Chausson’s Bicycle

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In 1899, Romantic composer, Ernest Chausson, went out for a bicycle ride. While riding downhill, he hit a brick wall and was killed instantly, cutting short a promising career. In her poem about Chausson’s death, Denise Levertov imagines him riding, his mind filled with music and the colors of the countryside, both gaining in intensity as he gathers speed, takes flight on his bicycle. And then the wall, and a sudden silence.

I’ve owned Breathing the Water, Levertov’s collection of poems in which “From the Image-Flow — Death of Chausson, 1899” is printed, for twentysome years. I’m uncertain how many times, in those years, I’ve read this poem without real comprehension. I didn’t know who Chausson was and never felt enough curiosity to look him up. Furthermore, as someone who didn’t ride a bike, I didn’t catch her allusions to cycling.

This week, I happened to read the poem again and, although she never uses the word “bicycle”, I knew. I finally understood the poem (not just the words she used), and I caught on to the manner of Chausson’s death without resorting to Wikipedia (though I did look it up just to be sure).

What made the difference to my comprehension, this time around? It wasn’t imagination, I’ve certainly had the same ability to conjure thoughts and mental pictures at other times. And I doubt it was merely a matter of timing. No, what opened me up to the imagery of the poem was experience: the flash of recognition that comes with having practical contact with and observation of facts or events.

There was a time in my life when I did not seek out experiences. A long period in which it seemed enough to imagine, dream or surmise how a thing might feel; to use books or other people’s life stories as a guide. “Practical contact” might lead to things I feared, things like pain or grief or disappointment – so I avoided it. I anesthetized myself with food, and protected my tender possibilities with layers of fat that held other people and direct experience at bay. Eventually, I protected myself into near self-obliteration – both literally and figuratively. Almost worse than the erasure of my own life was the discovery that I had completely blunted my ability to feel empathy or compassion.

I had lost my ability to feel my way into a poem.

That changed when I began to say yes to new experiences. I even made it a New Year’s resolution one year: “Say yes to people and doing, no to staying home and sitting.”  Today, a few years down the line from that sterile space I once inhabited, I have not quite become an advocate of stockpiling experiences for their own sake. I still don’t understand the adrenaline-junkies among us, for example. But I have become a vociferous supporter of trying the things that call to you. This has led me to experiences I wouldn’t exchange for “safety”, even though some were emotionally difficult – experiences that opened my heart and engaged my intellect, experiences that allowed beauty to blow open my perceptions or that drew forth gifts I had hidden deep within.

If I hadn’t allowed myself to open up to experience, I wouldn’t have felt the grief  of this past week following the death of a friend. But I also wouldn’t have felt the balm of connection or the solidarity of shared loss.

After such a week, this is the two-fold gift of Chausson’s bicycle. First, the realization that my capacities (to see, to feel, to express) are enriched by engaging with new or broader experience. Second, that life cannot be fully lived if I’m always looking fearfully for the unseen brick wall ahead. Like Levertov’s imagined composer, I intend to ride fast and free, to hear arpeggios in the passing stream and revel in the flashing colors of this world. The wall and the silence are somewhere ahead: this I know. Even so, I will keep my feet to the pedals.

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Call It “Experience”

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

— Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

When I was a kid, I wanted an Easy Bake Oven.  Think about it: a toy in which a lightbulb provides the heat source to bake all kinds of delectable confections and a kid obsessed with delicious goodies.  Why wouldn’t the two be destined for one another?  But, I never got one.  Turns out, I wasn’t alone in my disappointment.  The other day I was talking with friends, and someone said, in the stilted tones of a disgruntled 10-year-old,  “I never got one either. My mom thought they were stupid.”  My own mother’s sentiments exactly.

The Christmas orgy of gift-giving affords many opportunities to think about what to do, or what it means, when you don’t get what you want.  Disappointment in the gifts received is only the tip of that iceberg.  We hang so many hopes and expectations on the holiday — we want someone to stick a bow on us and say, “You’re my present this year” like in the coffee commercial.  We want that moment when we are completely aware that our life is rich and full of meaning (resulting in our buddy Clarence getting his wings).  We want to sing in four-part harmony about the white Christmas of our dreams while wearing gorgeous red-velvet dresses…ok, maybe that one is just me!  You get the picture, though.

I, personally, have been lucky in two ways.  First, growing up in a family with six children and a limited income, I had many opportunities to learn that I might not get everything I wanted.  I learned many coping mechanisms for this, from swallowing my disappointment with a 2000 calorie chaser of fudge to learning to be happy with what I did have.  Admittedly, some mechanisms were more helpful than others.

The second way in which I have been lucky is that, in the past year or so, I’ve gotten more than I ever expected on so many levels. I won a cruise, for crying out loud, not to mention healing relationships and recovering self-esteem along with some pretty amazing bike rides.  And I’ve been learning healthier coping mechanisms too.

Which, it turns out I’ve needed recently.  I got so accustomed to getting whatever it seemed I wanted, that I started to forget that life doesn’t work that way 100% of the time.  And BLAM! I ran smack up against it: not getting something I really wanted. Had this been something material, like an iPhone or a Nook, I think I would have taken it in stride.  But in the realm of emotional desires, I’ve discovered it can be much harder to find a way to manage extreme disappointment.  Here’s how I’m proceeding:

1.  I remind myself of the Randy Pausch quote, above.  Experience, as he refers to it, is just another name for living life as fully as possible.  And that is, deep down, what I truly want.

2.  I remind myself to be grateful for all I do have.  The list is long, and astounds me when I really think about it.

3.  I surround myself with people who make me laugh, to balance the private moments when, sometimes, I cry.

4.  I take action in other aspects of my life in order to feel positive momentum:  craft room clean, check; menu planned for the week, check; Tupperware organized, check. (If you know me, you’d better be laughing at this last one – when have I EVER been the kind of person who has orderly Tupperware?)

In these ways, even the awful feeling of not getting your heart’s desire can be transformed. Not what you expected, but not at all shabby.  And you’re able to remember that gifts come in their own time.  I believe that hope and patience are excellent qualities to cultivate because they contribute to resilience in the face of disappointment. And because, despite what you feel today, you can never know what the future holds.

Which brings me back to the Easy Bake Oven.  I received a Christmas gift on which there was a tag which read, “From Santa:  Sorry!  I’m a few years late with this. ENJOY!”  I’m sure you know what was waiting under the wrapping paper. Sometimes, if not always, you do get the things you want. Maybe in a slightly delayed time frame, or from a source you never anticipated.  Being ready for either outcome is, perhaps, what experience is meant to teach us.