“Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” – Albert Einstein

I have joked with my friends that the twin keys of manipulating me are guilt and responsibility.  My entire life has been driven by those two forces.  With apologies to Jodifur, three minutes with me, and you are convinced that I was secretly raised by a Jewish mother, despite my obviously Nordic heritage.

There are few things I regret – vanishingly few.  But there are some private guilts that still haunt me – because they are things I could never make reparations for, never undo, never compensate.

I used to run and bike before my knees decided they were done with me.  I started road biking in the late 80’s and switched to trail biking in the mid-90’s.  To this day, I hate road biking.  I hate the wind of rushing cars, the feeling of restriction to that narrow strip of shoulder, the heat of the pavement, the choking smell of exhaust.  It’s stressful.  But more than that, it brings up one of those guilt ridden memories.

When I moved to Arkansas after my first marriage, I bought a road bike and started to bike around my new city, partially for exercise and partially to explore my new surroundings.   I like to be alone, and more to the point, I like to be alone observing.   Particularly the natural world – even the little bits that passed for “nature” in the middle of the small town-come-suburbia I had moved to.

I was cutting through the grass-interspersed parking lots of the civic center, when a plover and her chicks, traversing across the neutral ground (that’s MEDIAN for all you folks who have never had the good grace to live in New Orleans), stopped me in my path.  Plovers, for all you non-birdwatchers out there, are not particularly remarkable in their plumage, nor are they particularly rare.  What makes them interesting, from a nature watching point of view, is their behavior.

If you get anywhere near their chicks, plovers will suddenly throw themselves into the most amazing display of false death throes imaginable.  They flutter.  They thrash.  They contort.  It’s completely transfixing, which is the point of the entire exercise – while you are watching mom perform the bird equivalent of foaming-at-the-mouth, her babies are running for cover as fast as their little chickie legs will take them.  It’s effective.

Except in this case, it wasn’t.  I lingered, fascinated, trying to follow both mother and chicks, driving them in front of me as I kept trying to get a closer look at them.  The chicks ran away from my perceived threat and straight into the unseen real one – the moving car on the road beside us.

The memory is very vivid, even as I write.  The green grass and the wet brown of dark earth beneath it.  The grey clouds, heavy with impending rain.  The smell of damp pavement and the utter stillness of the air.  The squeaking of the chicks and the fluttering of the plover against the ground.  And the audible “pop” of the car tire hitting one of the chicks dead-on, killing it instantly.

I was nearly sick, right there at the side of the road.  Sick at the sudden random ending of a life.  Sick that it was, to a great extent, my fault.  That my presence, my curious persistence, had precipitated a death, however small.  Obviously I didn’t mean for it to happen, didn’t pursue any deliberate attempt at destruction.  But somehow intent does not completely wash away guilt.  Unintended consequences are still consequences, and when someone else has to bear the burden of my actions, when I cause pain or suffering by my acts, I cannot justify away the feeling in the pit of my stomach of deep, churning, remorse.  Those things stay with me in technicolor detail my entire life, more vividly than I can remember my college graduation, or my first kiss.

I think it is rarely the big moments in life that truly define us.  It is often those small private moments that happen when nobody is watching.  The ones that seem so insignificant at the time, but that playback in our heads years later with perfect clarity.  Moments that seem to have a pivotal impact on how we view ourselves, and could offer profound self-understanding if we can only grasp them and hold them.

Perhaps it is because we are not done with the lesson that they stay with us.  Perhaps they have something yet to tell us.

I don’t pretend to know why, but twenty years later I still hold that tiny body in my hand.

March 9th, 2010 at 2:12 pm
4 Responses to “Somewhat short of letting go”
  1. 1
    jodifur Says:

    I’m not sure why you are apologizing to me. This is a beautiful post.

  2. 2
    Isabella E Says:

    I think everyone has at least one or two moments like that. I’m still wracked with guilt sometimes because the last time I saw my best friend she was wasting away in a hospital bed with cancer that went undiagnosed for the better part of a year. I remember sitting next to her telling her about the antics of my stupid dog while in the back of my mind I knew it was probably the last conversation we would ever have. I felt an impulse to take her hand in mine but I didn’t. I’m still not sure why I resisted that urge but now years later I can’t get rid of the guilt I feel and I’m left with all of the things I should have said to her while I had the chance.

  3. 3
    Deirdre Says:

    I should not have read this on a depressing, yucky, rainy day in Georgia.

  4. 4

    I had a similar experience, although I was more of a passive participant. I was driving my sister rusty, fragile VW Beetle and had a lark try to fly across my path and not make it.

    There was no audible pop, and that junky old card, small and light as it was, didn’t even react to the ending of a life.

    It sucked.