There’s a Wordsworth poem that begins,
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours,
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
It came to mind this morning, as I was sitting in the back of the 720, head pressed against the window, staring out at a city made foreign by rain. The poem had come to mind by way of a meandering thought that started with my car.
See, I’ve had this Protege of mine a little more than a year now, and it’s been relatively stable with decent gas mileage and enough zip in it to make long road trips amusing. But driving home last night, it did a mean thing: Sitting in traffic at Beverly and La Cienega last night, the engine slackened for a little bit, and I watched the yellow check engine light flash on and off for a moment before finally settling on on. It was still there this morning when I moved the car to hide from the Wednesday street cleaning.
The reason I tell the story about my car here is because I got to thinking about things on the way to school today: We tend to trust in our things as though it’s the most natural process in the world, and it’s only when those things slacken, crumble, and break that we’re suddenly reminded how implicitly we trust in them. And if melancholy (a pet interest for another place) is all about our recognition of the fallible nature of things, our awareness of the transitory or ephemeral nature of existence, it remains bound up in things. Or, in my case, staring at the rain-dark sky out the water-streaked window, it remains bound up in this car of mine.
And I started thinking about my car against my bike, and about how frustratingly opaque my car is. The check engine light tells me little beyond that there’s a problem, but there’s no relationship between that visual sign and the actual reason for its appearance. Whatever problem is at work in my car remains, quite literally, out of view. And one of the things that I love about my bike is how visible everything is: A problem with my bike can’t help but be visible.
As for how that relates to Wordsworth and his world too much with us: If our cars, as a measure of the world in which we live, tend to occupy our lives, they are, especially in Los Angeles, too much with us. We spend our days in them, spend our early-darkened evenings in them, sit in traffic in them, invest ourselves in them. And when they break – or even this, this simple insistent light – we’re reminded just how little we know our things.
Wordsworth’s solution? See ourselves in Nature, to which I might add: See our things for what they are, and this is turn gets back to the bike: It is what it is, two wheels, a crank, two pedals, a handlebar. What problems my bike has can be seen, be envisioned, in a way that my car’s problems can’t.
And in the end, I’m trying to make another argument for the bike as a way of knowing, or the bike as an object of knowledge. To move through the city on a bike is to move fully conscious of the way in which you move. Driving home last night in my car, on the other hand, was confirmation of how little I understand this world of ours.
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone – be safe, be well, and I hope to make it out to LACM this Friday.