Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

Archive for February 16th, 2008

Knotted strings and nose prints

Posted by boakley59 on February 16, 2008

Wonder and mystery come at us in all shapes and sizes, in sound and in silence, anytime, anyplace. These moments raise us above the rocks and separate life from hopelessness.

Not even our wildest imaginings can prepare us for wonderful life. Not so many days ago, the richness of reality came upon me as I sat at the computer at my window desk. I recently had surgery on my bottom, so I was squirming a bit in my seat when the thought struck me: “I have a knotted string in my butt and there are nose prints on my window.” What warning could there be for any of us that such a thought could ever occur?

Certainly, I knew about the surgery. My digestive system makes new tunnels of its own and one of these pathways had become painful and infected. The surgeon exposed and cleared the area, then left a knotted string to block one end of the tunnel. The body heals and seals the rogue tunnel from the other end, and the string is eventually pushed out the waste tunnel that comes as original equipment. Life with a string in your butt is an unexpected challenge, but after weeks and weeks it becomes just another thing you deal with.

The nose prints? Well, they’re not so unusual, either. One of our two dogs (Salsa, the one in the blog avatar with me) is big enough to leap onto the desk and look out the window so she can protect us from passersby. Sometimes, she has to get as close to the action as possible and rubs her nose on the window.

But nose prints on the window and knotted strings in your butt? We are wonderful life, precisely because we recognize the glory of these momentary combinations.

Not all of these glorious moments are so silly as this one. A few years ago I was climbing a fourteener (a 14,000-foot peak) in Colorado and I got a bit ahead of my friends. I looked out alone over miles and miles of mountains stretching into the blue distance and knew how small and ordinary we are in the midst of wonder. Yet we stand above these rocks and we pass them by. Our thoughts soar above them and leave them behind, but our thoughts also bring these wonders back to us whenever we have been away too long.

When I was younger still, my family often went to Niagara Falls to see what I describe as thousands of tons of water rushing stupidly over a cliff. The glib description belies the power in the water. Standing on the observation deck a few feet from the falls, I always felt drawn to dangle over the railing with my feet in the water to test my strength against the current. Only wonderful life wants so desperately to test its own limits against such awesome power. Not only must we observe and describe nature, but we also must wrestle with it.

Wonderful life must participate in life. It is not the same to read about Niagara Falls or the Rockies, or even the nose prints on my window, as it is to see them from inches away. Life is unimaginably more majestic in the doing than in the telling.

We miss so much thinking that we know about life because we now can catch so much of it recorded in one way or another. But the best that people do is so much better than the best that recordings can show.

I was one of the helmet painters as a student manager at the University of Notre Dame and was on the field as Joe Montana led the football team to the national championship in January 1978. Over the years, I have seen many of the great athletes of our time live, and what we see on the small screen (or nowadays on the large, high-definition, digital screen) is only a pale imitation.

My days at Notre Dame notwithstanding, I really learned that when I saw Wayne Gretzky play hockey. I had watched him on television for years, and by then he had rewritten the record book in half the time it had taken his most prolific predecessors to set the standards. I thought I knew how good “The Great One” was. Then I watched him from a seat two rows off the ice. Even then, in the twilight of his career with the Los Angeles Kings, the fluid ease of his movements, the casual speed and graceful strength, the sheer excellence of his skills put the lie to all I thought I knew.

Imagination and recordings cannot prepare us for the greatness we must live to see.

And so, as I take a pain pill to forget the knotted string in my butt and I get out the cleaner to wipe the nose prints from my window, I think of the raw power of nature, the delicate talents of man and the richness of these moments of dynamic, wonderful life.

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