and we lose sight of them between the looming wall of strangers. The dad carries his young son far back, his daughter in the bubble-gum pink coat bringing up the rear.
 
Then, it is giant tree. White House in a golden glow. Crowds, bustle, tiny trains, throwing coins into open freight cars. We lose one another, gain an additional mother and daughter, lose her, re-group. The little ones and the big ones all press into the fence, sharing snacks, all learning and then forgetting names. The girls ask their mother for pennies. Another round of coins until we all stop digging into our wallets. The kids throw clumps of grass. The state trees arc behind us and we find the ones we know. Rhode Island, where one went to culinary school. Texas, where one will spend Christmas. Then we see Virginia and we all crowd around for a moment, squeezing our way in.
 
We break free of the crowd’s tight grip and weave our way down the streets again. Up the stairs and onto Freedom Plaza’s deep breath of open space. Up past the marquee lights of National Theater. No one remembers what is here anymore, no one spends time in the city. Where will we eat? All around us, hotels, glimmering brass. The Willard. The Washington Marriott. Lights, doormen, black hired cars. We gamble on distant memory and hoof up 14th street. The Shops at National Place offer up a bakery with a kids’ menu. Sandwiches, fruit cups, chocolate milk. Slump, hydrate, chat, color, wait wait wait and then eat.
 
Back out into the night. The metro again, the front car now, kids take turns peering through the dark glass at the curving tunnel ahead. We peek our heads out at the station stops and wave at the conductor who grins and winks. Girls pour their tiny toy animals onto the vinyl seats. Boys wrestle. “Stop that! Gentle hands!” The parents talk more. Who is in school, who lived where, whose kids like which sports, instruments, books. Have you decorated yet? Where will they be for the holidays? With dad? With you? Half weeks, split Christmas, alternating years.
 
At the final stop, we all wait at the turnstile. No one in this crowd is left behind. We only just met, and already we are each other’s fierce protectors. For one sparkling night, we barely-friends are one tribe.
 

Fight or Flight

Express yourself completely,
then keep quiet.
Be like the forces of nature:
when it blows, there is only wind;
when it rains, there is only rain;
when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.
Tao Te Ching, 10

We are dressed for the day. A Tupperware of cinnamon toast and eggs is ready for Bug to scarf down on the commute. The only thing left is walking the dog. I offer Bug the choice to stay in the house with granddaddy or come with me. He fiddles with his legos, weighing his options. Usually the dog’s constitutional is an all-business trot down the cul-de-sac. Ten minutes, tops. While I know better than to take the kid when we are in a hurry, the situation calls for adaptation.
 
“Gramma Genie can walk her,” he tells me.
 
“Gramma Genie is in Dallas, remember? Your great grandma Mardy fell and broke her hip.”
 
“Oh yeah,” he remembers. “What did they have to do for the operation?”
 
Many mornings, Bug will hang around my mother’s room chewing the fat as she gussies herself up for her workday. My father sequesters himself in the basement to write. In the blessed reprieve, I can buzz around packing lunches and walking the dog, half hearing that mode of relentless interrogation only a 5-year-old can pull off. This week, the big bedroom upstairs is quiet. Bug tags along after me instead. Great Grandma Mardy needs my mother right now much more than we do, so I attempt to move along at a steady clip while also keeping expectations down where they belong. Bug’s ceaseless chatter accompanies me. I explain as briefly as I can how hip replacement works and what the word “rehabilitation” means. I remind him he is supposed to be choosing between the dog and granddaddy.
 
Bug glances at the wan light coming from a too-quiet basement. The old man is no match for the outdoors. “I want to walk with you,” he tells me.
 
Racing down the driveway, Bug kicks through a puddle. It has rained torrents every night for the better part of a week. Giant mushrooms bloom low in the grass and a creek the length of the block has formed along the edge of the blacktop. Fenway snuffles, squashing tiny wild strawberries as she goes. The scent of honeysuckle drapes itself over the mist.
 
