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.