Walking by the canal in my town, feeling a little as though I’ve lost my way, watching the water flow. Sitting on the bank, thinking about words. Rock. Stone. They mean the same thing, but the feeling behind them is so different. What I would expect to find at the bottom of this water is a stone. “Stone” sounds like water and somehow like permanence. Smooth and eternal. A rock is what you hit things with. A rock is solid, but in a severe way. On and on, watching the river flow.
I remember Houma, Louisiana, my road days. When I was much younger, and mortality was a concept on the horizon, not yet something you hold at arm’s length by drinking pomegranate juice and hoping. Houma on the afternoon of a rainy morning and now the sun all out and shining and the ground damp. The old brown Chevy with our stuff in the back heading to the next town and my friend Casey at the wheel. And up ahead a tight curve under a tree with flowers on the road, and the great bayou to our right.
Casey was a guy. In those days most of my friends were guys, when did that change? I talk to men functionally, but my closer friends always seem to be women. Its women I can talk to, its women at my age who seem to be the ones full of curiosity and ideas and skepticism. Women seem so much more alive, or is that just some prejudice on my part? Men can be so much like rocks. Women can be so much like stones. Smooth and water worn by time. Men so often are not worn by time as broken by it.
Casey begins to touch the pedal to slow down. He is a good driver, he must know to slow down. Am I talking to him to much? What is happening? The big heavy car, a real land yacht, has just hit the curve too hard and is careening off the road. We ‘re on the river bank traveling way too fast, the tall wet weeds whipping at the door frames . These things happen very slowly in the frame of our being. There’s no sense of panic, though I am sitting in the passenger seat, a passive observer as a passenger on a falling airplane might be an observer of vertically rushing clouds. Casey, it’s his problem to solve.
He jinks around something in the weeds, which tips the van at a sharp angle on the descending river bank and we’re traveling now on two wheels.
I’m sitting here on the canal bank, watching the water move just a little ways below my feet. Its not a strong current. If I tip my trifocal glasses just right, they’re hopelessly bent up so you have to arrange them on your nose like a Disney character, if I arrange them right I can see small fishes nipping at things near the stones, the big smooth stones below. They don’t know there’s water. They don’t understand that reality. That’s amazing. What of us? We more or less know there’s air, but we don’t float groundlessly in it except in dreams. We see fish and we see birds, floating, flying and being in three dimensions in ways we can only imagine. But we want to imagine. Its what we have. I look at the fish. Bending over the water, the fish see my hovering shadow, the omens of an unseen, unknown world for them above, a world that has the power to affect their water and end their life without their comprehension and move away from the shadow as a man might move away from a ghost.
The front wheel hits something hard and fast in the tall grass and the left side of the car goes airborne. In these moments time doesn’t slow down, but there is a fascination that keeps you sane and calm and makes time seem to slow down. The kind of calming fascination a monk might spend years trying to achieve on a meditation cushion, given to you like a kind of gift, or maybe a consolation for the terror which is waiting on the fringes to be admitted. What you have in this moment is a kind of stoned reverie “Wow, the van is tipping over. This is amazing. I wonder if we’ll go into the water?” The water with the little fishes who don’t know an iron meteor is headed for their calm, suspended existence.
The car hits the water. The forward impact crushes the roof which crushes the wind shield and brings a rush of glass and swamp water into our faces.
Little fish, little fish. I put my hand in the water and the cold sends zings of attention up my arm. The fish move away from my fingers, never taking their eyes off them. What is like to have eyes on the sides of your head? Do you see the world with one eye at a time, blindly? How much of the world do you see like that? In this moment I feel sorry for the fishes, for their limitations, for the narrowness of their scope. They mate, but do they feel lust? Do they feel desire or only impulse? Do they know beauty, or do weeds only hide the food they eat or the animals that eat them? What is the world to a fish? It is only that dimension, with the occasional shadows from a above, and sometimes a fish hook that brings them suddenly and violently into that world of killing sunshine and air. Our meat made senses were designed for survival. Spirit and beauty came later as a kind of luxury. That luxury is the birthright of our species, wherever we go. Or however dire the moment is.
The water soaks us upside down; my belly comes up hard against my seat belt, stopping my forward pitch, facing into the sharp edged water and mud and then dangling upside down like a fish on a hook. I hear Casey yell “Let’s get out of here!”. There’s fear in his voice, but also determination, a man solving an important problem, not a man begging for his life. Its nice when its like that. It’s the kindness of dark destiny, the possibility of a good death. A good story if you get out of this shit storm alive, human beings make you beg. Deadly accidents are urgent puzzles that challenge character. A good man likes that.
I’m holding my breath by now and the water is over my face. I’m Houdini in the chained up trunk at the bottom of the Hudson river wrestling off the handcuffs, getting ready for my Ta-Dah! of liberation, as perfectly in the moment as a Zen master. One good thing in our favor, it was a hot day on the bayou. We’d had our windows down. My belt snaps free. One of my sneakers is coming off. I grab it with my hand as my belt clears and dumps me, still holding my breath, free floating in the swamp gunk. I slip out the window and there is sunshine above me and a feeling of exhilaration and triumph. I’m getting out of this. One more day. It’s not even my car.