Originally published: 08.02.15
As I passed a construction site populated by a small herd of bulldozers, dump trucks, and backhoes, I heard all sorts of rumbling, whirring, and churning. Dirt mushroomed above the machines at work, powdering the glare of the sharp afternoon light. Squinty-eyed workers in warm-colored hard hats milled about in t-shirts and jeans. A young mother and her toddler in his stroller were gazing at the big trucks through the chain links of the tall metal fence surrounding the site. Just down the block stood an old man, also peering intently at the scene behind the fence.
The man wore a light-colored, button-down shirt; polyester khaki slacks; a wool cardigan; and beige-leather shoes with thick soles. A navy blue baseball cap with its brim pulled low and a pair of dark-plastic, goggle-like sunglasses—the kind that fit over eyeglasses—covered half his face. He seemed well-protected from the UV rays of the sun but immune to the heat and mugginess of summer.
While the man stared at the powerful machines, he appeared to be steading himself. He had laced the fingers of his left hand through a few of the holes in the fence and was gripping the wire tightly. At the same time, he used his right hand to clutch and push against his cane with its rubber tip pressed securely into the sidewalk.
Despite his age and physical limitations, this man’s appreciation for giant earth-moving machines felt as pronounced as anyone’s. Still, something about him—alone, bundled up, and hunched as he worked to maintain his tenuous stance—seemed incongruous, especially when contrasted against the bubbly, bare-footed toddler sitting eager and upright in his pushchair.
I remember when my sons clamored for the chance to watch strangely named vehicles in action. Back then, my boys practically foamed at the mouth if they got to see a grappleskidder hoisting and dragging freshly cut logs, a combine harvester reaping and threshing crops, or a huge auger boring deep into the ground. Ten years ago, when my boys were about two and five years old, I once sped just to catch a truck that my younger son was begging to see up close—the kind he called a “‘ment mixer.”
These days, my sons have no enthusiasm for construction or farm vehicles. That awe once evident on their faces seems to have disappeared altogether. And yet, for a while after my children had outgrown their obsession with trucks, my heart would still quicken whenever I saw a bustling construction site. Now, though, if I pass a tractor, a forklift, or a wrecking ball swinging from a towering crane, the machines barely register.
At that construction site last month, I probably wouldn’t have paid any attention to the mother and son or the thundering sounds and wafting dust if I hadn’t noticed that old man lingering by the fence, transfixed. When I spotted him, something shifted.
Our perspectives constantly change. We grow up. We discover new ideas. We are faced with different opportunities and challenges. We become sick. We get better. We hunger for our needs. We feel satisfied. We lack confidence. We gain reassurance. We experience something in a way that we never have before, and suddenly the world looks more available or less closed off.
I have this image of escape. When I feel overwhelmed with sadness and wish I could shutter in and shut down, I sometimes picture a folding chair stowed deep in the basement. Occasionally, I visualize the process of collapsing the chair, but mostly I imagine the flattened, vacant object tucked away and deteriorating.
Sometimes the chair just leans against a wall with nothing around it but darkness and space. Sometimes it looks rusty and dented, thrown in with the clutter of other unwanted items: cracked flower pots, half-empty paint cans with drippy labels, stacks of not-yet-shredded documents in milk crates, and outdated electronics heaped together with mixed-up, tangled power cords nesting on top. And sometimes the chair is stashed in the back corner of the room, shoved between a dank concrete wall and a packed, ceiling-high storage shelf. In that narrow, shadowy nook—flanked by rows of dust-stained, plastic bins filled with superfluous or rejected things—the chair hides.
I found out that someone wants to hire me for a part-time job. This job entails a kind of work I have done many times before, but I have not worked for pay in this context in a while. During the process of applying for the position, part of me was convinced that no one would ever want me as an employee. I feel fairly confident about my ability to do good work in this field, but I have a hard time seeing myself as a desirable candidate for pretty much anything, really. I never would have imagined that this employer would want me to work for her if one of her current employees hadn’t pushed me to apply. I guess that kind person must have identified some potential in me that I couldn’t because her perspective differs from mine.
Through someone else’s eyes, I can see a hint of potential. With her perspective anchoring me, the memory of the old man at the construction site and the images of unstable, closed-up, corroding chairs trickle in. All those strands swirl together in a glistening stream. New ways of seeing filter the flow. Doubts sink down closer to the bottom. And the froth of possibility gathers on the surface.
If I think back to the little boy and the man gazing at the heavy machinery at that construction site, it isn’t the toddler who reminds me of all the promise and possibility in our lives; it is the old man. Just like anyone else, that man’s life is constrained by many things, but the remaining possibilities are still endless; the future outcomes are still invisible; and the myriad perspectives are still mutable.
When I felt particularly depressed, those collapsed folding chairs seemed like useless, forsaken items just waiting to be discarded. From a less pessimistic perspective, though, I notice that I never threw out or destroyed any of the chairs in my imagination. And it occurs to me that, from yet another vantage point, someone else might believe those chairs could be easily mended, ripe for refurbishing, or just waiting for the right moment to open up.
The potential in those chairs, that old man, and me remains the same, but my point of view has changed, and it will surely change again.
For most of the day, I struggled to locate that swirling stream of positive connections. Everything looked frozen and lifeless from where I stood.
Then I collected my teenage son from the metro stop. He spent the car ride home yelling at me because he didn’t approve of my plans for dinner. I said very little. I knew that he hadn’t eaten anything in more than 10 hours, and that his irrational responses would not waiver no matter what I offered. After we arrived home and he began eating, he switched to apologizing. His whole demeanor had transformed.
I accepted his apology and tried to think of something to discuss with him that would not create more tension. I asked if he wanted to go to his school dance this weekend.
“I have a dance?” he replied.
“Yes. It’s tomorrow night,” I answered.
“Oh yeah,” he shrugged. “No,” he said. “It’s luau themed and it’s winter.”
I stared at him blankly.
“I can’t handle that kind of conflict,” he added, a smile curling gently across his face.
I laughed, and then I laughed some more.
The Not Me: In school, my art work was about the construction of gender, conflicting female identities, fairy tales, and cognitive dissonance (images at francescamilliken.com).