"The soul's deeper parts can only be reached through its surface. In this way the eternal forms, that mathematics and philosophy and the other sciences make us acquainted with, will by slow percolation gradually reach the core of one's being; and will come to influence our lives..." C.S. Peirce.
An accident two years ago left me with some injuries that occasionally keep me from doing what I would like to do. I shouldn't complain; my life's pretty good. But even little pains seem to draw all my attention. If my whole body is fine but I've got a blister on my small toe, I can forget the beautiful landscape I'm in and focus instead on the blister, or on the hiking boots that rubbed too much while I climbed a once-in-a-lifetime mountain. A splinter in my finger gets more of my attention than my wife's hand in mine does. Even small pain can keep my mind from noticing great loveliness.
Occasionally, my injuries keep me from being able to drive. When I cannot drive I rely on bicycling, and then I see much more clearly how much my city has been shaped by the automobile. We have very few taxis, and not much by way of public transit. Our city is in a place where land is cheap and abundant, and the sprawling grid of streets and of wide green lawns is a response to the availability of land: it's not a walking city, it's a city for driving. There are some nice bike trails, but they're mostly an afterthought that are designed for recreation and not for transportation. Here in Sioux Falls, the private car rules the road.
I own several cars, and my cars are also a response to the land here, and to its weather. The open prairie can get very cold in winter, and very hot in the summer. In my lifetime, automobiles have become better and better at insulating me from the extremes of weather. I can drive a thousand miles without feeling the air other than when I stop for rest or fuel. This usually seems like an advantage. Sometimes I wish I could talk with other drivers, but we are insulated from one another, too.
A few days ago someone told me that having to rely on my bicycle is a gift, an advantage. "Look at the silver linings," they said. When you bike, you get exercise! I think they meant to console me, and I'm sure I've said the same kind of thing to others, hoping to boost their spirits by pointing out that things could be worse. And I'll probably wind up doing it again in my lifetime. It's so easy to feel insulated from others' pain, and so hard to know the effects of our words on others. Argh. If I've done that to you, I'm sorry.
Last January, as I walked through the forest of Petén, Guatemala with my students, I kept saying to them the last three lines from Gary Snyder's poem, "For the Children." Those lines form a sort of haiku at the end of a longer poem:
learn the flowers
I keep returning to that poem. Some of the hills are hard to climb, and I know that some of them will give me blisters. Others...well, someday those once-in-a-lifetime mountains will be climbable only in my memory.
For now, I'm trying not to let the well-intended words about "silver linings" rub me the wrong way, and to take them in the spirit they're offered in. They may be awkward, but they're meant to help.
From my three-wheeled vélo, uninsulated from the weather, I find I am also exposed to the sound of the birds. I haven't learned all the flowers yet, and I'm still working on the birdsongs, but I know many of their voices. In the last month I've learned where the bluejays live in my neighborhood. I didn't know we had bluejays near my house. I've seen them in our city, but only rarely. Now I've found two pair, and I'm starting to figure out which are their favorite trees. As I roll along quietly on my recumbent trike, the birds let me coast past them, eyeing me perhaps, as I listen for them high in the treetops of this prairie town.
In her novel Little Town on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells why her husband was named Almanzo. It's a story that she learned in De Smet, South Dakota, but it reaches back a thousand years or so, through New York, and England, to somewhere in the Middle East, where Almanzo's ancestor had his life saved by "an Arab or somebody" named El Manzoor.
It's worth remembering that act of kindness shown to a Crusader, by a man with a Persian name. The Wilder family remembered that act centuries later. ("Manzoor" and variants of it are fairly common in Iran today. For example, the kind and brilliant former Director of the Toronto and San Francisco Operas, Lotfi Mansouri, was born in Iran and educated in California.)
This story makes me wonder: how might I live my life in such a way that another family will be glad to remember me a thousand years from now?