We needed to cut the grass. Just three weeks before, we’d used our push mowers and trimmed the green stuff to well under ankle height. Now, after the perfect combination (if you are grass) of steady rains alternating with bright and warm days, the undulating lawn was covered in knee-high weeds waving in the breeze and tall, shaggy patches of growth. They were also still wet from a recent downpour, and try as I might, I couldn’t get the manual mower to do anything but run over the tall stuff, bending and flattening it but doing far too little in the way of cutting it. Stepping back to consider my work, I appeared to have been trying to create crop circles to fool and excite the UFOlogists in the neighborhood.
What was needed was a power mower. We could borrow one, or, if need be, rent one. But a power mower is something I will not, can not, use. It has nothing to do with the loud noise of it – although I do dislike the sound, especially up close – nor the smell of the clouds of exhaust. It has everything to do with this: When I was a kid, my Uncle Charles had a power mower – the electric kind, with a long extension cord that snaked back across his well-kempt lawn to an outlet inside his suburban ranch house. He was mowing one day – maybe a day like the one I was now trying to mow in – and, perhaps, the wet grass clumped up and choked the works, clogging the blades and bringing the mower to a halt. I don’t know the exact details – I don’t think I ever asked. I think I didn’t want to know, although now I do, a little. Anyway, for reasons I can never quite wrap my mind around, my Uncle Charles decided that he could remove that clump of grass, and he put his hand out and reached for the obstruction … and the mower started up. And he lost his fingers – all on that hand except for his thumb. Just like that. And family lore has it that when my Aunt Lena found him on the lawn, he was banging his hand against the lawn, not in pain but in utter anger at his stupidity.
It was a moment where he could have gone one of two ways: to do what he did, or to turn off the mower, or unplug it, and then try to unclog it. But, in that moment, that split second – that place in time that altered his life forever – he felt that he could do the job just by grabbing at the grass. Did he feel that there was no risk? Or did he think that it was a reasonable risk? Or did he just think the wrong thought? Or did he not think at all? In a breath, in the twist of a wrist, everything changed.
And thinking of this, I thought of the brother of a friend, a guy who worked nights and headed home in the early still-dark hours of the morning. He took the same route all the time. But this one morning … did he miscalculate the distance between him and the oncoming truck, or did he not see it, or was he so tired that morning that he couldn’t think straight, or did he think that he could make it? A reasonable risk, or no risk at all? But he pulled away from a stop sign, into the intersection, and he was dead before the other vehicle hit its brakes. What happened in that hair’s breadth of a moment, between intention and oblivion? That place in time.
These are extreme examples, and sad ones, and I’m sorry to lay them on you. But we all make these decisions, if decisions are what they are – impulses, maybe, is a better term. We sit at corners in our cars, at stop signs, and sometimes because of cars parked too close to the corner we can’t see oncoming traffic clearly, but we feel, as we edge out a bit, that we can see enough, and that it seems clear to go, and we go – and we, the lucky ones, make it. But it could have gone the other way. We took a gamble – for some reason, we thought it was worth it, or that we were invincible and nothing could happen to us, or that if suddenly a car appeared we could hit the brakes – or they could – and calamity would be avoided. A place, a decision, a time – an action. A result. We go into old buildings and walk onto floors that look like they could never hold us. There is that moment of hesitation, or calculation, or ego, or nothing – and then you step forward. And you are in that place in time, that action of no return. That steep and rocky path, with a long fall below; the electrical wires that could give off a fatal jolt; that rickety ladder you use to reach that ceiling fixture; the slippery roof on a rainy day, and you with a tool in your hand, and a cloud that looks like it could hold lightning … we go ahead and do what sense might tell us to hold off on. That place in time where the action of the present meets the fragility of the future.
Time is a place, and this is the most tenuous of locales. That reaching out with the back-of-the-mind awareness that you should keep that hand where it is. Is taking that chance a weakness of the creatures that we are, or is it what makes us human and the dominant life form on the planet? Is it those chances that are what makes a person an artist, and makes nothing into art? By that place in time, by the accumulation of all the little places in time, are we carving out our rightful place in this world, that place that comes only by confronting the chance and taking it. Sometimes you lose your fingers ; sometimes you make it out into traffic unscathed; sometimes you win the battle. Sometimes you disappear.
We have hired a neighbor to mow our lawn for us. I will not touch that power mower, no matter how careful and aware I am or sure I will be, with the memory of my uncle in my mind. I am not one for leaps of faith. I will never rule the world by taking a chance. I am resigned to knowing that I will have more fingers than others, but they will have led more vital lives losing a few of theirs, and dwelling more fully in a frighteningly alive placeness that I can’t bring myself to quite enter.