Friday, February 15, 2013
If there’s anything truly important to convey to the next generation, aside from the dos and donts of everyday survival, it is the lesson of experience we’ve all learned the hard way – that life is short, fragile, and unpredictable. We know it, because we already lived a part of it. Because we know how it hurts. But this pain of realization is not the lesson itself. Nay, it is only the prelude to it. A prerequisite to Life 101. The real lesson is on taking chances. The fine art of decision making. And the science of it. A cold calculation of pros and cons. Or a leap of blind faith. Whichever technique is applied, the principle remains: we’re drifting through life without a clue of how much of it is still left ahead of us, hoping and dreaming for one thing or another, yet doing very little to get any closer to it. Even though we know that eventually we’ll drift right into the rocks; or a giant turtle. We do nothing. Deciding something and actually acting on it is a very dangerous affair, indeed; a wrong move can get you killed. Or worse, humiliated. We fear what might be too much, so even with all the desire in the world, we still do nothing. We drift. And Life, the one with a capital “L” and the one we want to remember forever, passes us by. How do you teach someone, how do you teach a child to make a decision, take action, be bold and daring, because that’s the way to do it, because the child, as all of us, will only have one shot at life. How?
You have got to learn it yourself, first.
I am a coward like none other.
John, not Lennon and not the Baptist, but Wayne said: “Courage is being scared to death - but saddling up anyway.” I just did. Decided and acted. Took a plunge into the unknown. And I am absolutely petrified – of failure, of shame. But if I have learned anything from life thus far, it is that there would be no greater shame, eventually, than that of indecision, passiveness, of being nothing more than a piece of driftwood, rather than being a man. So I saddled up and headed out there, into the canyons. Just so I could tell the Little One one day: get out there and do it. Just so I would have the right to do so. By the way – it’s going to be a girl.
A long time ago deciding was much easier for me. All it took was an impulse. A thought. A smile. But a long time ago no little girls were at stake; just me. A long time ago...
…I sat on the bench at the north end of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Behind me was the Macquarie Street, the oldest street in Australia, with a row of some of the oldest European-style buildings in the country: the state parliament, the library, and the Rum hospital with a copy of the famous Florencian Il Porcellino statue in front of it. Rivers of people and cars ran back and forth, exhaling what combined into an low-hanging overcast of din and scent, creating a bouquet as unique as those of Venice or Vegas, Cairo or Calcutta, or any of those metropolitan universes, each so distinctive, that once acquainted, will always remain unmistaken to any and all senses: one smell, one sound, one step, one glance – will remind any traveler where they have returned. I was back in Sydney. The city, as a patient lover in between carnal delectations, caressed me gently somewhere in the back of my head and my perception. My inner self was preoccupied with boyish existentialism, belated a good decade, as customary to nearly all males of my specie. “Agony of choice,” I thought back then, completely oblivious to the meaning of either of the words. In front of me was tranquility.
This was only a small part of the Gardens, the one closest to the mass of the city, with the skyscrapers towering over it from across the street. To the left glittered the shells of the roof of the Opera House; a little closer rooftop of the Conservatory imitated a medieval castle. In front of me were the waters of Sydney Harbor. The green field of the park reached out to its banks. On the right, high into the air extended the barren branches of the gum trees in which, suspended upside down, slept the nocturnal flying foxes. A few alleys cut across the lawns in front of me, beautified with flowers and plants from around the world of all shapes and colors, arranged with utmost precision and taste. Over this botanic masterpiece stood several random sculptures, silently overlooking those seeking refuge from the strains of the city. There were only a few of us. Some lay on the grass, eating their late breakkies, reading or simply attempting romance with Morpheus. Others were strolling up and down the lanes, chatting, or, like me, just sitting on a few benches with shinny nameplates listing their funders, and enjoying yet another perfect day.
