The Limits of Language

Last night, near dark, clambering out of the pond, newly charged from heavy rains, I thought about how when I was teaching, I bought each of my students one of those little pocket-size, spiral-bound memo books, and how for every class, I asked them to bring me at least 10 observations from the day before. I placed few stipulations on this assignment, only that they carry the books with them wherever they went, that they consider all the senses, and that they write down whatever catches their attention. I told them that writing, like life, is mostly about paying attention (or as I like to call it – in consideration of my scruffy, young charges – paying f’in attention), and then engaging with that attention. Not letting it just drift by on the flotsam of life.

It was the shock of the water, colder than in recent days, the slow turn toward autumn begun in earnest the week before, and the realizing that I had no good words for what my sudden immersion felt like, or at least no words that filled the hole in my vocabulary where I thought maybe such a word should reside. And therefore, the notebook useless (not that I had one with me, anyway), the limits of language (or of my language, anyway) rearing its head yet again, and wondering how to talk about experience that just won’t fit itself into the alphabet, no matter how carefully I arrange the letters.

But still, words or no: Pay f’ing attention. Engage. I’m pretty sure it’s the best free advice you’ll ever receive.




Just a Story

P1040216Our older son wanted a motorcycle, and though we wished it were otherwise, we also knew that wishing would not make it so. He is almost 17, and our sphere of control is narrowing by the day. But I did make one demand: His first motorcycle must be a dirt bike, rather than one made for the street. I grew up riding dirt bikes, and know how they cultivate skills that simply can’t be learned on the road, at least not readily, and probably not without a good deal of pain. You can dump a dirt bike time and again without suffering serious injury, in the process learning the minutia of balance and traction, the razor’s line between the point of no return and the possibility of recovery. You can learn what it feels like to sling the rear wheel around a corner, and you will discover that just because you lose traction with the front wheel doesn’t mean you’re going down; it only means you’re probably going down.

Anyway, through a convoluted set of circumstances that involved a smoking deal on a little Suzuki DR250, Fin’s work schedule, and the fact that our dear friend and neighbor Tom was using our big truck to tow his trailer while his rig in the shop getting a new motor (modern diesels: my advice: steer clear), I drove alone to Middlebury, VT, two-and-a-half hours distant, in Tom’s little Tacoma. 220,000 miles on the clock, chattering clutch, hesitation under acceleration, baling twine wrapped around the sideview mirror. “I didn’t realize you were taking it that far” Tom said when I picked it up. “It’s totally fine with me, but you might want to think twice.” But it was too late for that, so I didn’t.

The owner of the bike worked at a farm machinery repair shop. A big one, with big machinery to match. Middlebury is in Addison County, and Addison County is home to some of Vermont’s largest dairy farms, which are getting bigger and bigger by the year, as smaller farms continue going under, unable to stay afloat in a era of impoverished milk prices (when I was born, in 1971, VT had more than 6,000 dairy farms. We’re now down to about 750, with approximately the same number of total cows. You can see the trajectory). And so the shop was filled with massive assemblages of metal and rubber and oil, and walking into it, I was reminded suddenly of riding with my Grandfather in his combine, harvesting corn on his Iowa farm. This would have been late 70’s, early 80’s. My Grandfather didn’t talk much, and I guess neither did I, so we just sat there, me mesmerized by endless rows of falling corn, him lost in thoughts I’d never know, the radio a constant stream of crop and weather reports.

Anyhow. The motorcycle was owned by a young man named Cale, and I liked him immediately, because when I couldn’t get bike to start by rolling it down a small hill and dumping the clutch (he’d explained before I’d come that it was electric start-only, and the battery was toast), he suggested that he tow me behind his truck. Well, yes. Exactly my kind of fellow. So we hitched a strap to the bumper of his big, heavily-stickered Ford, and then to the handlebars of the bike, and he took off across the parking lot, and once I deemed we’d achieved sufficient velocity, I dumped the clutch, the bike roared to life, and I tried really hard not to slam into Cale’s tailgate. Barely succeeding.

The bike ran great, so I handed Cale his money, loaded it into Tom’s truck, and bucked and chattered my way home, up and over the Appalachian gap, down the valley beyond, through the streets of Vermont’s small capitol city, and finally to home, where I unloaded it alone (Fin still at work), and drove it fast down our little dirt road just as the last light of day faded from the sky.