Thursday, December 3, 2009

whither now, Imagined Bicycle?

(or How to Come Back to the Useful Life, Having Tasted - )
pomegranate - that fateful fruit - Persephone's doom and Demeter's sorrow but Hades' reprieve

After a month of intensive writing, and absolutely NO biking, it is surely time to swing the pendulum back to life in the waking world.
(hey? so could I just trade in the pendulum?  And go with digital instead?  Or a sundial?)
Today I should have biked into town, picked up the pieces of my volunteering, that sop I throw to Usefulness.

I do aspire to usefulness.  I admire it.  For example(?) I take many pictures of tools, admiring the spare lines of their useful design.    And hands doing their own well-learned work. 

I can tell you are not convinced.

But it is true that my affection for my own non-vintage, non-stylish bicycle is largely because it is so explicitly useful - my feet go there and there, I step down, the gears turn, the tires turn, the bicycle moves, carrying me and a load of groceries for miles more than I could walk and I am a walker - any fool - even I - can follow that chain from impulse to effort to result.  Satisfyingly useful. 

Like the solvers and devisers and those who carry out the plans.  And the gallant and heroic unsung who carry on, polishing the light on the lighthouse, or less metaphorically, who day after day teach and heal and build and weed.  The doers.

I have even been useful myself. And there are people who remember those days - who perhaps think I just need reminding?

Am I the only one to catch a certain plaintive note in this map of a young boy's mind? -

through that open door
that tiny straight-backed chair pulled up to the table,
the half-seen broom,
the perilous cliff with tree growing from the vertical edge,
the vine clinging desperately to the wall,
the empty waiting mailbox,
that uncertain trail that wanders away up past the house and off the page. 

Though the House is sturdy Usefulness itself: the heavy beams overhanging the eaves, the densely weatherproof pattern of the shingles, the purposeful chimney

Poor son.  I was more useful in his young days.  And he remembers it.  And no matter how I shape my life now, he will be - I am afraid - that wanderer looking in toward a remembered ideal.

I am / have been considering going back for a nursing degree.  That would be incontestably useful (in a way which a graduate degree in literature has not been).  In pursuit of which, I sat down with my friend and sister-in-law, a longtime and superbly competent and compassionate nurse, to pick her brain.  She answered all my questions thoroughly, whole-heartedly, reasonably, competently (in other words, as a true nurse would).  Then very kindly, gently asked me, "What kind of nursing is it that you are drawn to?"

Uh, the useful kind?  "Actually, the more I hear you talk about nursing the more I realize I just don't have the same kind of passion for nursing that you do."

She didn't dispose of my plans nor unveil me as a career dilettante, "I think you could still be a very good nurse," and went on to suggest possible areas - "But," she continued, "I have to tell you, I've always pictured you as a novelist writing away in your cabin in the Maine woods."

Well, yes.  I like that picture, too.  Though actually, very few novelists live in cabins  - neither in the woods, nor elsewhere.  And writing?  Some people's writing is indeed very useful.  But not all.

And even if I repeat over and over my mantra (from Berryman by way of Merwin):  

                                   you can't
you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write
even if  I don't have to be sure,  I do need something bigger, and more satisfying, that I can toss to that three-headed dog who hangs around, snapping outside the door. 

It doesn't help, after a month in the company of an unwieldy, unshapely first draft, to return to you, my Dream Machine, and find that you, too, are ungraceful and sprawly, trying to cycle down too many paths. 

How admirable the sites that focus day after day on just bikes, just poetry, just locavoring.  A reader knows when clicking over to those useful sites just what to expect (i.e. bikes, poetry, food&farming, in that order) and if there are sidelights of a more personal life, they are just tantalizing hints.  My dear Fantastical Conveyance, do you not read your Emily Dickinson?
A charm invests a face
Imperfectly beheld.
The lady dare not lift her veil
For fear it be dispelled.

But peers beyond her mesh,
And wishes, and denies,
Lest interview annul a want
That image satisfies.

photo by Shadi Ghadirian, quoted from

So, what am I going to do with you, IB?  Don't you have anywhere worthwhile you can take me?


Melissa said...

I, personally, would be rather bored if all you addressed on this blog were, for instance, the durableness of denim, or the treads on workshoes that are most desirable. There is certainly a need for usefulness, and for blogs that speak to only one purpose. Admittedly, I am not so drawn to read them as I am this blog. The marvelous variety you include reminds me there is still beauty in the world, goodness and well stated prose. I like what you've done and what you're doing. I'm sure if you make a change, it will be another interesting path to follow, but I think the path you're cycling on is terribly pleasant.

And I think Youngson was trying whole-heartedly to assure you he adores all you do, not cryptically criticize your failings. Which I know you already know.

Moria said...

That would be incontestably useful (in a way which a graduate degree in literature has not been).

And how. I am still waiting for the part of my professional life that will make me useful - when I will teach every week, instead of having labor manufactured for me by a department that feels it needs to justify paying me what it does. Most of my incessant self-circulating in the useless confines of my fly-bottle is a result of my current uselessness - useless even to myself. Such is coursework. A long and useless - though not pointless, which is important - series of exercises whose utility is deferred beyond the limit of the degree itself.

I have that thought every day. You prompt me to have it for a second time. And as ever, my response can only be, eh bien, c'est comme ça. je m'en vais à la bibliothèque.

And so, je m'en vais. There are worse things.

Emma J said...

Melissa - nothing like self-therapy in public, is there? I think I'd like to trade pleasant for passion. But how to find/follow passion without taking hostages? Or does passion always take hostages?

Moria - the library is always a good choice!

I'm afraid Useful is just my resident demon - I look at the academic life now and think, "Now that would be useful." But I left that life for this in search of the more worthwhile existence. Bah!

suzanne said...

I just love the idea of taking pictures of tools. Recording that we were here and we worked. Worked it out.

Emma J said...

Suzanne, I think that's what it is. I also love handling old tools, feeling the sheen polished into their handles by all those long-forgotten hands doing their dailies.

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