Monday, September 7, 2009

Just Off 'Dead Center'

I plopped into my very favorite chair with the cordless phone when I heard the voice on the line. It was a old acquaintence whom I'd given up hope of hearing from after my call last week went unreturned. She only had a few minutes between trips across the continent, but for a few minutes I dropped the day's farming perplexities from my mind as we caught up on each other's lives and realized that we just simply were too busy for too long--past and future--to hope for more than that brief call. I'm not sure what we have in common, anyhow--other than perhaps we are fellow eccentrics, just enough to appreciate that we are each so different not only from each other but also from "the norm".

As we talked, I swiveled the chair to view the glorious wild sunflowers outside the window. I like rocking chairs--I like them very much indeed, and somehow have accumulated at least 5 of them in diverse styles. But I like this chair even better: it smoothly swivels with the least push of a toe against the wood box or the floor. It's a sideways kind of rocking.

The call ended; I sat there reflecting for a minute; I glowed back at the sunflowers; I stood up. The chair behind me continued to swirl on its own, gently, back and forth, until it found its proper resting place. You see, it is ingeniously designed so that it always returns to face its original direction. And this, for some reason, is a big part of why I love it so--over and above its sweepingly cozy shape, just right for curling up cat-like to read or sip tea (not that I'm doing much of that these days--but its presence is a promise that I will someday), or its wonderfully soft microsuede fabric that seems to repel pet hair and other dirt, or its brilliant turquise color that lights up the room.

This chair, in this moment, reminded me of another favorite piece of engineering: the cast iron treadle base of antique dentist's drill which I intend to convert to a spinning wheel--someday when I've accumulated the necessary understanding of fabrication options, hardware, etc. to be able to complete the rough design that's been rattling around in my head for more than a decade. Aside from the ornate scrollwork on the treadle, the delicate casting, the arched spokes...this mechanism, like the chair, is designed to dynamically return itself to a certain condition when human intervention ceases. Only this treadle and flywheel, instead of returning to dead center like most treadles/flywheels (esp. conventional spinning wheels), returns to a spot just off dead center. This creates the "magic" that no guiding touch of the hand is needed to start the wheel in motion again after it stops...and no help is needed to ensure it turns in a consistent direction. The lightest tap of a toe on the treadle will begin it rotating in a constant direction. It is always ready and willing to work, always heading in the same firection.

Moreover, the treadle and shaft are fitted with an innocuous small spring that is stretched--energized--by the downward stroke of the treadle each time, so that the upward stroke against gravity is enhanced by the spring. It almost treadles itself, once set in motion. It is effortless to operate. I delight in showing it to mechanically-minded people, folks who I know will appreciate the ingenuity of the design. "There," I said to my last show-and-tell victim. "Doesn't that make your foot happy?" And it did...and it delighted us as well, along with our feet.

Reflecting on just one of these mechanisms--either one--I reflect on the brilliance of the specific design, the practicality, the vision, the "extra mile" applied to the invention that could easily have been foregone while still resulting in a useful object.

Reflecting on both of them at once, I go beyond the present objects to the physics they share--revolving around the dead center of rotational motion, playing against gravity--and turn to my inner life through the lense of that metaphor.

Centeredness. So desperately sought by so many people (including myself). Serenity, inner peace, equanimity...many allied concepts and words. A spiritual place. The goal of popular yoga and other meditation practices, of 12-step programs, of many religious paths. Oddly, this is a static state, a state of little inherent potential for change. There's a randomness about it--any point on the arc can end up pointing any direction, there's no predicting what direction the wheel will start to turn. And stationary, when a resting position is achieved--a pendulum hanging straight down, unmoving. Completeness, perhaps...but then what? Perfection, of a sort--how boring! Can I really serve God and Mother Nature and fellow humanity by acheiving a state of profound inner peace? Could I even really enjoy my own existence if it were that easy? REsting is good, surely--but as a passing state, not a constant one.

Eccentric. Off of centered. Mechanically, an eccentric wheel dynamically returns to a certain orientation on its own, naturally, when other influencing forces are relaxed. As a type of human being, someone who comes back to the same place each time? But does not always follow a regular path to get there, and appears to wander relative to those caught on the centeredness of the merry-go-round...or the perfect orbit of planets and stars. Not so random as we might appear, after all. And inherent in this, a certain power and energy and direction that can work toward many ends.

When I find myself stuck in a rut, spinning my wheels (?!?) and getting nowhere--(no, I'll resist the temptation to apply that sentence to my state of the moment, lounging in the house at the time-eating computer instead of doing more "productive" work out on the farm) I think of it through the metaphor of a mechanical "dead center"...that place where gravity (i.e., forces outside myself) just won't do the work for me, where I have to apply some force to oppose the force of inertia to get things started, and I have to give some guidance to ensure things don't start out in the wrong direction. I think of needing to jump-start myself, or pick myself up by the scruff of the neck and throw myself outside....

But maybe all I need to do is cultivate my eccentricity--to keep me coming back to a constant direction no matter what outside forces are applied--and resiliance--to give the springiness that draws each motion into a self-energizing countermotion, making me the "energizer bunny" that I tend to be.

OK, I can hear some of you rolling your eyes out there. Yes, I've been doing that for a long, long time...and it's working...because you keep wondering how I can possibly have the energy to be doing all this by myself....

Though never quite all by myself, because God and Mother Nature and the whole Community of Life of the farm and all the volunteers and friends are certainly doing their parts. But no one else rotating around the same shaft here. Just other eccentric gears that mesh for a little while in the course of their own motion about their own shafts.

And an old (1980's) poem weaves through my head, half-remembered but I'm not inclined to run after the notebook and lose myself in the un-indexed pages for an hour to find it.

Coming back to centeredness,
Accepting where--alone--I am
My life, complete, becomes a cell;
My heart becomes a shrine again.
And what we've shared, and, sharing, found,
Of course I'd like to find again--
But no new hopes shall spin me 'round;
Enough, for now, these distant friends.

Two--going on three--decades of maturity lend a new resolution to the extra emptiness of daily life after a close friend has spun off in other directions in their life, or a sojourning visitor has continued their travels. This can be an energizing time; instead of shunning new hopes and seeking a calm center that will remain unperterbed by outside forces, I can appreciate my eccentricity that allows me to always come back to my own direction after enjoying a time of meshing with others, and be sprung onwards in my own revolution by the release of the small friction that is the inevitable down side of joining forces with another.

The down side of my eccentricity, of course, is that it takes an unusual other to mesh instead of clashing, even for a short time. But then I am inclined to value that meshing all the more....

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