Hanging by a Thread

 

From a certain perspective, the recent airline accidents that compelled the nation’s attention can be seen as a strange sort of matched pair.  One, the landing of US Airways flight 1549 onto the Hudson River, ended in miraculous escape for both passengers and crew.  The other, the crash of Continental flight 3407 into a residential neighborhood, was an unthinkable tragedy.

As I listened to conversations about each event, I was amazed by the similarities.  Speaking of the US Airways flight a friend said, “They lucked out.”   A man from the neighborhood where Continental 3407 went down said in a radio interview, “They drew the short straw.”    Off-handed or considered, many remarks shared the same tone of bemused acceptance and resignation common to such occasions: “It was his time to go.”  “It wasn’t her time.”  “It was meant to be.”  “Things happen.”  “You never know…”

That tone reverberated through my childhood.  It represents a world view Doris Day trilled for us over and again during those growing-up years: “Que Sera, sera, darling.  What will be, will be.  There are blind forces abroad in the land and they hold your life in their hands.  However well-intentioned they may be, your poor, impoverished efforts to grasp and reshape your destiny will be futile.”

Perhaps it was post-WWII ennui.  Perhaps it was a response to increasing Cold War anxieties.  It may have been nothing more than an entire nation exhaling, wishing  to relinquish responsibility just for a while.  In any event, there’s no question that, even as my parents and their friends struggled to provide the better life they envisioned for my generation, they lived with an acute sense that at any moment it all could disappear. 

I’m quite certain my folks weren’t familiar with Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, the Three Fates of Greek mythology, but if introduced they would have recognized them immediately.  Sometimes known as the Moirae for their descent from Moira, the original goddess of Fate, the three sisters controlled the thread of destiny and life.  Their power was absolute.  They determined the destiny of each person from birth to death, and, if provoked, could threaten even the gods.  Homer alludes to the Fates in his Odyssey, and the poet Hesiod describes the Fates in his Theogony: “These are Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos,
and they give mortals their share of good and evil.”

Each of the three sisters was charged with a particular duty.  Clotho was the spinner who selected the thread of life and drew it out from her spindle.  Lachesis, the apportioner of lots, determined the length of the thread , measuring it with her rod as she decided how much time to allow each person.  Atropos, sometimes called the Inevitable One, cut the thread when the time for death had arrived, her shears snipping off life at the direction of Lachesis and bringing about its prescribed end.

Like the Andrews Sisters of the ’50s and the Shirelles, Ronettes and Supremes after them, the Fates were a kind of mythological girl group. They performed together but each had her specialty: Lachesis sang of the things that were, Clotho of those that are, and Atropos of all things yet to come.

 The Fates Attend Rome’s Birthday Party

While the world of Greek gods has been consigned to legend, their influence continues.  Do an internet search for the phrase “hanging by a thread” and you’ll see   how pervasive the imagery has become.   Antarctic ice, the political structure of France, Napster, celebrity clothing lines and mom-and-pop businesses in Orlando all are said to be “hanging by a thread”.  Nickle Creek sings about hanging by a thread, while every tenth novelist or poet seems to be writing about the experience.  A friend who sews and quilts keeps her thread on a pegged board hanging on the wall.  Each spool slips onto its own peg while atop the board in vibrant, country-kitsch lettering is a sign that says,  “My sanity is hanging by a thread”.  

 The saying itself no doubt originated with the story of Damocles and his sword, but its association with the Fates seems reasonable.  Tell any of us our life, our career, our relationships or health are hanging by a thread, and the first response is likely to be anxiety.   Anxiety intensified can lead to resignation, passivity or withdrawal from life, and it’s at this point Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos become useful.  If the Fates are in charge, we’re not responsible for the course of our lives.   If ceding responsibility to Atropos gives her the power to snip off the thread of life, so be it.  From one point of view, better to be snipped by Fate than left to dangle in time,  twisting in the winds of history.  

In her brilliant Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard says,  “That it’s rough out there and chancy is no surprise”.  Yet we are surprised and sometimes stunned to discover we aren’t in control -  not of ourselves,  and not of the world around us.   The discovery can leave us feeling betrayed, as though life itself was supposed to guarantee us safety and security.  But rough and chancy is the price we pay for being part of a created order.  It is the cost of being human.  Our fates are not a coterie of distant gods, arbitrary and capricious, given to revenge or judgement; they are the condition of our lives. Time, history and contingency spin our days like a thread, drawing them out as they will  and bringing them to a close without regard for our wishes.  We are free to refuse them, but if we embrace them,  with all of the ambiguity, beauty and terror they bring, we will live.

