Feb 16, 2014
Snow crests against the hood of our ATV and flows up and away from the wheel wells like frothy wake from the bow of a boat. The sensation of moving forward through a three-foot depth of snow while nearly immersed in it reminds me of sitting in the bottom of a bass boat and watching the wake boil and rise, almost but not quite to the boat’s metal edge. From childhood, the fact that the wake doesn’t capsize the boat has struck me as a frank miracle of tenuous balance, a magical tightrope walk between water and metal. Many are the times I have sat in the bottom of a boat and held my breath as I watched the wake in silent fascination, certain that this time would be the time the magic wouldn’t hold.
But it always has.
The Rhino bogs down momentarily and I feel the paradoxical sensation of water rushing toward the boat from all directions when my grandfather would cut the throttle to coast into the dock or the prime fishing spot. Of course, this day no water rushes toward me. The snow is a static wall on three sides of the vehicle. We are not swamped with moving water, but with unmoving snow. And we are not swamped for long. The tire chains find a new hold on the frozen roadbed, we throttle up, and the snow-wake rises. I am mesmerized and more than a little breathless.
The magic continues.
This strong physical association between moving fast through deep snow and moving fast through water came to me for the first time during this week’s snow storm. Snow is water—I know this. But I’ve never before had such a visceral sense of being immersed within snow even as I was propelled through it until this week’s Rhino ride. From my experience, this is a far different sensation from sledding or skiing on top of it. Slogging through it step-by-step. Or driving a truck through it, when one’s body resides in a cab feet above and insulated from the snow itself. Riding in the Rhino was bass boat close and nearly bass boat fast.
It was also bass boat vulnerable.
And by vulnerable I don’t mean dangerous (although I know there are those who would beg to differ), I mean exposed. To be clear, I didn’t feel myself in danger, riding in the Rhino, suited up in winter gear, with David at the helm. Nor did I feel myself in danger riding in the bass boat, suited up in an old-school orange life preserver, my grandfather at the helm. I felt exposed. Open to the elements. To the competency of another. To the moment itself. Mesmerized and more than a little breathless. Then as now, all the preconditions for magic were present. I opened myself to it. I let the moment take me.
There is no magic in life on an Allegheny mountaintop or anywhere else without vulnerability. A state of mind I’ve come to think of as openness to the improbable tightrope walk between two states of matter, two states of being, two species or two people. It is a walk that can lead to transformation. I’ve taken it.
Yet vulnerability has a really bad name. Most Americans, I would venture to guess, equate the word with weakness, defenselessness, impotence. To be vulnerable is to leave oneself open to physical or emotional attack. People who are well-defended against such attack we generally describe as strong. Strong being the opposite of vulnerable, and therefore a much-preferred trait in modern Americans.
But at what cost?
Webster defines vulnerable, most simply, as: capable of being physically or emotionally wounded. The antonym, invulnerable, is thereby defined as: incapable of being wounded, injured or harmed; impregnable, unassailable, unbreachable, unconquerable, armored, defended, guarded, protected, safe.
To be the opposite of vulnerable is, by definition, to be largely unreachable, whether by wounds to the flesh or to the heart. It’s easy to presume that such a perfectly defended human is the strongest. But strength is a wily beast.
The Kurt Russell character in the movie Soldier comes to mind. He was a human being trained from birth to be entirely invulnerable, the ultimate fighting machine. Yet he was never as strong as when he found himself, to his great surprise, motivated by latent emotion. His emotional vulnerability gave him a strength his training never could: a reason to fight. A reason to live, and consequently, a reason for which he might choose to die.
Only his vulnerability to emotional connection with the people around him gave him this strength, far greater than that of any of his fellow soldiers who could only behave as fully armored, autonomic weapons.
Certainly most of us don’t find ourselves facing such extremes, yet the tendency to believe that the fully-armored person is the most fit would seem to persist, whether the armor is physical or metaphorical. We Americans tend to equate exposure of any kind with weakness. Don’t show your cards. Don’t let them see you bleed. Don’t start something you can’t finish. Don’t risk looking like a fool. Don’t ever be the first to say “I love you.” And by all means, stay safe.
And the cost?
When invulnerability is the goal, we give up the moment: time, which is the only currency we truly own. We sacrifice the possibly unstable today in favor of a tomorrow we’re convinced we’ve pinned down, defined to our satisfaction, and defended in advance. We tell ourselves there’s no magic in the tightrope walk, merely the danger of falling. Transformation? We’re fine the way we are, thank you very much. Remember that Jeff Goldblum movie, The Fly?
Yeah. I saw it. And I feel your pain. But for me personally, come what may, the jig is up.
When I moved to an Allegheny mountain ridgetop in the middle of the Monongahela National Forest, I gave up the right to any pretense of invulnerability. And while I believe that none of us, up to and inclusive of those living in the most cossetted of cul-de-sacs and the most insulated of high rises, is well-served in striving for invulnerability, I have been forced, by virtue of my choice to live here, to give it up wholesale. The whole concept: Poof! Gone.
Certainly, I can prepare for the future here, but I can’t be defended against it. To assume such an unassailable position makes no sense. My very existence on this mountain requires my ability to adapt. Conditions can change on an hourly basis. If I’m not open to those changing conditions, if I refuse to let myself be exposed to new experiences as they arise in real time, I won’t just miss the moment, I’ll most assuredly miss the magic. Which is, when all is said and done, to miss my own life.
And I’ve decided I can’t afford that.
I’ll choose to be mesmerized and more than a little breathless. If that’s what it means to be vulnerable, I’m all in.