22 February 2012

Big Things

Something in me says yes when, for instance, a train shakes past at close range and high speed. Likewise in the presence of heavy machinery: earth-movers, steamrollers, cranes. One nice thing about the sterile neighborhood of my office building is that something new is always going up, staking out another piece of the artificial land. For a few days last week, every time I tried to ride to work the bascule bridge at Columbus was being raised or lowered -- perhaps some kind of spring maintenance. I couldn't cross and, already being later than I'd hoped, stood one day as the traffic light cycled dumbly and the horizon shifted in an unexpected direction. The monolith of road towered toward me and assumed its place in the skyline. I have seen this only a few times. I was wider awake, afterward.

One night last week too I found, riding up Damen, that construction blocked my way. (Every time I ignore the detour signs until it is too late; usually a bike can pass where a car cannot, but not always.) Made to walk anyhow, I poked around the site a while, patted the bulldozer's metal-plated feet. The best thing about this, though, was the pit: taking up half the road, square and perhaps twenty feet deep? This number is almost certainly a little too high, but as an emotional distance it is about right. The rain that was falling joined a thick stream of water at the bottom which I perceived as only an occasional minnow-flash of light and a burbling sound. It may have been just the accumulation of the evening's downpour, but it sounded live and as if it were going somewhere.

(At the park by the river by my childhood home, the informational plaque headed THE BUBBLING UNDERGROUND STREAM never failed to produce a vernal thrill in me -- still does, just knowing it is there.)

In the presence of great heights or depths or moving powers I feel thoroughly scrubbed, as if by strong wind or Beethoven. On workdays I've been walking to a new grocery store to get my lunch, and one day taking a different route came across a rather shocking, barely-protected drop -- just the absence of a building that would have had to travel several stories up to reach street level.

Now: a daily transcript of the chatter of my inner radio might seem at first to reveal a weird abundance of death-related programming. But that's a facile reading. For example, take this drop, this slice of space as perfect and luscious as a piece of cake in a display case. A surge of desire came up in me to toss myself lightly over the rail. This was in one sense a motion toward death, but only inasmuch as death is a motion toward freedom. (It isn't actually, of course, but the false equivalence tugs mutely at the soul, grounded in or bolstered by our loveliest hymns.) One wants to have the experience of falling through the air, or being gripped by the waves that claw their way across the Lake Shore Path, or being met full-force by a large truck -- to come right up against the palm of God. But it is impossible to desire, if not straight out impossible, to have had such an experience. Any thought of after is a total corruption of the thing. So the mind stops at the logic-blind impulse that says: there, in darkness, in absence, you could do anything. It will not be tutored by the lesson of Kant's dove no matter how often reason sends it flapping through the brain.

Friction, though: that's what we have to work with. That is where we spend our days -- at the level of force produced by texture, not by some clean thrust of will or gravity. The fine-grained surfaces of the possible are not the impediment to the real motion of our lives; rather, they give it almost its entire character. Most of its itchiness, most of its prickliness, most of its velvet. 

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