There was also someone working there that day. Two gardeners, wearing brown trousers, beige shirts, and green hats bustled around not far away, among a cluster of rosebushes. As I looked closely I realized that one of them was a girl. Strands of gently curved hay-colored hair ran from under her hat onto the shoulders. Something about her would not allow me to take my eyes off of her. I could not name it, but there was something hypnotizing in her motion, something extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary gestures. I watched as she inspected the plant, branch by branch, flower by flower, trimmed the parts she deemed necessary, and moved on to the next branch. She was in no hurry, nor was she random. It seemed that the plant was at the moment her entire world, and she treated it with gentleness and care befitting a living creature. She was performing the simplest of tasks, and did it with love. I didn’t even realize when I picked up the camera I always had with me in those days and started snapping pictures of the girl whenever I thought she could not notice.
“I’d say why don’t you take a picture, it will last longer, but I see you already have,” said a pleasant voice with a distinctive Aussie accent nearby. The girl who just a moment ago was trimming the branches of the rosebush was standing next to the bench I sat on. She looked down at me from under the rim of her green hat, but didn’t stare. Rather, she glanced every now and then, seemingly preoccupied with the task of removing her work gloves. She was not mad, I noticed with a relief.
“Aye,” I admitted. “Sorry about that, love.” I hardly made an effort to sound remorseful, looking up and trying to read her expression in spite of the sun striking me from over her shoulder.
“No, you’re not,” she observed with a smile.
“No, I’m not,” I owned up. “Not one tiny little bit.” She smiled, I was almost certain, even more.
“Are you Canadian?” No one has ever got me right. In Tennessee they asked if I was from Kansas. In Egypt they took me for a Brit. In New Zealand everyone thought I was Irish. I couldn’t blame her, I certainly did not sound local wherever I went. Even where I was born. It was as good a pick as any.
“I guess I am,” I had absolutely no intention of explaining to her where I was from. Trying to explain this to myself seemed exhausting enough.
“What do you mean you guess?”
“Well, I love hockey. I have a taser. I keep two reindeer in the backyard. And I can sing “O Canada” with a French accent. Oh, and I know how much a polar bear weighs. Do you?” She sensed a trick, but her curiosity got the better of her.
“No, how much?”
“Enough to break the ice,” I smiled and winked, genuinely proud of myself. This was the first time ever this particular line worked. And for the briefest of moments I had forgotten about what awaited me outside of the park. We both laughed.
“Alright, almost-Canadian, why’d you take the pictures, mate? Will I end up on some website with a fake moustache or something worse?”
I was silent for a while. I felt I could not just brush her off with another joke. For some reason I felt that I owed her the answer.
“There, by the rosebush,” I finally started speaking, and pointed to where she stood when I first got there. “You looked so… at peace. So at ease. I don’t want to sound like one of those New Age books and CDs peddler, but you looked so… in harmony with the universe, the leaves and the branches, and even those rocks, there, on the other side of the harbor, and everything else, that … I just wanted to capture that. I hope you don’t mind.” The girl just shook her head. I looked into her eyes, embarrassed a bit, hoping to see an emotion I could react to, but she was just looking at me with a gentle, discretely curious smile. So I mumbled on. “You seem… happy. Are you happy?” I found it almost impossible to capture the hurricane of thoughts into a coherent sentence, so I just spat out words, hoping she would be able to make sense of them. “The uniform, the hat, gloves, and rosebush? Ibis, and kookaburras, flying foxes pissing acid, the sails of the Opera House next door, yes, I know they are not really sails, and the nasty tourists from not-Canada taking pictures without permission.” That just about summed it up. “Are you happy?” For some odd reason I really needed to know.
She looked at me for a short while, suddenly serious, either presuming me mentally unstable or picking up with her sixth sense that I was not only just trying to keep the conversation alive.
“I am,” she answered finally; simply. It was that simple. I could not believe it.
For a while the girl said nothing more, and neither did I, even though I had so much on my mind I wasn’t certain if I could put any of it to words. But she wanted to understand.
“So, what’s your problem, mate? I mean besides this mild case of voyeurism there,” she pointed with the gloves she was holding towards my camera.
“Yeah, I’m working on that, you know.”
“Yeah, I can see that you are.”
