Breaking Away

In the past six weeks I have not ventured more than two blocks from my home. In a way this was a much-needed retreat, and I have tried to really see it that way, and utilize the time for study, reflection and growth.

My neighborhood is divided into East and West by an Olmsted park that follows the meandering path of the Muddy River. Over the years I have lived in four separate flats in this neighborhood, two in the West part and two in the East. I have not crossed the river in at least six weeks.

I have not been on my bike for six weeks. This is actually sort of what started this “retreat” period for me. I had a crate on the back of my bike that had gotten so beaten and battered I finally had to take it off. Without a crate, going the further distance to the supermarket across the river a couple times a week was just not practical. It’s more expensive to shop on my side of the river, but I can shop more often and carry everything on foot.

I didn’t have another crate, and sort of wracked my brain thinking where to get one. I haven’t been able to go thrifting for ages. Usually that’s how things came to me over the years. I would visualize it, and if I was patient I would find it at one of my local thrifties. It was like a game of hide-n-seek I was playing with the Universe. It was my one unabashedly mystical belief: that in time, everything you desire will show up at the thriftie.

I really agonized about this crate. I finally struck on the idea of getting one on a website. It’s a little fancy. Heavy duty. Collapsible. It’s been sitting next to the door for weeks while I work out the logistics of installing it. (The six or seven heavy-duty zip-ties are easy enough, but do I take my bike out of the basement and onto the lawn or bring it up the stairs? And then what about the chain? It needs repairs, and the tires will need air… the list of repairs — and excuses to put them off –was growing!)

I can see out over the park. Like a cat watching squirrels from my perch in my bay window. Silently judging. Nowadays I don’t like going outside at all. I walk to my local shop first thing in the morning, at a clipped pace, blast through the aisles (I have memorized my stops, and treat the excursion like those old “shopping sprees” on day-time game shows in the ‘70s and ‘80s — dump everything into my basket and go). I use the self-checkout, speaking to no one, and rush home.

If I see someone from my building out walking their dog, I say hello without stopping, maybe a few words about the weather, and sprint up the stairs to my flat. The sound of that big heavy old mahogany door closing, and throwing that bolt to lock myself in again is like music.

It’s not fear (though it is a little). It’s not even anxiety (though, again: a little). I think I’ve figured out it’s mostly grief. Not extraordinary grief. It’s banal. What one writer called “the mundanity of grief.” It’s the ordinary grief of a person my age seeing the things I thought were solid dissolve into hot air.

I remember years ago, in my twenties, reading Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

It takes so little, so infinitely little, for someone to find himself on the other side of the border, where everything – love, convictions, faith, history – no longer has meaning. The whole mystery of human life resides on the fact that it is spent in the immediate proximity of, and even in direct contact with, that border, that it is separated from it not by kilometers but by barely a millimeter.

I understood it then. This is part of the experience of being human. But I feel it now. This is what it feels like to be human. The grief is always there when you get to a certain age, I think — it’s different for everyone, but it’s part of everyday life — sometimes it’s a sharp localized pain; other times your whole body aches with it. Sometimes you see it in the color of a sunset far out on the horizon, other times it’s like biting your tongue and tasting blood.

I think of another foundational text for me: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Siege.”

This I do, being mad:
Gather baubles about me,
Sit in a circle of toys, and all the time
Death beating the door in.

White jade and an orange pitcher,
Hindu idol, Chinese god, —
Maybe next year, when I’m richer —
Carved beads and a lotus pod. . . .

And all this time
Death beating the door in.

I know it sounds trivial. I know there are plenty of people who would jeer at this. I know there are people I love going through extraordinary grief right now. I feel you. Sometimes I feel like I’m feeling all of you at once.

When I finally got my flat last year around this time, my friend and casual spirit guide, Roland, congratulated me on the purchase of my “coffin.” “Buying a home at our age,” he told me, “is the same thing.”

I think I’m going to try to fix my bicycle today.

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