I’ve uttered the phrase, “I think I understand now,” several times (meaning, three, which is several considering the point of reference) over the past year, and yes, I realize saying such a thing blatantly beckons whatever confusing circumstances lurk around the corner, inviting them on over. But there are things I have felt I understand now, so I say it. I know full well this doesn’t mean I understand everything, and that inevitably, I’ll be confused about something else tomorrow, something that will leave me scratching my head for months. But that’s life, isn’t it? Round and round, we go.
As if there could be a day when you understand everything. As if you could somehow memorize the flight patterns of geese, know each story cover to cover before it’s been written, remember every particular gut punch and throb of a broken heart and so be able to see a new one coming while it’s still well down the road. As if you could. Because to understand everything means to interpret the past, present, and future—to gain the eyesight and insight of a being that’s simply not of this earth.
Time is not the best teacher, nor is it the best healer. The truth is there are some wounds, deep and dire though they may be, that can reform veins to pump and restitch skin to grow back over, and after a while, it will seem as though they were never there. Almost. But this is not time’s doing. This is patience, a sister of time—but understand, not the same person. No, not the same person at all.
“I want / to think again,” Mary Oliver says, “of dangerous and noble things. / I want to be light and frolicsome. / I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, / as though I had wings.” As though I had wings. I wonder where I’d go if I did. Moscow. Peru. The mountains of New Zealand I’ve been dreaming of for a dozen years. But then, I remember the satisfaction of running for miles, of driving for even more on open highway under sun and sky, and I’m not sure I want wings. Not sure I want to be deprived of the satisfaction of my labor.
It’s funny how you can be going one way, then suddenly, the road takes a turn off a cliff. Whoops. Hang on, we’re going down. And down and down and down. After enough of these experiences, you learn to fall with dignity, and people start telling you things like, “You handle stress so well.” You nod. You tell them, “The lesson was hard-won.” They nod back, but you can see they don’t understand. Not really. So you nod again, shut your eyes, and throw your hands into the air, resume your dignified fall down and down and down.
They don’t understand, not really, because maybe they didn’t live with you through it. Or maybe they’ve lived through nothing like it. Or maybe, no matter what you say, they’ll mistake your ability to bear suffering for a gift you were born with, like muscle tone, and not something you had to cultivate. Though like a natural gift, none of this was by your choosing. Or was it? One supposes, you could’ve sat down in the mud where you’d fallen and refused to go no farther. You could’ve crossed your arms and held your breath, could’ve stopped playing the game altogether.
After all, there are no rules to this thing. Or if there are, they change continuously, cycling out one for another, so just as you start to think you’ve gotten the hang of it, poof! You’re back in over your head. Just when you say, “I think I understand now,” the cards are swapped, and it’s a whole new game. And maybe understanding means understanding only this: the constant ramble and chaos of an imperfect universe. Geese flying somewhere. Wounds healing eventually. Roads dropping over cliffs again and again. Cards flung into the air—but maybe this time, they’ll grow wings. Maybe this time, they’ll fly up and up and up, and let you drive on without them.