  

As a child rooted in the cornfields of Iowa, I never knew the joy and terrors of air travel until my teens, but I did a lot of trestle walking.   In a beautiful, wooded park about two miles from home, my friends and I “picked leaves” in autumn, searched for violets and lily of the valley in spring, and did our winter sledding on its perfectly maintained slopes.  Only in summer, the season of exploration, did our parents seem to worry.  Released from school, filled with a heady sense of freedom and adventure, we’d grab our bikes and fly off down the streets, our mothers’ pleadings drifting along behind, frail and ineffectual:  “Don’t go the park! but if you go to the park, stay away from the railroad tracks! and if you have to walk the rails, please don’t go on the trestle.”  Which we did, immediately. 

Looking at that wonderfully constructed maze of wood and steel, breathing in a faint odor of creosote, laying our ears against the smooth, cold ribbons of rail as we dreamed of coming trains, we were transformed into miniatures of Philippe Petit, the Man on Wire.   We saw that trestle, an ordinary child’s version of Petit’s compulsion, and we had to walk. 

A few nights ago, I mentioned that trestle-walking to my mother.  Fifty years collapsed as she gave me her horrified look and said,  “You could have died!”  And of course she’s right.  We could have tumbled off the trestle and broken both legs.  We could have been snatched away by one of the men who traveled the rails from town to town.  We might have  failed to hear an oncoming train, ventured out too far and been caught, or realized our fear of heights too late to avoid the vertiginous fall.   But we didn’t.

Day after day, we walked those rails.   Stretched before us taut as life’s fine thread, they led our eyes to the horizon and beyond, full of enticement and promise.  Perhaps, in the end, we were tempting fate. But we didn’t fear, and we didn’t fall, and we didn’t die.

Life’s thread is strong.

 

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15 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Most excellent.

    Thank you, Gerard. I suspect you’re done a bit of trestle-walking in your day, as well.

    Linda

  2. Linda,

    Another excellent offering, and so evocative I could be up there walking the trestles with you. My own mother’s cry was something similar, “Don’t go to the pit, but if you do, don’t paddle!!” The ‘pit’ was an enormous hole in the ground left by digging out hundreds of tons of gravel used to pave the railway escarpments. In the late 1950s it was full of water, the bottom some 200 feet below the surface. In places the edge sloped gently, a gravel base perfect for paddling, but the slope dropped away suddenly, a sheer face of nothingness, plunging you down to the murky waters below.

    The brave kids did paddle, even with their parents’ warnings ringing in their ears. I was always a coward, a yellow streak three miles wide on my back, so I refused to take off my shoes and socks, finding the rude comments I received about my cowardice preferable to the danger I perceived, both from the water, and from my mother!!

    I did hear whilst out in Zambia in 1975 that two young children had drowned. It is now a nature reserve, full of visiting waders and water birds, surrounded by dense shrubs and bushes, with only one access open, to a bird hide on the gravelly shore.
    Thank you for allowing me the luxury of reminiscing.

    Sandi,

    The ubiquitous gravel pit – there always was one around, wasn’t there? Ours was frequented by the older kids with cars – it was rather far outside of town – and there were frequent drowings.

    No gravel pits here, but the old sand pit in Galveston is now one of the favored anchorages for boats. It was dredged during the raising of Galveston after the storm of 1900. And the marina that I look out at from my window was also a sand pit. I’ve heard it’s about 40 or 50 feet deep, although I’m not certain of that. What I do know is that for years prior to development it was a favored hurricane hole for shrimpers. That certainly helps to explain why there was almost no damage to the boats there or to our homes during Ike. A blessing, indeed.

    It’s wonderful that yours is now a nature preserve. More of that needs doing – the loss of habitat is a serious problem.

    Always a delight to have you stop by – and I love your reminiscing!

    Linda

  3. I like that: the Andrews Sisters, the Shirelles and the Ronettes as the Three Fates.

    Ian,

    I like it, too. As a matter of fact, I laughed and laughed when I came up with it. Is it in poor taste to laugh at one’s own jokes? No matter – I’ll do it anyway!

    Linda

  4. Lovely piece. Thank you.

    Our neighborhood had The Kid Who Didn’t Listen. That little archetype came in various forms: Joey E with his arm in a cast from falling out of a tree, or Phil S. who fell off the viaduct while walking on the guard rail. Or Terry J. who was trapped for awhile when the fort he was digging in the side of a hill collapsed on him. Happened once a summer. The kid was big news, a sort of celebrity if he lived, a caution to the rest of us and a spur to try, if not what he tried, then something else.

    sleepswithbear,

    Oh, my. I love the idea of the archetype – and what a wonderful recitation. You’re exactly right – “a caution to the rest of us and spur to try, if not what he tried, then something else.” Now that you mention it, I do remember that little incident that involved tying sleds to the back bumper of cars….

    Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving your wonderful memories. I’m smiling broadly.

    Linda

  5. “Don’t go the park! but if you go to the park, stay away from the railroad tracks! and if you have to walk the rails, please don’t go on the trestle.“

    I laughed at that, and that you brought the memory back to your poor mother a few days ago. I can relate to how she felt. A man offered my son a bag of cookies, and he climbed into the back of his truck and chose the bag he wanted. I almost died, and he was 30 when he told me. Talk about hanging by a thread. I almost throttled him when he told me.

    Bella Rum,

    And if we sat down and started making lists of those occasions, wouldn’t we have something? There were more than a few in my life, that’s for sure. Mom and I still go through the routine, although the focus has changed a bit. Now, she worries about something happening not so much for my sake as for her’s. As she says, “If something happens to you, who will take care of me?” It’s a perfectly rational question, and certainly keeps me more cautious – for her sake, if not for mine!

    Linda

  6. HI Linda… What wonderful writing and none of it about winter! I thought I’d stop by and say “Hi.” This reminded me of my grandmother’s sewing room in which she had the pegboard loaded with all her thread. She had a loom, too. Thanks for the memories.

    Karen

    I was thinking about you yesterday when I saw a purple iris blooming. We’re on the very edge of full spring now, and that means it will be coming for you, too – although you do have longer to wait.

    One of my favorite things always was to reorganize my own grandmother’s threads by color. I learned a lot by doing that, and still remember the day I wanted to throw away (or, more likely, play with) spools that had only a few feet of thread left on them. I got stern lectures that day, on the value of thriftiness, and never letting go of what might be of use in the future. This, of course, was from the woman who went through the house like a dervish before New Year’s, getting rid of things.

    Eventually, I realized the thread stayed because she was the community’s source for thread. If you needed a bit of this color or that, there was no need to buy a whole spool. You just stopped by Grandma’s, and checked her stash!

    Good to see you – hope you begin thawing soon!

    Linda

  7. Hi Linda,
    I think if we really thought of all the things that “could happen”, none of us would ever leave home at all. I suppose some things are just worth the risk.

    There are times when my own kids confess to some dangerous thing or another that they’ve participated in. To that I say, “Ignorance is bliss!” :)

    I enjoyed this post very much, indeed.

    Good morning, Tee,

    Lots of agreement with your first points, here. As I suggested above, my mom has an ability to imagine an infinite number of things “happening” to me, and truly would prefer I never get out of her sight – even if I’m only taking out the trash after dark. (You could be mugged or murdered or worse, you know!) That level of worry is powerful, and struggling against it takes energy.

    It’s a simple fact that life entails risk. The irony is that a complete avoidance of all risk wouldn’t protect life, it would destroy it. That certainly isn’t what we’d hope for!

    It’s always a pleasure to have you stop by.

    Linda

  8. Ahhhh Linda – another good writing. I’m sure I had many experiences while growing up when we were warned by our parents to not do something, only to participate in it the minute their heads were turned. The only one that is coming to mind right now is jumping off our roof into the pool. If I saw my kids (or grandkids) doing that now – I’d scalp them! Don’t they know they can get hurt? But of course, we were invincible.

    We have the book The Man Who Walked Between the Wires (Phillipe’s story for children) in our Media Center and I remember the first time I read it – I was just astounded that it was a true story! Thanks for bringing it back to mind!

    Karen,

    Yes, and that sense of invincibility can linger long after it should have been discarded! On the other hand, over-caution has problems of its own. Trying to find the right balance is always the trick – and we have to do it again and again.

    Ironically, there was a time when I had forgotten Petit’s name. Finally, I “found” him again through the famous quotation: “If I see three balls, I have to juggle. If I see a wire, I have to walk.” I was delighted beyond words that Man on Wire won the Oscar, and have my own tiny tribute to a wonderful man in the works. If you haven’t heard it, there is a great interview that is archived at Sudio 360. I heard it again last weekend and was scribbling notes like mad!

    Thanks so much for stopping by. See you soon “over there”!

    Linda

  9. Excellent writing style!

    Hi, Al,

    Many thanks for stopping by, and for the comment. Please do feel free to poke around – I’ve been at this just under a year now, and am enjoying it tremendously.

    regards, Linda

  10. So very much food for thought here! (Although, I got the heebie jeebies the minute you mentioned the trestle — heights and me aren’t terribly compatible — it gave me the feeling that makes by bottom muscles and shoulders clench with queasy anticipation of doom!)

