Sink or Swim: A Timely Ethos

from the New York Public Library Digital Collections

In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.

—Charles Darwin

When I arrived in Vermont’s Upper Valley in August of 2012, the days were still hot and the foliage green, with no signs yet of what would come, along about November. “Winters are long here,” advised the technician installing my new phone line. A few months later, and I’d understand his point. You learn to collaborate and improvise, because you have no choice, if you wish to prevail in a New England winter.

As unlikely as it sounds, winter in Memphis, Tennessee presents its own vexations from time to time. On more than one occasion growing up in that city I found myself riding shotgun in my family’s mammoth Impala while my mama tried to keep it from fishtailing around on the icy freeway. Once in a while, storms come barreling across Texas and Oklahoma and Arkansas, and when they cross the Mississippi into downtown Memphis, feel inclined to lob sleet and ice at a city ill prepared for those conditions. When you live way out in the suburbs, but your life as a ballerina takes you into midtown studios—and on occasion into a theatre all the way down on Front Street—you have no choice except to navigate those perilous roads if you are to prevail. But collaboration can feel at times rather less like teamwork and a bit more one-sided, as in, shush! while I try to drive this car. It was my mother’s default solution to any potentially messy scenario: You can help by watching.

For two of those growing-up years my parents sent me to a private elementary school in midtown Memphis, quite a haul from our neighborhood way out east. Invitations to birthday parties and sleepovers lured me into a new world of grand old homes with porte cochères and dumb waiters and elegant wallpaper and silk lamp shades and couples who had cocktails at five and belonged to the country club. There are few childish joys as palpable as being dropped at an old country club on a summer afternoon, there to spend the day largely unsupervised, immersed in endless games of Marco Polo and plates of toasted tuna salad sandwiches impaled by cellophane-wrapped party toothpicks. And when a sun-drenched, water-logged third-grader tired of these distractions, she and her colleagues could make a verboten side trip to the ladies’ locker room that reeked of steam, sweat, bleach, and expensive perfume. This was not an unpleasant pastime.

Aside from the grand old homes in midtown Memphis, its other noteworthy distinction is old-growth trees, looming ancient hardwoods, everywhere. The suburban developer is wont to scrape away every bit of flora with heavy machinery for his building convenience, and so the cost of acquiring the modern American home, newly built and freshly painted, is a landscape bereft of much interest at all, and for many long years. One has no choice except to plant, and to wait, and to adapt to the existing environment, such as it is. And anyway, one family’s version of the American Dream looks very different from another’s after all. But this dramatic difference laid bare to me during brief forays into gracious living in midtown Memphis, wormed its way inside my head and my heart, and once there refused to loose its grip. At the time I could not have foreseen just how much collaborating and improvising I’d be called upon to do to prevail ultimately, to go after that sophisticated lifestyle I found so utterly intoxicating.

In a modern strip mall not far from our coastal North Carolina home is a laundry, a dry cleaner, without much on its nondescript exterior to suggest the industry that goes on inside. Instead, a neon sign glows ‘Open’ in the plate glass window, and the hours of business are hastily scrawled out by hand on notepaper taped to the door. Stepping inside, though, transports the patron across the globe. The proprietress looks up when you come in and abandons her sewing machine; she greets you in broken English. A small dog curled into a tight ball on the cushion next to her also looks up but does not react at all. The place smells of perchloroethylene; in the corner opposite the sewing machine, a pair of curtains is strung across a line to form a makeshift changing room. You push your dry cleaning across the counter while the woman prepares the order slip and fiddles on her computer, the one apparatus in this facility that brings it into the here and now. She scrutinizes the clothing with furrowed brow, spots the oily blob on your blue silk blouse and snaps, “I see what I can do.” You nod politely and reply through a smile, “That is all anyone can ask.” You’re left to reflect on this woman’s story and can only speculate what prompted her to come all this way to seek her fortune here, on this sandy soil. Some version of elegant wallpaper and fancy sandwiches must have insinuated itself into her brave young psyche, one guesses, there to grow like a seed until it blossomed. And one can only begin to imagine how monumental the collaboration and improvisation it insisted of her along the way. But here she is, prevailing all over the place in her corner store in North Carolina, USA.

Vermont soil is vexingly rocky, a truth one learns in an instant with a spade held in a gloved hand, kneeling on dewy grass to execute best-laid plans of restoring an overgrown garden. Or swinging a pick-axe to prepare a grave for a beloved dog. In coastal North Carolina, pushing your sneakered toe into the earth reveals not rocks, but ubiquitous sandy soil and in an instant, now and then disturbing massive colonies of red ants who keep right on doing whatever red ants do. If ever there were an example of collaboration and improvisation, is it not a colony of ants? Knock down the ant hill with your toe (at your own peril!), mow over it on the weekend if you must, but they’ll have prevailed by the following morning.

Food for thought these last two years, when the effort to prevail has sometimes felt like the carrot dangling from the stick is just within reach, until it isn’t.

But hadn’t we rather swim than sink?

One thought on “Sink or Swim: A Timely Ethos

  1. I think there is a generation where the act of striving is not undertaken. It is a perfectionist mindset of “If I can’t do it perfectly the first time, I can’t do it at all.” Me, I’m from the can do generation of Boomers. We just did things because if we didn’t it wasn’t going to get done…


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