I named this space Curiously Local when I first began writing here in 2009. I had come into my 60th year, and was beginning to suspect that the next ten years of my life might turn out to be considerably different from anything I could imagine. Or worse, that they might end up being more of exactly the same.
Both outcomes begged the question, “Who’s in charge here?”. It’s always a good question to consider from time to time during the course of one’s life, but since good questions are those which can easily lead to unpalatable answers, I’ve ducked the issue whenever possible. Do we really have any control over how our lives play out, or do we only have control over how powerfully we want to believe in the illusion of control. And is control really the best way to think about what life is all about?
OK, so press me and I will tell you with a straight face that I have chosen the course of my life by making decisions, little and large, daily and weekly, and often with great purpose and industry, spectacle and noise. I will tell you that after I have made those decisions I nail them down in front of me like lumber on a boardwalk across a mucky and delicate wetlands.
But as satisfying as it is to make a decision–you know, lay the board down in front of the others, bang in the nails–I am quietly troubled by my suspicion that most decisions are little more that the inevitable expression of inclinations and habits. That class of determiners which we might call “The ways I am that make me do the stuff I do”. The rut-captured routines that are imbedded so deeply in us that we would have a devil of a time calling them up and naming them, let alone parsing the bargains we’ve made so we never have to acknowledge how helpless we are to change them.
Faust’s deal with Mephistopheles: his soul for all the knowledge in the world.
To keep these ideas at a certain level of generality is the safest course. I mean to say that most of us are familiar with what we mean when we talk about desire. And it’s not the same as want or need, is it. It’s not just a deeper, or stronger, or brighter or heavier type of need. Desire comes from a place in the brain that is not necessarily driven by anything we can talk clearly about. If anything, desire is controlled by the breath, and in turn controls the breath. And that may be some clue to it. We don’t want oxygen, and to say we need oxygen is a bland way of saying that without it, our revels are ended. So as I breath, desire breathes me.
But one day in the summer of 1958 I was playing in the backyard with a bow and arrow. The arrow was a real one, with a sharp metal tip, a target arrow which I had acquired from another kid in the neighborhood as part of a carefully calculated exchange of trade goods. It was one of my most prized possessions. I would draw a target on a cardboard box and launch the arrow over and over again, increasing my distance from the box only after I was successful at hitting it consistently.
This particular afternoon for some reason I decided to shoot the arrow straight up into the air. Maybe simply for the thrill of it. Watching as it reached its apogee and faltered, slipping over on its side and then gathering back the speed it had lost as it streaked back down to stick with a satisfying crunch into the lawn. I did not know my grandfather had quietly walked out to inspect my mother’s flower garden. He was a gentle man, slight of build and bald of head. He was also deaf.
I launched the arrow, watched it rise, and then saw my grandfather standing on the lawn with his back to me. I was paralyzed with fear. I couldn’t shout. I closed my eyes, and in that moment probably came as close as I will ever come in my life to praying.
The arrow landed three or four feet behind him. I don’t remember anything else.