    But yes, we do what we have to do and when we have to do it — more often than not benignly. I learned a long time ago there was a big difference between living carefully, cautiously, or OVERcautiously and living under a rock where you don’t experience because you’re afraid. Sometimes, being afraid and then experiencing things is how we grow. (And sometimes we fall off the trestle!)

    jeanie,

    I jokingly refer to “living under my rock” from time to time – but now it’s a joke more than a reality. And there’s always that corollary: if you live under a rock, you may get crushed! There’s a blogger on another site who has a little epigraph I love: I have been disappointed by safe and I have learned a lot from sorry. Define better.

    And how many times – walking the trestle or picking myself up from a fall – haven’t I remembered Annie Dillard’s take on things: “You can’t test courage cautiously”.

    Linda

  11. I just love this post. Doris Day’s Que, Sera, Sera was one of the first songs I remember memorizing. I took the lyrics to heart, interpreting them as a warning not to be overly cautious in this life, have faith, throw fear aside, accept that life is an adventure beyond our control, and go for it, follow your heart. It’s worked so far. Thank you for this, just great.

    Ziva,

    Such a delightful surprise to find your post this morning! And how wonderful that you took the lyrics and turned them 180 degrees from the meaning I was raised with. I just listened to the song again and heard it quite differently. It’s another reminder of the importance of context, and I thank you for that.

    Thanks also for the kind words. Enjoy your song-remembering and heart-following!

    Linda

  12. Looking up the word ailurophobia is completely understandable. I had to look it up too when I commented in your post Watching Comet Lulin so I can avoid the three-letter word.

    But don’t laugh, I had to look up the word ‘trestle’ here. It just reflects what kind of childhood I had, or rather, had missed. Growing up in Hong Kong, I’d be happy to see a tree out my apartment window, or a patch of green lawn… Well I’ve had my share of nature since I came to Canada, but alas, the childhood days are gone.

    No matter, the days ahead are what I look forward to, and your post here just reminds me of that. Philippe Petit’s extraordinary act is an inspiration. Man On Wire is definitely a life-affirming film that I say is a ‘must-see’. I’ve just posted a review of it.

    ‘Hanging By A Thread’… what a great idea.

    A note to SBKaren: One of the Special Features in the Man On Wire DVD is the short animation of the book The Man Who Walked Between The Towers. I’m sure you’ll enjoy watching it.

    Arti,

    I passed your note on to Karen so she’ll be sure to know. Thanks!

    I just read your review of Man on Wire and loved it. I can’t say enough about how wonderful I think Petit’s life and art has been, and it thrills me that the documentary has been gaining him new attention and giving us many new interviews!

    Have you read the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”? Your comment reminded me of it – it was one of the first “adult” books of my childhood.
    Now, I can’t remember at all what it was about, but I’ve been to Brooklyn now, and Manhattan, and the Bronx, and can imagine the hunger for “green” that must be an ongoing struggle for so many city dwellers.

    But you’re right. The days ahead are what matter, and there’s no saying what they will bring.

    Linda

  13. What a post. What a frame of reference, from Clotho to the Shirelles. And all hung together with an enviably light, easy touch.

    Jeannine,

    Thank you so much. I love finding the “threads” that connect apparently disparate bits of reality. Thinking about them and trying to make them clear to others is much of the fun of writing. I always amuse myself, if no one else – but I’m especially glad you enjoyed the Clotho-Shirelles connection!

    Linda

  14. Threads… so many different meanings when I read you first then your readers and their own images of it. The threads of my life are the paths I travelled along, the choices and decisions I made. There were also “don’ts !” from my mother. Ignored at times. Threads leading from one person to the other, one country to the other. Threads, lots of them, which I found not so long ago in a sewing box belonging to my grandmother and mother. A colourful treasure. A thread between Germaine, Cécile and Isa !

    Thank you Linda for another wonderful post starting with an expression we use too (tenir à un fil = holding onto one thread) and that ends with everyone’s experience about this thread. I love this.

    • Isa,

      And isn’t it interesting that the word used to describe conversations on internet forums, chat rooms and blogs is “threaded”. It’s an old usage, adapted for new circumstances. (I can remember people saying, “I couldn’t follow the thread” in regard to complicated discussions.)

      I still have the round, metal tin my grandmother used to hold her embroidery floss. In fact, I still have some of her floss. The thread is so fragile in some ways – but it’s still strong enough to hold together the generations.

      I love your memory of those maternal “don’ts”. Our mothers so often were the ones with the scissors, snipping off threads that we weren’t wise enough to cut, ourselves!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed this. The threads of life surely do pull us together!

      Linda


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