I paused for a moment, uncertain if saying the first thing that came to my mind is the right thing to say. But I quickly came to realize that there and then there was no wrong thing to say. Or, maybe, it wasn’t the place or the time, but the girl. The way she looked at me, tilting her head and, I was certain, trying not to smile openly, probably suspecting some drama, although I remember almost longing for her to do so. Her smile could have been the best part of it all. I felt I could tell her everything.
“I just saw a turtle.”
She was a smart girl, no doubt. She resisted looking around the grass under my feet but instead looked at me with something remotely resembling sympathy; just enough to express genuine interest, but nowhere enough to even hint pity.
“A few years ago I was driving through…” for the life of me I could not remember exactly where it was, “…South Dakota, I think. Or no, no, it was Minnesota. No, right, South Dakota. Anyways, I was on my way east, coming out of Wyoming. I was driving on a nearly empty interstate, going pretty fast, I admit, and then, all of the sudden I saw something big and black sitting in the middle of the road. I was really going fast, the road was empty, this thing was right smack in the middle of two lanes - it was a two lane highway, by the way - and… and as I was coming at it, and I was trying to figure out what it was, I mean, what could it be – big, black, in the middle of the interstate, right? I thought maybe a recap, but it was too big for one…”
“What’s a recap?”
“Retread; retreaded part of a tire from a big truck. They come off all the time and litter the highways. Anyways, it wasn’t a recap. I had to get really close to finally realize that it was a turtle. A big-a.. hum, I mean, a large-in-size snapping turtle, the kind that can take your hand clean off if you’re not careful. Big as a boar, almost, just like the one in front of the hospital there,” I extended my flattened palm over my arm towards the street behind me.
“That big?” The girl appeared to be enjoying the story, although I was sure she didn’t know what I was getting at. I wasn’t sure what I was getting at, either.
“Aye. That big. I was so focused on figuring out what it was that I got very close very fast and I barely missed it.”
“But you did?”
“Yeah, I did. He’s still out there, somewhere; chewing off careless limbs. I got a postcard from him with a vintage picture of Oglala chiefs the other day. He said he found a nice Mrs. Snapper, and their firstborn is in the sixth grade, already. Yeah, he’s alright. But I had a scare.”
“And now you saw him again?”
Yes, she was definitely a very smart girl.
“Yes, I did. He’s close and I gotta swerve. Right or left, I gotta swerve real soon.”
She looked around, first to the building above us, then to the garden, finally at me sitting there, as if she was seeing me for the very first time and gave a smile in this comforting way that reminded me of my mother tending to my scraped knees in those summers back when I was a little boy and there were no turtles in sight.
“Whichever you’ll pick it will be apples, mate.”
I looked into her eyes and had no doubt she believed that. It was one of those Aussie things.
“Or peaches,” I smiled and winked. “In either eventuality, a future befitting a fruit-basket, no doubt.”
The girl in the green hat winked back.
“Oy, Sheila, leave the poor bloke alone,” the girl’s colleague yelled out suddenly from afar. He was holding the handles of the wheelbarrow in front of him, apparently ready to move on to the next corner of the Gardens. A couple of rakes leaned over the pile of leaves and branches inside. “Chop, chop!” he hurried her.
“I gotta go,” said the girl, needlessly pointing towards her friend. For a moment she seemed to have something more to say, but she must have changed her mind. “Well, cheerio, mate,” she nodded with a smile and began walking away.
“Cheers, love,” I thanked her.
After a few steps the girl turned around, and walking backwards, said:
“I do hope you’ll swerve right and find what you’re looking for.”
“My rosebush,” I answered mechanically, and only once the words were spoken I began to recognize what they meant.
She heard me this time, but didn’t understand. I myself was only beginning to. The girl in the green hat smiled and turned around.
The gusts of wind from the harbor brought to me the scent of the ocean. It was time for me as well.
How will I teach her to decide her life as much as humanly possible? I have no idea. But I hope, Lord help me, that she will see me do just that, and that she’ll follow suit.