Ahead, Bug sees Cleo dart into a gauze of brambles. Our skinny calico cat often joins us on these jaunts, keeping her haughty distance. In an instant, she is invisible, her patches blending into the spongy decay of last season’s canopy. Bug turns to me, impulse flashing across his face.
 
“Let’s go on an adventure!”
 
I feel a sigh gather steam but I quell it. It is getting late. The dog roots around in the puddles. She has peed so we are done here. “It’s awfully wet, baby,” I say, “and we need to get to school.”
 
“It’s not too wet,” he says. He steps off the blacktop and his feet sink into the muck. I groan. He shrugs. “It’s okay. It’s only a little wet.”
 
The cat is visible for a moment, stalking her imaginary prey. She creeps further into the shadows. Bug watches her, keeping one eye on me. He is primed. “We have to chase her,” he explains.
 
“We’ve already gotten all dressed for school. I’m wearing my work clothes.”
 
“We can change our socks. You will dry off at work.” He grins at me, momentum quivering from toes to scalp. His gaze twinkles with something like. . . flirtation? I’m a sucker for a charmer. No and Yes start throwing punches. The crowd presses in, choosing sides. The determination to distinguish myself in my profession joins the clock in clanging out support for the clear favorite.
 
The underdog’s backers are silent.
 

Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place.

Sometimes the hardest steps are the simplest to take. The playground scuffle goes on, but I tear myself away and look only at my son splashed across the canvas of the morning. How many of us get to kick off the workday by ducking into the wild woods? My grandma in that post-op hospital room would probably surrender her reserve seat in heaven for one last moment exactly like this.
 
“Let’s go get that kitty,” I say. I unclip the dog’s lead. Bug chants “Yay, yay, yay!” as he ducks under the vines and plunges into shadow. We are deep in when a breeze awakens the leaves and showers us with a morning-after rain. We look up through the blue-green awning at the sun making its way through a weave of branch and cloud. Bug and Fenway follow the incensed cat down into a creek-bed and up onto a soggy log. She leaps away and we part a congregation of weeds whispering at our calves.
 
Our ragtag foursome dips and climbs through summer then winter and even next year’s spring. We burrow through the earth’s core and emerge from the mouth of a cave that smells of seawater and smoke. We wander through a valley teeming with cockatiels that screech from the low branches of mango trees. Every person we have ever known has grown old and died. A waterfall as tall as a mountain washes us free of memory.
 
Bug parts a curtain of ivy and we spill out onto the road. The cat bounds back towards the house, her tail arched in irritation. My son’s face is wild with pink light and his legs are streaked with mud. “We came out all the way down here!” We have exited fewer than twenty feet from our entry point, but I share his wonder. The continent has shifted in our absence, and nothing will ever be the same.
 
We dash back to our house and peel off socks and shoes. I take the stairs two at a time to change the whole outfit because three inches of damp trouser cuff might blow my cover. I may be a feral thing, but I still have to don my breathing apparatus to survive in the world of steel and glass.
 
No one knows where we have been. How could we begin to explain? We slipped through a tear in the damp fabric of the morning and crawled onto the beach alongside those first gilled beasts. Only a skittish cat, one lop-eared dog, a boy and his mama recall what happened here, but our recollection is fading fast. In the car, Bug and I speak of quotidian things, of weekend plans and hip surgery. When we attempt to fit what we have witnessed into the shape of language, our tongues founder.
 
I know only this: When all the clocks in the world demanded we stay on solid ground, we stepped off the edge. We made our way back, but we may not stay for long. Do we have years or decades? Will we will reach ninety-two or knock off next week? No one gets out of here unscathed. For every moment we claim as our own, we will pay. It is only a matter of time.
 

If you open yourself to loss,
you are at one with loss
and you can accept it completely.

Walk the dog or stay home? Get wet or stay dry? Everything we love, even the very selves we occupy, might be gone in a blink. Knowing this, what choice do we have but to step over and meet what is here?

Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.