Thursday, March 31, 2005


This morning on the way in to work, sitting in the company van while somebody else thankfully did the driving, I was reading a book called Deng Xiaping And The Making Of Modern China, and in between pages I glanced out the window, saw a Khmer girl on the back of a moto, watched her lazily scan the van, the passengers, the cars ahead, and I thought: Nobody will ever write a book about her.

Not that it matters, of course. It doesn't. The only reason I thought such a thought was because I was reading a biography, and I read a lot of biographies, and part of the attraction for me is that within the pages of a biography life, with all its messy, nonsensical randomness, is somehow given a strict structure, layout and pattern; it may all be bullshit, may all be part of the arbitrary order imposed, um, arbitrarily by the biographer on his subject, but still -- such a composed, measured narrative gives life itself texture, and meaning, and endurance, so who am I to object?

Still. That girl the one on the back of the bike. Who is she? Where is she going? She will not be part of any grand ideological movements; she will, if she's lucky, get a few years of education, get pregnant, find a husband and a house, settle down. That's that.

(Oh, but of course that is most certainly not that, and you know it, and I know it. She will have fears and heartaches, nights of dirrahea and days of bliss, mornings of confusion and afternoons of Coca-cola sipped through a straw as it quickly grows hot in its pathetic plastic bag. She will work as a waitress, or a cleaner, possibly a clerk, and will experience small but powerful moments of confusion, indecision, something bordering on despair, though she would never classify it as such. She will misunderstand her boss's orders; he will yell at her, repeatedly. She will find a place in the countryside near her parent's home, away from Phnom Penh, from its dusty distractions and snarling web of traffic. She will have a thousand, no, a million moments, small and large, that will, at some point, assemble themselves into something resembling a life. And no one will be there to chart and chronicle her growth, development, decay and death. She will live a life as full and as rich as Lindbergh and Magellan and Jessica Simpson and Deng Xiaoping. The differences between these lives is simply a matter of degrees.)

Placing yourself into the minds of others, trying to see life through their eyes and hearts, is a futile quest; best to leave it to the artists and biographers, the mystics and the lunatics. On the page or the screen, you can speculate, extrapolate, assess. In life, you are faced with flesh, and all that that implies. "I want to see what you see," we say, "know what you know."

But then, were this to happen, we wouldn't be them, we would be us, transfigured.

There is me in the van and her on the bike. A window separates us. I try to understand her as I gaze through the glass, but I can only conceive of my own, slanted image -- a reflection of a reflection. I can do nothing but turn back to my book, my biography of Deng Xiaoping, to a life safely tucked between covers.

I cannot understand that girl on the bike.

(But I will keep trying. To do otherwise is akin to surrender.)


Anonymous said...

beautiful thoughts. I have felt something similar when coming up the escalator in the Peel metro station in Montreal and walking past the bums who sat on a bench there, looking out the window and looking exhausted. One of them appeared to be enormous, but it was also apparent that he was wearing an enormous amount of clothing. 'What is his story?', I would think. 'What is it like to be him?'

Amanda said...

your comments on the predicted life of the girl on the bike are evocative and amazing and sad, all these things. very observant and reverential.

Muktuk said...

Great post! I have thought about this for many years so pardon me if I lapse into a diatribe.

Kind of wondering how can we possibly know all there is to know about everyone's "story?" Kind of brings to mind the human conscience comment.

But also, it's not an absolute in my book. It's not that we don't know and never will. To me, it's more like when I meet someone, I am Fully aware that I don't know they're whole story and unless we become grossly close and I learn it (only happens a couple times in life), I won't possibly know.

So, what do you do with that? Well, I find that I do what you've indirectly hinted at. You treat her with unwarranted respect and reverance, Because you don't know her story. I take it one step further, when I look into the eyes of an animal (especially dogs and cats), I wonder who they've been, what part of their journey they are in now, and what they're thinking. Never presuming to think that I know everything, even down to the domination of an animal, person, thing, place.

Some would say we are all gods and we have all had journeys. Some more substantial than others (it's the nature of the planet), but no one is the judge.