12 February 2009

From Playing Chicken With The Wind To Giving Birth

"It was the wind that gave them life," according to a Native American chant.

Today, it was the wind that blew my sandwich out of my hand.

Yes, you read that right. The bag containing my turkey and provolone hero dangled from between my left thumb and index finger. A gust wrested that bag, which fell to the sidewalk, from my fingers.

But the wind wasn't done. It rolled my sandwich along the sidewalk so that its wrapper unrolled and the bread, turkey, cheese, lettuce and tomato slices scattered about--all within a split-second.

Well, if you saw the condition of my body, you probably wouldn't feel sorry for me. And you shouldn't. But, short of a hurricane, I've never seen such wind.

At least now I feel quite content to be indoors--specifically, in my apartment, which is on the first floor of a house. Even though it was warm in my place, Charlie and Max, it seemed, wanted to curl up with me even more than they usually do. And, when they did, somehow it felt even cozier than it does on cold or rainy days.

In another life, on a day like this, they'd probably be with me, and I might be in some cottage on a windswept escarpment in Big Sur or someplace like that, looking out at the sea and sky and reading and/or writing by candlelight. And I just might be playing a harmonica--maybe something like the theme from Midnight Cowboy.

Actually, I did something not so different from that in my previous life, which wasn't so long ago but seems like part of another geologic age. I've holed up in lean-tos, sheds or the living rooms of various hostels and shelters of other kinds, basking in the glow of a flickering flame that drips wax.

I think now of the night that I arrived in Genoa, Italy on my bicycle. For the previous few days, I'd been pedalling up the Mediterranean coast from Rome, bound for Avignon, France. I'd spent most of that day in my lowest gears, grinding up a serpentine road that clung to the edge of a series of cliffs from which rocks tumbled into the sea, which on that day, lashed the shoreline about two hundred feet below me.

When you're pedalling a bike laden with your clothes, camping equipment, your camera and extra lenses (Remember, this was before digital photography.) through winds, gusting seaward, that make even your nearly formfitting clothes flutter like dangling flags, every physical and metaphysical particle of energy you expend is for the purpose of keeping yourself upright and, to whatever degree possible, moving forward--not to enjoying the scenery, beautiful as it is.

About an hour before I reached Genoa, I teetered along a section of road from which the guardrail was missing. That means absolutely nothing, except for that wind, seperated me from the stones I saw as they were breaking off from the side of the road and hopping toward the churning abyss below.

That night, I had a large but very simple meal of pasta, meat and salad at the hostel (Ostello del Mare: It sounds like one of Shakespeare's tragic characters became a sailor!) , in a room lit by candlelight. I can't recall the meal itself so vividly--it was about half my lifetime ago, after all--but I do remember that almost nothing had ever tasted so good. And very few meals have I've had since were that good. And the vin ordinaire that I washed it down with could just as easily have been Dom Perignon's finest vintage.

My ride along the unguarded roadway was not my first of experience of being on a precipice with the wind pushing me toward its edge. I'd stood, my toes hugging a jagged edge, on a similar ridge in California during my first trip away from the East Coast of the US, when I was a teenager. My father called me away; when I finally backed toward him, my brother rushed over to me and punched me. Several years later, on my first trip alone, I dismounted my bike along a desolate stretch of the Normandy coast and leaned seaward as the wind braced, then pushed at, my back. In spite of those gusts, clouds drifted lazily toward the ripples that would become tides as they swelled toward the shore.

For most of my life, I could not resist playing "chicken" with the wind, even when the air and sea were calm--or when there was no sea and very little air. I last recall daring the caprices of the brink during my last long bike tour, during the summer of 2001. I'd spent most of that morning grinding my way up l'Alpe de Huez, along with hundreds of other cyclists who anticipated the pack of Tour de France riders later that day. The road up the mountain is not particularly long. But, before you reach the summit, you negotiate twenty-one virages (hairpin turns). Each one, it seemed, was steeper and turned more sharply than the previous one. And, of course, with each of those turns, you are at a higher elevation, where the air is thinner but the wind and sun are more intense.

Well, on one of those virages--the fourteenth or fifteenth, if I recall correctly-- there was no guard rail. I did not want to stop because I believed--correctly--that it would be much more difficult to resume my ride than to continue it, however slowly. However, it seemed as if all of the Alps, and all of the rivers, pastures, glaciers and villages that punctuated them, spread below me. Although I'm not religious, I recalled Satan leading Jesus up a mountain and showing him the kingdom that spread beneath their feet. I think that's how the story goes, anyway, and I could imagine it taking place at that spot.

So, what did I do because I didn't stop? I veered to my right and rode as close to the edge of that road--which, at that point, lacked a guardrail--as I could. As the sun reddened my skin in the thin air, I felt the wind blowing at my side and back at the same time--or so it seemed. So, with each pedal stroke, one puff pushed me a few metres onward while another tottered me along a jagged edge of falling rocks.

A few days later, I would see that woman in Saint Jean de Maurienne who, simply by walking home from work as I straddled my bike at a stop-light, made me realize that I could not take another step in this world as a man. (I've mentioned her, and that day, in previous posts.) And I never again tempted the wind, for I would never again have to tempt fate because, I realized, fate was all I'd ever had. From then on, there was only a journey, if not destiny.

Now I'm thinking about why I've never taken such chances since I started to live as Justine. You might say that in taking that step, I took the greatest risk I could ever take and nothing else seems quite so momentous a choice, so freighted with my hopes. Or, maybe, having committed myself to living as Justine, I was taking so many other risks that had real consequences for my life that momentarily giving my fate to the wind almost seems trivial, if not childish.

I've also heard other people say that women are more risk-adverse than men are. Hmm...Maybe those hormones are having even more of an effect on me than I'd anticipated. Then again, what man ever takes as great a risk as a woman does when she gives birth?

From living as a boy who played chicken with the wind to being a woman who surrenders to the very force of life--at least her own life--itself: Is that a form of birth? Or is losing the need, or even the wish, to play chicken with the wind?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

perhaps you now have something to lose. my need to self destruct has dropped off tremendously since i let go and stopped fighting myself.
sorry about not responding sooner, been trying to save my job...between my big mouth and the crappy economy, i nearly got myself fired.