Response Crafting

our experience with things we encounter every day


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Possession is a construct.

Possession is a fruitless pursuit.
(e.g., you shouldn’t try to possess things, for your own good.)

We may put our hand on a thing, run our fingertips over it, or take it from place to place, but that does not mean it is really ours.

We may try to lay claim over a thing, but that does not make it our own.

Some people spend their whole lives busying themselves with these sorts of pursuits – the accumulation and possession of things. They waste themselves away in the frustration of trying to own – and then “losing” – what they can never really have. There is a paltriness to this sort of pursuit of pleasure – something always disappointing when we define this as our idea of how to live – because life itself is always in flux and things, fundamentally, are always fleeting. As such, the very idea of “ownership” is a root cause of a lot of conflict.

My motorcycle is by far my favorite thing. Ever. And the happiness I derive from it is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.

Having recognized this, it would be easy (instinctive) for me to try to cling to it a little bit; to try to lash it to myself in some way; to protect it from external forces in an effort, really, to protect myself from losing it. But the reality is that I have no control over that.

“Possession” is a construct.
(e.g., you can’t possess things, because they exist independent of you.)

I am better off not trying to control the bike because, in the grand scheme of the universe, I really can’t – it is not really even mine. I can use articles like “my” and “mine” when referencing it, but I still understand that it does not really belong to me.

I don’t “own” the motorcycle any more than I “own” a mountain.

Both existed before I came to know them; both came to be through forces independent of me. And, most importantly, both could change or cease to exist without my consent or permission.

motorcycle monk // "Just outside of Cody Wyoming... And Before the East Entrance of Yellowstone"

motorcycle monk // “Just outside of Cody Wyoming… And Before the East Entrance of Yellowstone”

The time that I spend with things is only in passing. It is something to be enjoyed only as I have it, without imposing expectation or control.

The bike could cease to exist altogether. It could be destroyed, could break down, could disappear overnight – I could walk out tomorrow morning and find that it’s been stolen. The more accepting I am of this truth, the easier it is to foster a sense of happiness that is independent of things, so that it remains more constant when these things inevitably change.

This concept does not belong to me, either. It existed already before I found it, and there are schools of thought and many people within them who already knew what I found out. Some of these people even ride motorcycles. They cherish the bikes and the experiences they yield, but still they agree:

I don’t really own [the motorcycle], I’m just using it until it’s taken away by theft, rust, accident, or my old age. It’s really more about not being attached to the stuff you use and think you own.” – Ven. Kusala Bhikshu (Thich Tam-Thien)

MC7

“South Dakota… That Long and Winding Road” // motorcycle monk

Our relationships with everything in our lives is fleeting; we only have each moment and we have our own reaction to it. And any attempt to tether or tie – any imposition; any dominion – is fabricated and false.

There’s nothing wrong, however, with having things and even cherishing them. In fact, they can yield a tremendous amount of happiness – if viewed fairly.

Possession and happiness are independent of one another.
(And, in fact, believing that you “own” something can prevent longterm happiness.)

Knowing I do not really have dominion over the bike does not inhibit me from cherishing it. On the contrary, approaching it as something fleeting – something impermanent – fosters a deeper appreciation for my experiences with it.

When I am honest about this and approach it in the right way, I am able to operate with more freedom, especially emotionally.

Believing that you can lay claim to something in its entirety is a delusion. Things will move away and out of your life regardless of your preferences, and unhappiness is rooted in the misunderstandings that (1) one’s own individual existence is more important than those of other individuals, and that (2) fulfillment can be achieved by acquiring and owning property.

Living a life of trying to contain these things set us up for an existence of unnecessary “loss.” One way to “life” appropriately is approach each element of your life as being independent of you. The point here is to understand the difference between sharing an existence with a thing and deluding yourself into thinking that simply because you have it, it will always be tethered to your side. That it cannot and will not cease to be there until you give it permission to leave – and that you somehow control that, when you don’t.

And not just with things – lamps and laptops and clothes and cars – but with all kinds of other things, too.

We cannot – and should not try to – possess anything. 

Possession of Place. Within the context of the universe’s truths, we can exist in places only through presence – not possession. We can draw connections and experiences from a space and the time we spend there, but that does not mean that place is ours. In the grand scheme of existence, nobody really owns a land. You may press your hand into it, cut into it and blow parts of it away, erect structures on its surface, and you may hold a paper stating your legal right to do so, but all of that is only true within the limited, constructed context of (human) social life. In reality, outside a law we create and our shared subscription to it, the land belongs to everyone as much as it belongs to anyone, and it cannot belong to everyone in their own disparate way. A place can never truly be “ours.”

Possession of People. Relationships give life such richness – they are the undercurrent of what gives our existence meaning. Rightfully so, we develop relationships with the people in our lives and make emotional investments in them and, in turn, enjoy an existence with compassion and love. But sometimes, we may start to lay claim over parts of people; feel entitled to things that are not ours. When this happens,we feel helpless and hurt when people choose to walk away. We are rendered devastated by divorce or death. Nobody owes you anything, and you are not entitled to any part of anybody that they do not freely offer – and only for the time it is offered. Your partner and your children do not belong to you – they are people that you offer support and compassion, but only for as long as they accept and embrace it.

Possession of Situations. Life is always in flux. This is a basic truth – something that will always be outside of our control. Those who try to commit their lives to preventing change are inherently framing it up for disappointment. Those, on the other hand, who accept this can absorb the shifts in stride. They understand that once the circumstances of a period of time shift and a transition is taking place, it is right to let it go; to “give it back to the universe.”

 


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Looking for place

The sort of things we might consider when thinking about where to live…

Street. 

I get off on tumbling out of a place and into the thick of things – into people and into vehicles and into storefronts full of all of the things I might want or need to go about my day to day life… a place to get a to-go coffee before work; a place to sit and linger over one; a place to get a beer; a place to buy a book; a place to get a good salad; a place to grab a bottle of wine. All within, say, a 4 minute walk. I like an almost overwhelming amount of street-level retail at my disposal.

And there is, of course, an actual overwhelming – a “too much.” This differs for everyone, but I bumped against my own “too much” on Chicago in Chicago, in a place where going about my day made me feel as though I had to walk pressed up against the building; pulled back from the street. The sidewalk did not feel like my own. I could not really touch these things.

Another time, I lived in a place that opened out into “nothing,” where leaving the building meant finding myself standing in a place that felt it was not yet ready to be inhabited. It was starved of energy; thirsting for feet.

At what vibration – what frequency – do you live?

Story.

I like to feel the earth. I like to stoop and press my fingertips into it, gauge the weight and texture of it in my hands.

I once heard a high-rise tenant describe the appeal of his 30-something-floor unit as “living against the sky.” Hearing this, I imagined that waking up to that each morning inspires lofty, grandiose ambitions and energy. And I get that.

Later weighing this within the context of my preferences, I suppose I could say that I like to “live against the trees.” I like the first few floors of a building — apart from the first. (Because while I like living against the trees and close to the earth, I do not, however, like living “against the ground.” Something about garden and ground-level units deeply unnerves me.) But apart from the first floor, I do like being low.

I can see the appeal of the high rise, sure. But part of it, for me, can feel too isolated; too far away from the vibration that I love. I like to reach out and run my fingertips along the leaves of trees; I want my palm pressed against their trunks; I want to pull the heat from concrete and brick.

Class.

There’s a richness in imperfection. There is a merit in the grit.

I do not like a place that feels “sterile.” Some people do, but they call these places “new” or “clean” or “Class A.” Granite countertops and oak cherry cabinetry. Stainless steel appliances. Whatever else. You get it.

I like my spaces rough around the edges and a little unkept. I like evidence of tenants past, their markings layered one over the another. I like hardwood floors – who doesn’t? – but I have found that I have a very high tolerance for their imperfections: I root my eye to discolored patches or water damage or grooves where the seams have come undone and the dirt accumulates in little lines. I’m into that.

Size.

I have lived in “too large” places.

The largest was a 1,100 sq. ft. open-concept loft. And every day for the year that I lived there, moving through that square footage and trying to accommodate it, I found that I was restless; wandering.

My conscious echoed against the corners, thrashing in the shadows.

watertower loftsThere was part of me that could never properly fill it; another part that realized it was never really meant to be filled.

After that place, I lived in a 3-bedroom apartment that had roughly the same square footage, and those proportions felt closer to being right, though my own room was still much larger than I ever needed, with empty, gaping corners I didn’t use.

I “roam” and become anxious in spaces that seem too big. This applies to all spaces, really (restaurants, office spaces, malls, lobbies, etc.) but it is particularly troubling when the space is the one that is supposed to serve as my personal own.

With small spaces, I instead feel as though I can reach out and touch the walls; that I have a footprint on the full floor. I don’t feel as though I am always staring down that behemoth bowl of white rice they deliver to the table at most Chinese restaurants or getting tangled in an unfurled bolt of fabric many yards longer than what I need. Instead, the proportions feel “tidy” and “appropriate.”

The smallest space I’ve lived in, outside of a dorm room, is probably this last one – a 226 sq. ft. studio (barely even a “studio,” really – it’s a room with a bathroom and a fridge just inside the door. No kitchen.) I loved this place. And it could’ve been smaller.

Feel.

I walk into a space and I either feel it or I don’t. If I feel it, it’s right away. I know before I even walk in if it’s going to work; if it does, I am ready to hand over a check before I’ve even seen the bathrooms or closet space. These things don’t matter nearly as much as that initial feel the space gives you when you walk in.

I walk into places and I either feel compelled to immediately throw a check at them or I feel okay walking away. And that latter part, which is most parts, is the opposite of wanting.

Not everyone knows that.

I try not to kid myself with any guise. I give others the polite pleasantries warranted by the moment, telling them that I’ll “think it over” or that I’m “still looking,” but there’s a big difference between telling them that and telling it to ourselves. Those lines, they are for them. They are not for you or me.

If I can walk away from a place, it isn’t meant to be. If it’s easy  for me to walk out of the unit, I try not to linger on the doorstep debating on whether I want to walk back in.

Hold out for delight.


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A boy

A boy walks across a yard.

The yard shoves the house back from the street, as yards are apt to do, but its grass is barely grass anymore, instead worn away to dirt in huge patches; overgrown with thistle in others.

The boy stops here and drops to sit in the dirt – might as well – and the seat of his pants is already dusty to match his dusty canvas shoes. He sits with his legs bent, the sharpness of each knee upright, feet planted wide and rooted in two sets of laces, worn and frayed at their dirty ends. His shorts are hollow around his child’s thighs, his skin deepened from the summer sun. He eyes the street, squinting in the sunlight. A car passes the street at the end of the block. In the distance, a dog barks – clipped, regular intervals. A dog barking at nothing.

The boy bought an ice cream sandwich from the convenience store across the street, and he is now tugging the package away from itself at the seams where it comes together and, fingertips pressing into the sandwich’s cool, soft sides, pulling it from the plastic. 

Less than thirty minutes earlier, he had been on his belly, jammed up to his shoulder reaching under the couch, feeling for the cool, flat promise of loose change. Once he gathered enough of it – and an extra penny, which of course had no use whatsoever but was collected anyway – in the scoop of one small hand, he tucked it all into the soft blue of pant pocket, pressed his palm against the tiny metal handle of the screen door and went out into the world.

And now, here he was, enjoying this tiny delight; this thing that meant next to nothing outside of this moment and almost everything to him within it.

He is only partway through when he hears the screen door swing open. And he knows without looking that she’s standing in the doorway, one arm outstretched against the aluminum frame, scanning the street beyond him. He knows this without looking but he looks anyway. And when he does, he watches as she stares straight ahead, first sweeping the street and then the yard. She sighs.

“I can’t stand this yard.”

He turns his attention from her to the yard, glancing across it, seeing what she sees.

“Your father needs to mow.”

He looks back at her. He watches her in silence. The ice cream is softening and threatening to work its way over his fingertips. He knows this, and yet he waits, watching her…

“Be in by dark. Okay?”

And then she glances at him.

She meets his eyes with hers. But he has scarcely nodded his reply before she’s retreated back into the doorway and let the aluminum close behind her – a hoarse-whisper shut, rushing to close, catching and bobbing before it hits the frame and then pausing. Before closing entirely.

The boy waits for a moment. Then looks back to his sandwich. And sets to finishing it.


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From this place to a new one

The last year of my life was spent in a sort of “lack of place.”
This was deliberate. And it was lovely.

Last October, I pulled back from society and disappeared somewhere for a little while. I stepped away from things in the fall and put myself up in a space that was my own, in a place few others lived, for the winter. And that place, over time, started to feel very much like a cocoon. Things happened there.

Looking for it originally, I had deliberately sought out a “lack of place” – a space I described, even before seeing it, as “a white box:”  four white walls; a hardwood floor; a shower. And that’s it. (I was adamant – even aggressive – about the fact that that would be it.)

I wanted a place of “nowhere;” where I could shed everything and give nothing. In this place, I knew, I would refuse to compromise. I could be selfish. I would exist alone; no roommates; no real guests. There would be nothing to have, to offer, or to take away. A space only for one; a space to simply be. 

And I found exactly that.

And when my mother (one of the few people to ever see the place) announced that she would be visiting just a few weeks later, even though I described it in this way to her before she came, the first thing she said when she walked in was: “wow. You’re weren’t kidding.”

No. I wasn’t. “White box” it very was.

studio2My mother has visited me in Chicago several times since I moved here about three years ago – many more times, truthfully, than I ever thought she would. And whether the timing has just worked out this way or she has a way of knowing, each time I move from one apartment to a new one, she finds me there – coming into the city and in through the door and giving the place a once-over, bringing with her a new little dish towel and a new mat for the floor – and makes sure I’m doing okay.

On her visit a year ago, just after I moved into “the white box,” she came and she slept next to me on the mattress on the floor and she sat down with me on the hardwood. I didn’t have any furniture, so we sat like this, facing one another – I drank a beer and she eyed the speed at which I did so – and we talked and she asked questions and worked the angles to make sure I was happy. And by the time she left a day or two after, I think she felt reassured enough that I was.

Now, almost a year later, she visits again. And she finds me finally back on the sidewalks, working my way along the lakefront and taking her to all of the touristy spots again, like the first two times; the times before the one before this. And she talks to me about where I am and where I’m planning on heading and I tell her.

We walk to get coffee one morning, both of us slow-moving with the dog sniffing at the end of the leash in one hand, and we are talking about my work and my love life and everything in between. She asks me how it’s all going and I tell her, and after I tell her and she senses that things are lightening, she asks, referencing the last year of my life:

“So. What happened to you?… Where did you go?”

I didn’t know my mother talked like this. I hadn’t even known that she realized I had “left” in the way she meant – the way it was - let alone find the words to ask me in the way that was right. She was right, of course; I had disappeared – not in a physical way, but in a bigger one.

And then, because her questions were only rhetorical and not really meant to be answered, she tidied things up a bit and closed them out with: “we were worried.”

Past tense.

Buttoned up before it was even said.

So I didn’t answer – she didn’t need it and the point was moot – but I did know not only where I went, but why. Because there was a deliberateness – a constructive deliberateness – to the whole thing (and this, I believe, she knew, but didn’t need to know know. Didn’t need the details of knowing, that is. And I think knew better than to pressure me for what she didn’t need.)

I knew for myself going in and am comfortable discussing coming out, however, that when it comes to “where I went” and “why,” the answer is: I was in a place of seclusion – a place not only of pulling back, but, more importantly, a place of pulling in. I was rebuilding. And, in doing so, I was tearing everything possible down. I cut my life down to its core – no kitchen; no roommates; no WiFi; no TV; no decor; no car – and I surrounded myself with simplicity; sat down in the middle of a four-walled fresh canvas and just… collected.

I sat with myself for a year, asked questions, and made decisions, and the process was a successful one. But the framework and context of getting myself there first involved finding a place where I could strip everything away, tuck myself away for a while, and have space to simply ruminate.

Because the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay.

“The early stages of change or cure may mimic deterioration. Cut a chrysalis open, and you will find a rotting caterpillar. What you will never find is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterfly, a fit emblem of the human soul, for those whose cast of mind leads them to seek such emblems. No, the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay.” (Pat Barker, Regeneration)

And I was dutiful to that task. I was serious.

And not even a year later – a good two months before my lease was up – I was ready to emerge knowing new things about myself and more armed with the means with which to pursue them. I’m not done – none of us are ever truly done – but I got what I needed from this year. And I am ready to step out.

I think about all of this, because I like to. I know where I was because I like to know where I am; I try to always know where I am. I try very hard to live deliberately.

And I know, moving out and moving on, that while I still like being untethered and without roots, I am ready to live in a place that is not “not a place;” not “nowhere.” I am no longer seeking a “white box” or a “no man’s land.”

I am ready to “rejoin society” now – ready for roommates; ready for sidewalks and people intercepting me on them; ready for impromptu beers. I am ready again to compromise; willing again to yield on things I refused to offer a year before. And more importantly than that, perhaps, I am ready for far greater “life’ing.”

I only think of these things and do not answer my mother, partly because she and I can both see that that place is, for the most part, over. And because it’s over and she respects my adulthood – voicing concerns only after the fact and only in passing – we walk in silence until we get to the coffee shop and, once there, we set all of this down on the sidewalk outside and go in – I get us a coffee (black) and a chai (warm, not hot) – and by the time we come back out again, it’s gone.


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Teeth setting into offered skin

I am standing on a balcony, looking out, and, from here, I am coming at the world rear window.

rearwindow

I went to work today. And then I came home from work and I changed my clothes and I took my dog out and we went to the the park. And a while after I got back, I found myself out on a balcony, leaning on my forearms, braced on the railing, watching the world of nameless others unfold.

There are people moving all about their lives below me, and I can’t help but to impose my own thoughts on their going-abouts; to read meaning into what I see from a few stories above.

This all started with a guy starting up his motorcycle.

In the year that I have stood, off and on, on this balcony, I have always seen that bike parked, cover over it, in that spot just below the balcony, and the minute I heard a bike starting it up, too close to be any other but that one, I all but leapt from the couch, threw the door open and dashed outside to see it… because I wanted to see this bike (uncovered) and I wanted to see the ownerand, on some level, I wanted to watch his interaction with it.

He lets it run for a minute and he must have ridden it recently, because he’s not even giving it a once-over or anything. He hovers around and then he’s on it and riding away. But even after he’s gone, I am still caught here, now watching the sidewalk and the passers-by. And I decide things for what is not the first time.

People are walking home from work, creases now softened from where they had been (re)ironed into fabric earlier this morning – a whole day before this moment. Some look tousled. Some look okay. 

Couples walk by, hand in hand. Some seem considerably happier than others. I impose this judgment on them, even when I know my assessment can never be correct.

Dog owners walk by, walking their dogs. Some are still in work clothes and some have changed. There is a whole sub-culture of people who own dogs. And within them a division in school of thought: those who change from work clothes, and those who do not.

And I remember, seeing one in particular, that there is something wretched and heartbreaking about the dog owner who pulls on a dog along on their walks, the dog – usually distracted or undisciplined or aging – trailing behind, hobbling, the leash taunt between him and his owner, who walks ahead at the other end, either oblivious or uncaring or both.

We do these sort of things. You and I do them too.

Maybe it can’t be helped. But maybe, on some level, it can be accepted.

The dogs – the ones forced to walk faster than they’d like – they always seem bewilderingly… okay with this.

Dogs are peculiar like that. Perhaps it is a testament to how deeply we – their people; arguably their whole reason for existence – are ingrained in their wiring.

My dog bit me once. It was deliberate but it was also not deliberate. Deliberate in that it was the result of him lunging directly at me with teeth, in a quick, specific movement. But also not deliberate in that the whole thing was rooted in an immediate, “animalistic” reaction for him – a split second response when I had gotten too close when he was working on a rawhide. The bite, however, is not what mattered. What was important was that, in the immediate split second that followed him biting me, he took on this… look, his ears suddenly back and flat and his eyes soft and up at me from a lowered head.

He had the body language that a dog assumes when he fears he is about to be hit. But I was never going to. I never even threatened to. I simply moved away. Because, as a dog owner, you recognize these sort of indiscretions for what they are and you know the whole picture. And you forgive them. (For what it’s worth, he now – years later – would happily allow a rawhide to be pulled from his mouth, mid-chew, and would patiently await the decision to return it to him. Not that that should be taken as a test of – or a testament to – his love. Just a fact.)

.

We challenge ourselves to ask questions about life and what it all means. We make decisions and we build ourselves a little lifestyle, and we call it any sort of useful labels. But ultimately, the things we use to give ourselves meaning, they all fundamentally overlap.

Victor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor. Victor Frankl also wrote a book.

And in this book – this book about man’s search for meaning – Victor Frankl asserted that a meaningful life is readily accessible to us, should we only care to curate it.

Because, as Frankl wrote in his book, when it comes down to it, the only things that really matter – and there are three – are: 1.) work; work like “a job,” sure, but also work like “something you can throw yourself into;” work like something for which you willingly work yourself over; work like something you break bones for and work like something you drag yourself home from and get up the next day and go back to and willingly do all over again… and 2.) love; love like something countless threads wide; love like something that runs a current deeper than what may matter to others; love like something both special and substantial… and 3.) perspective; perspective like the choice to take blows; perspective like the decision to decide these blows don’t leave marks or, better yet, perspective to realize that they count toward something better; perspective like the choice to make it all worthwhile in some grand pursuit of something more.

Horses_mid

Work. The way you spend your time, whether it means something to you or not. Good work – the investment in something meaningful to you.

Love. Your support structure; someone you feel can partner with you in the pursuit of your own meaning and, perhaps more importantly*, someone you want to support in the pursuit of theirs; someone who has the knowingness of a greater you; someone who knows what to do with that. And vice versa.

Attitude. The decision you make; the way you choose to absorb things into your being; the angle at which you take a hit; the realization that doing so builds your matter.

And this is the stuff that makes us up.

Our bodies are built of brick and mortar.

Our minds, though, are somewhat built of stone.

We can absorb so much if we only try. We inscribe our own meaning in our making.

. . .

Tonight.

It is, for me, a “sketching” sort of night.

I don’t get these a lot – and maybe that’s a little bit odd (either the getting of them or the rarity of it) – but when I do, I get them strongly… I get a strong urge; this desire to put marks on paper and make them bleed together and come to life. And it is an urge entirely unlike the urge to write, which happens almost daily. These marks, they are not like words.

Writing, too is just marks on paper, but with words, there is always something to interpret, something to discern, something disguised. 

Drawing, though, is multi-lingual. It is, in a way – in this way – a bit animalistic.

I convert.

(And here is where I stopped to sketch. With a ballpoint pen, because this was all I had.)

. . . . .

Work. One of three things that gives your life meaning.

But there’s something that gives meaning to your work, too.

And yeah, part of that is the love thing. And an even bigger part of it is the attitude thing.

But there’s more to be said here, about meaningful work.

My primary craft is writing. But I know, even as I do it, that not everyone can read. And I know that not everyone who can read can read the language in which I write. And I also know that not everyone not fluent in the language has the desire to assimilate themselves or learn. And I also know that even those who can read – and can read in the language I write – have no desire to read what I’ve written. I know this.

For those who have any of those things, I work. I will put marks on paper and string them together in lines and dots and dashes along a page, and offer them up for others’ consumption. And for the chance to have even a moment of a connection with someone here, I will play translator to every line; I will toil and take blows; I will risk breaks and toe burnout.

But for those who fall into the other groups, my work cannot apply. And I know this. This group and I, we cannot see eye to eye. I cannot instill a desire if the desire is not already there.

I know I cannot impose that thing on others.

I can stand at a railing and imagine all sorts of things that suit my fancy. But when it comes to a real interaction between me and another other, I cannot really force what isn’t there; cannot fabricate a thread. 

I can try, sure. I can watch the way that others move through life and I can guess on what has given them meaning – or if their lives really have meaning at all – but fundamentally, I can only go so far in this endeavor before it takes on a fairy tale quality.

The only thing I can know and manage for sure is my own world – my own work, my own love, and my own reaction to the things that happen. My own willingness to be dragged or shoved or struck for all things I deem worthwhile, and my own skin offered up for teeth that might yield meaning.

The fortunate thing, of course, is that this alone is very much so more than enough.

*No, there is no note. Not yet, anyway. For now, only a mark marking a point on a page. 


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The sweet heaviness of memories.

It is morning. I walk out of a condo building.
It is not my condo building. It used to be my condo building, sort of, but now it is somebody else’s. That, however, is another story entirely.

That aside, there is something to be said here about the “walking-out-ness” of this place: from the minute you step outside, things, they just… envelope you. They rush at you, ever so lovingly, and surround you in a vibrant, sultry softness.

This has always been the case – it was the case when this place sort of belonged to me, and it is still the case now that it definitely does not. There is something that simply happens when you step outside this place, and there is a lot that can be said for it…

The mulch and the moss and the plants have a rich, earthy sweetness to them; it smells wet even when it’s not. There is a heaviness to the air; a sweetness to the way it smells; a soft stickiness to the way it touches you.

This air, it smells like memories.

It smells, to me, like my grandma’s yard. It always has.

I have only just left the apartment this morning, the sun has not yet really risen; it has only just begun to warm the air. And as it does so, the vapors of the cool, early morning are rising from the earth all around me, and the space of the street hangs in a humidity not unlike how one might envision heaven.

I inhale. And regardless of whether or not others around me can see it, I am smiling. I am happy on a level not everything can touch. And even if my happiness is not apparent to those with me, I find myself hoping that they are experiencing this too.

I am with my mother.
And my sister-in-law.
Both of whom are visiting.
And we are going to brunch.

We are walking.

We walk along the park and the air blows in off the lake and my mother says – and I can’t blame her – “it’s so interesting that it has no smell.”

It is interesting – but interesting for a particular, peculiar reason: the lake is so big that, when you are not yet acclimated to it, you expect, looking over at it, that the air will smell like salt. Like sea. And, obviously, it does not.

Instead, it smells like very little here. It smells like park. Walking farther south and colliding into Michigan Avenue, it begins to smell – pleasantly – like city.

There is still a heaviness to the air, though; a heaviness to the hanging planted flower basket; heaviness to the pink in the geraniums and in the vines that reach, lustily, for the sidewalk. Everywhere, a sultriness. Everywhere, the air is sweet.

We arrive at brunch and are seated. I am seated next to my mother and across from my sister in law. I order a coffee. I want it black.

I know almost without looking at the menu what I want and so, while the two others decide, I sort of look at the paintings on the walls – there is one in particular on which my attention is snagged and comes back to, repeatedly – and I also sort of look at my mother.

I braided her hair this morning.

I combed the tangles from it and then ran my fingertips through sections and lifted them, layering them over one another. She wears this now, the braid laying along the line of her back, and I can still feel, without touching it, the texture of her hair.

I have distinct, tactile memories of my mother’s hair when she would wake me in the mornings on school days as a child. I have no memory of what time it was or what I wore to bed, but I do remember sometimes touching the tiny curled ends of hair, wet from the shower, and feeling the water that had collected there; gathering the drips in my fingertips.

The waiter arrives.

I order a fresh fruit plate for the table – it has berries and apples and pears – and then, gesturing to the others, indicate to him that I will place my actual breakfast order last. I watch as they place their orders; eye him for signs of receptivity. Though they are straightforward – perhaps even moreso because they are – it is important to me that he get these orders right.

Afterwards, in the quietness of morning, as my mother is looking out at the street and my sister-in-law is looking into the restaurant, my mother suddenly asks her – her and not me – about children. Another six months? Another year? We are all happily awaiting this announcement from my brother and his wife.

My sister-in-law talks – gently; openly –  about their anticipated timeline. I listen and think of children

I recall the softness of my grandmother’s bosom – with “bosom” being the only word to describe the curved, concave nook between breast and arm on her. And even now, thinking back on that, I still feel, even from the perspective of an adult woman who now understands “aging” and appreciates the reality of my inevitable own: having that softness to offer and the ability to offer it as resting place for a grandchild’s head is a special privilege in life to be earned.

Our plates arrive.

My sister-in-law has ordered Eggs Benedict and with these, of course, come poached eggs.

There is something so incredibly beautiful about poached eggs. In fact they are, I would argue, by far the most beautiful of all egg preparation types.

They arrive a delicate, ballooned structure; voluptuous and soft; round yet readily giving way to your touch. Press the side of a fork into it and, for a split second, it yields, the exterior pressing in, before bursting, bright yellow spilling over white sides.

I watch as my sister-in-law cuts into hers – she comes at it with a fork and knife, because my sister-in-law, she is polite. I let my gaze fall heavy, absent-minded, on her motions for a moment as she does this, and I think of the thing that I always think of when I think of poached eggs, which is: the way that my grandma used to make them.

Those poached eggs. There were a thing. My god, were they a thing.

My brother and I, we always knew they were a thing. I think my grandpa worried that we didn’t appreciate the “thing-ness” that they were, but I really believe that we always knew. Those poached eggs, they were always “something” to us. Poached eggs only happened at grandmas and, sure, that alone was special. But grandma, what she did with them was something even more sacred. And we knew it.

It wasn’t just poached eggs. She would poach them… but then she would cut them up – lovingly chop those delicate, gelatinous bodies into smaller-than-bitesize bits – and then she would pile the pieces on top of bits of cinnamon-sugar “teddy bear” toast (toast, buttered and blanketed in a cinnamon-sugar blend out of an old glass honey jar shaped like a bear, hence the name) which was also torn into smaller-than-bitesize pieces. All of it, just… piled together. In a bowl. Served with a spoon.

And then… that egg yolk would run down over the sugar and the cinnamon and then the toast would sop it up and mygod you can believe or disbelieve me when I tell you: this stuff was the stuff of childhood happiness.

There was so much affection behind the whole thing. Because my grandma, did she ever know how to love. That woman, she knew how to love her grandbabies.

Even now, as an adult, though I often order my eggs poached at brunch and have (almost) mastered the art of making them myself, I still think of her – my grandma – every time I eat them. I think of her every time. And so I think of this as my sister-in-law presses her silverware into hers.

My mother has ordered the brioche French toast; it has a cinnamon and a sweetness to it. And this, obviously, it fits too.

And me, I only got an omelette.

But I’m also the only one with coffee, and that too is something that belongs a bit to grandma in my mind.

My grandma used to keep her coffee grounds each morning and then, later each day, would bury them – along with various other bits of compost – in the soil and mulch of her garden, just after breakfast dishes were done. And on days I went out with her, you could just barely catch the fading scent of coffee getting lost in the sweet heaviness of the humidity.

After brunch, we walk again. We are back in the air and it is warmer now. And there are two generations of women, walking, talking of the generation to come and also thinking, separately and silently and at our own singular times, of the generation now gone, sighing and happy at the thread of life.


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How riding motorcycles compares to riding horses

Even before I got on the bike, I had good reason to believe that the approach to riding it would have a lot of similarities to horses. And within the first ride or two, I knew that that belief was true. And while I am sure I am not the first one to see this, I am sort of surprised by the lack of material written about how the two compare.

Specific questions pop up in forums (most of which seem to be motorcycle-centered), but conversations don’t go much further than debates on the more dangerous of the two. (For what it’s worth, my strong opinion is: the horse is more difficult to learn. The bike is more dangerous to ride. A horse has a mind of its own and as a rider, you have to manage and ride to its emotions and animal instincts. With a bike, there is far less negotiation, but far more attention required, especially of your surroundings.)

I did find a few longer posts, like one horse trainer who purchased a dual-sport and then discussed the similarities between it and horses. Outside of that, though, I couldn’t find a ton of good, beefy pieces on how the two compare. So, because I think there is actually quite a bit to be said about the subject, I tried my hand at one.

Here, I summarize my biggest considerations.

lyle lovett with horse and motorcycle, houston (photographer michael wilson)

lyle lovett with horse and motorcycle, houston (photographer michael wilson)

Foundation, relationship, and trust.

I approach the bike. Each time I ride, I make an investment. Even before I even get on, I choose to trust myself, trust the bike, trust the road. I commit to a level of attentiveness and engagement, and I commit to taking care of him – and believe that he will take care of me, too. 

There is a lot to be said for developing a “ground relationship” with your horse that you carry into riding, and the same can be said for bikes. When you guide a horse over a fence, you trust that he’s going to land securely, and he, in turn, trusts you, his rider: namely, that you are doing right by him; that he won’t get hurt. Bikes demand the same level of investment – less so from the bike, being an inanimate object, but a great deal more from the rider. You are taking risks; you are making an investment. You inherently have to have trust.

Rhythm, consistency and “rideability.”

I start the bike and let it warm up. From that moment, before I even get on and knock it into first, to the moment I kill the engine, the bike should strike a rhythm. It should offer a common thread – a cadence – in the way it is running, and even if it runs with quirks (and most do), it should offer basic, mechanic functionality. If the bike can’t offer this when I first start it up or if something fails during a ride, my attention will naturally divert to this level and stay there (and, if it’s an ongoing thing, I’d probably be playing more of a “mechanic” rather than “rider” role with the bike.) If the bike cannot strike its rhythm or loses it altogether, riding comes to an end. This is obvious. 

With horses, rhythm is defined by a set pattern in the walk, trot and canter, which should always sound the same – though the tempo can be changed by speeding up or slowing down the footfalls. For either horses or bikes, rhythm is fundamental, and a “break” here is an indication of a problem that deserve attention.

Suppleness and willingness (Readiness of the horse/bike)

I take a ramp to get on the highway. While there, I feel out the bike.

I never approach the bike with an expectation to “really run him” or ride hard; never commit my bike to anything until I gather speed and can gauge how he feels on highway “footing.” On the days I ride harder, it happens without a plan. And although it is my idea (I never feel that the bike is getting away from me), I know, on days we do, that he isn’t fighting it; that I don’t force that level from him; that the bike is ready. I can feel an energy but also a compliance. The bike generates a warmth and a willingness to move forward.  

This all comes down to “readiness.” While the bike or horse may technically be “rideable,” a rider should also look for willingness and receptivity to thing beings asked of it – an ability to perform. As riders, we seek for a degree of “athleticism” or “capacity;” each ride should be a “check,” from start to finish, of where the bike or the horse stands on that spectrum. An assessment of movement, whether muscle or machinery.

Centeredness, softness, and breathing (Relaxation of the rider)

I am on the highway. Before I even get here, I establish – and then root down into – a balance between softness and engagement in my limbs, my eyes, my core. I work to maintain this throughout the ride, and at different points I may realize that, for whatever reason, I have become tense, perhaps a bit unnerved. My body knows it before I do and, for me, it is my body – not my emotions – that tells me. (Your body will tell you a lot if you listen. And it can do a lot for you if you use it.)

I may find that my shoulders have tightened and lifted a bit at some point; I ease them down and back. I may realize that I am not really breathing; I find my breath and center on it. (Breathing is something I work on almost every time I ride, especially when I highway.) I move over my body in a sweeping evaluation, finding and correcting these things as I ride, and I work to maintain a soft, centered seat. 

Good riding – whether with bikes or horses – demands a softness of the rider – a relaxation and lightness that is transferred through contact points – and an ongoing mindfulness and management of that softness. Breathing is a big part of this. And so is balance. All of this allows the rider to remain centered no matter how the horse or bike moves underneath them.

Composure

I am riding in the left lane. I am hanging back just a bit from the car in the lane next to me and this proves to be a good position, because all of a sudden, he moves over into my lane in an effort to pass the car in front of him, deemed to be driving too slow a speed. He doesn’t see me but I’ve got a good few seconds before I’m really in danger, and to the extent that I limit my emotional or animal reactions, I can make good use of those two seconds to reach a viable reactive move – either accelerate ahead of his move or drop back behind his new position. 

I talked before about the importance of composure while riding. It is effectively an extension of centeredness and relaxation, and while the calm horseback rider will win the trust of the horse, the composed motorcycle rider – someone who is levelheaded and ready to react in the right way – has a far better chance of successfully riding an emergency. When riding, there is very little room for the blindness that fear alone brings. When you only have one moment to do something, you better hope that your “one-moment doing” is worthwhile.

Connection and feel.

I have good contact with the bike. I sink into it. And I am not only evaluating the bike and myself, but am also evaluating the “us-ness” as a unit; a bundle; a ball. I ground down into a whole-body and body:body communication. This is an ongoing “connection;” a level of engagement. I can sense when I have asked too much and when I can ask more. As I ride a corner, I know that I can lean the bike – know that I could even lean it more – and I know, without looking, when to shift to the next gear mid-corner. I approach a car and I want to pass and as I glance over one shoulder, I already know that I can ask more of the throttle; more of my bike. 

The idea of “feel” is a pretty nebulous one… it’s things like feeling your bike’s or horse’s movement underneath you, having a delicate touch on the throttle or reins, knowing the exact moment to release, feeling diagonals or RPMs without looking, feeling the bike or horse prepare to make a movement before he makes it, “relaxing” visual acuity and directing more attention to the tactile interaction between horse and rider, and investing in that ongoing loop of feedback through contact.

And it’s not something you cleanly teach or learn, and many argue that it is something that you either “get” or don’t. “Feel” is deeply rooted in intuition and relies heavily on instinct. And it is something that is highly internalized – many riders with excellent feel could not begin to explain what they feel or do with their horse or bike. They just know when they’re getting it right.

Ideally, on bikes, “feel” should extend not only to your bike, but to your surroundings – e.g., the road and other drivers. The better you can learn to anticipate other people’s potential moves and immediate changes in conditions, the better you’ll likely fare.

I like to ride at night. I didn’t expect to, on basis of “danger,” and the first time I found myself night-riding was mostly just because I was enjoying riding too much to call it a day as the light laid down. And I found, from that first night ride and every one since, that there is tremendous merit in it from the standpoint of building “feel.” It reduces a lot of the visual input and, as such, limits some of the distraction – and the anxiety generated from giving those distractions attention. As a result, you have more attention to devote to the tactile.

Impulsion, collection and “underneathness.”

I enter a turn. If I ride it appropriately and don’t come in too hot – if I eased off enough as I approached – I can begin to ask again partway through. I can exit with more energy than I entered it. And when I reconnect with the throttle, there is a line of energy – a tension – from my right hand through the throttle to my rear tire, and that tire has a solid, rooted energy, tight against the pavement. If I’ve ridden it appropriately, I also know, at this point, that the energy there is sustainable; that it will carry me through the turn without my having to break the line. In fact, if I’ve ridden it well, I also know that I could even ask for more, that there is still room in the turn and that, should I at that particular moment care to do so, I have space to ask for more energy and that the bike has room yet to give it – to move forward and cleanly carry me out at greater speed.

In the horse world, collection is the concept of transferring energy to the hindquarters in order to lift and lighten the forehand. It’s working toward impulsion – getting the horse to “push” with his hindquarters instead of “pull” himself along with his forehand. A collected horse will have slightly lowered hindquarters and a slightly more rounded back.

When I ride, one of my primary preoccupations – one of the things that is constantly at the forefront of my mind in ongoing, looped, almost obsessive assessment – is whether or not the bike feels “underneath” me. I constantly evaluate where his energy is and whether it feels collected; whether I am in control. And one of the best ways to connect there is with throttle.

Respect, “earning the right to ask,” and asking.

I enter a turn. It could be the same turn as before or it could be a different one, but either way, any turn brings with it another perspective: “earning the right to ask.” If I’ve asked too much of the bike or the road going in, I can’t ask for much more coming out. If I come in too hot, I can’t ask for more midway. I have to have a level of respect for the bike – for its capabilities as well as its limitations. And I know that if I ask the wrong thing or ask for the right thing at the wrong time or if I simply ask too much, the bike will correct me – in any number of unforgiving ways. The bike can only “bike.” It’s up to me to find, define, and ride to its limitations, and to ask for things that are appropriate. 

Both bikes and horses hold the physical power in the partnership, not the rider. And it is the rider’s job to learn how to effectively work with the bike or horse – to approach the relationship with enough humility; to learn the limitations; and to ride with reason.

Focus and line of vision.

Same turn, yet another element: where I look. Rather than looking down, at the footing, I scan the corner; the geometry of it, especially as more of it is revealed as I move. I scan the full width of my peripheral but emphasize that target window ahead of me, aiming for it. Where the eyes go, the bike will follow.

When you first start out riding horses over fences – and even to a lesser extent as you advance to higher ones – one of the most common things you’ll hear shouted at you from your trainer on the ground, at varying levels of aggression, is “eyes up!” Funny enough, the same exact shouts can be heard on the practice ranges of riding schools. Because with either horse or motorcycle, the rider sets the direction by where they set their eyes. Stare at the ground, that’s where you’re probably headed. Hold sight on your target, you’ll probably hit it.

The sheer bliss of simply riding.

When describing the sort of happiness that the bike yields, I sometimes find myself unable – or rather unwilling – to capture and contain it all into words. And sometimes I feel I put it best by simply saying: the bike, it just brings bliss. Crazy, crazy amounts of it. 

Though they are different in many ways – the horse and the bike – both of them offer an incredible, deeply-rooted level of pleasure to the right rider. Both of them inspire lifelong attachments of those who invest, and both cultivate whole followings of blissed-out like-minded followers. And there’s a reason. Obviously. Though not everyone finds joy in the same thing, those who find it in riding realize: it offers a happiness unmatched by most other things.

 

At the end of the day, the real similarities are based on your approach as a rider and how you gauge the beast or the machine; how much you decide each one matters, and in what way. Approach either relationship with investment and engagement, the similarities will probably seem innate, intuitive, inherent.

motorcycle and horse, philippines (photographer bernard haeberli)

motorcycle and horse, philippines (photographer bernard haeberli)

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