Sunday, June 06, 2004

Risk:return

Heading out to a new corner of London the other day, I was reminded of something I used to do when I was 17 and lived in Warsaw.

I resided in the very centre of the city, in the lounge room of a hardened old widow. As my internship job started at 9am and my for-money job finished at 9pm, there was very little time during the week for anything other than work and sleep. I didn't mind this at all, work of any sort was (and still is) an adventure and it was fascinating to watch Poles in their natural environment.

The weekend, therefore, was a most glorious time in the week. A complete stranger to the city, yet fluent in the language, the entire landscape was mine to explore.

Evenings were reserved for the ballet, symphony or opera as I had purchased a ticket for everything on that season. Mornings were split between hand washing my clothes, cooking dinners to be frozen for the week and garnering disparaging looks from the widow who believed that doing any kind of work on the weekend was contrary to god’s law. (I would have offered to create an 8th day specifically for cleaning and laundry, but I was a little more timid back then.)

I also had to field the weekly “Are you planning to go to church on Sunday?” query. Not as innocuous a question as it may at first seem in a country obsessed with Catholicism. Radio Maria and TV Maria (‘Maria’ as in Mary, Jesus’ mother – a central figure in Poland’s particular flavour of mysticism) would bleat out warnings about the evils of rock and roll music and urge people to go on pilgrimages around the countryside. It was like living in the Catholicised version of a militant Islamic regime, so my failure to be seen at church or going to church by the neighbours was an ongoing concern. I think that had I just dressed nicely on Sundays and headed out looking particularly righteous, I would have saved the widow a lot of gossip. Alas, I’m not terribly good at pandering to other people’s stupidities which makes me ