Years ago I taught a short story by Michael Cunningham in which a teenager runs through a sliding glass door during a party. (This was before building codes required tempered glass in such doors—a change triggered by a real life incident of a child bleeding out from cuts sustained by running through such a door.) In the story, the boy stands in the middle of broken glass and pulls a shard of glass from his neck. Moments later he bleeds out in the arms of his girlfriend. Every year students would bargain with that: What if he hadn’t pulled out the glass? What if someone had put more pressure on the wound? What if…? Just as in real life, we sometimes bargain with outcomes we cannot bear. Even in fiction.

In Iceland, a monstrous cat, Jólakötturinn, eats people who have failed to provide themselves with new clothing for the New Year. Not to mention the Troll brothers and other monsters. In Finland there is a magical goat character who takes away gifts instead of giving them like Santa Claus. The straw goats in my picture are miniatures of Sweden’s giant straw “Gävlebocken” that has been erected since 1966 and is often burned to the ground. So far, this year, it’s still standing. That 13-meter goat is not a bad being at all and you can see it in real time.

One year, a former student, a trained EMT, was visiting and stayed to hear me read the story aloud because he remembered it fondly. As I reached the end there was initial silence. Then inevitable bargaining began and inevitably, they turned to him and asked what would happen. He looked down, nodded and took a breath: “If I’d been there with all my crew and equipment, he’d have died. He was bleeding out before he took the shard out of his neck.”

That might be the only year the class was convinced the boy could not have survived.

A new study has determined that Jack from the fictional film Titanic could not have stayed on the raft with Rose and both have survived. Many of us wanted them both to survive. I felt that when I watched the film, but even in the midst of my denial I recognized that both of them would have died in real life. Rose was soaking wet in freezing temperatures. Air temperature is lower. Fiction.

A more recent television mystery had search teams looking for a young woman who had fallen from a boat in freezing Alaskan waters. They counted down the six hours they assumed she might survive in the water. Hours. No, I thought, try minutes even in Puget Sound, much less in Alaskan salt water inlets. Minutes in such cold water. But it’s fiction, folks.

I don’t think I’m the only one who has held someone I loved and tried bargaining with the inevitable. In fiction, I might rewrite the story. In real life there is no such opportunity. What happens is what happens. People bleed out or die of hypothermia, and we cannot change the story.

But I can make promises to myself and I can choose to keep them. I can cut back my coffee to a cup or two, first thing in the morning. That was a successful New Years resolution for me once upon a time. For decades I vowed to keep my weight down to 114 pounds, what I weighed when I started high school. I did it in 1984, but that is never going to happen again. I try not to make promises to myself that I cannot keep. I have avoided promising to publish because that is not in my control, but I did vow to submit written work to journals 100 times in the next year. I did that because I had control, submitting 112 times in 2018. I will say that I’m glad I did it but would not do it again. Not all vows are useful. Not all vows are equally viable in real life.

I could not vow to avoid Covid-19, but I have taken every step necessary and reasonable to avoid infection. All my vaccines and boosters, masking when in close proximity or indoors in public spaces, testing after we’ve spent time with friends and loved ones. I have been careful but am still lucky.

This is the Phoenix Chamber Choir from two years ago. I probably have shared this before. The virtual choir singing “Down to the River” is another favorite even though the participants are mostly you, pretty, and white. They make me cry in a good way, and I love that the virtual choir includes women in Brasil and Germany and Gresham, Oregon. A much larger and more diverse Zoom performance from the pandemic sings “How Can I Keep from Singing” beloved by me especially for the oboes and horns. And Joni singing “Woodstock”. How time flies whether you are paying attention or not.

My mother was forever telling me to stop touching my face. She would be pleased with how successful I have been in following that directive in public since early March of 2020. However, since cutting my hair I am aware that I fuss with it. “Not fussing with your hair” would probably be a good New Year’s resolution, but it sounds too challenging. Maye I’ll cut some more off. Maybe I will run the Bridge Crossing again. Maybe I will make it through another year with getting sick. Maybe we will see our family for the holidays, though freezing rain is in the forecast. Maybe I will complete work I’ve promised and send off two book reviews to Beth. Maybe I accomplish something outside my control. Maybe not.

There was a quake off the California coast, and sometimes I think about evacuation. What would I choose to grab and go? I used to worry about what would be left behind after a catastrophic quake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone off our coast. Then I realized nothing would be left, that nothing might be left even if there is no tsunami. Global warming is happening. It is not a theory or untested or a possibility. The oceans are warming and the glacier my grandmother climbed as a young woman no longer exists, just as ice on Greenland and Antarctica is melting away to nothing.

We delivered our gifts to family this past weekend because there is a “silver thaw” (falling ice) and snow in the forecast for the next days.

There were finches and two dozen starlings and a Steller’s jay in our front yard yesterday afternoon. All of them finding something to eat. Seagulls over the ocean. Crows and Ravens. The bald eagles and smaller raptors. Native banded tail pigeons and the introduced Eurasian doves out on the road.

Like everyone, I am a victim of circumstance.

And even so, I cannot keep from singing. In real life, nothing is certain but we can celebrate.

Tomorrow is the first day of actual winter. There are several religious holidays this time of year. My impulse is to look for practical reasons for spiritual practice. We need to be grateful for what we have and for what we might become. I think we must resolve to do our best, even when our best may not be all we wish. We need to have hope and we need to trust to luck while doing everything we can to lean into good.

In real life.

7 thoughts on “BARGAINING IRL

  1. In the wild, mother straw goats take care of their young, but near in the beguiled kingdom of the trolls nobody has any respect for monuments anymore—I think Jack Parr said it best when he said to Elvis who he was and the window rolled up—maybe you had to be there. Oh well, winter is on the way and then spring, which will hopefully put a smile on our faces—so take care and a long winters nap or two—rock on or off, shin diggers—kiitos

    Liked by 1 person

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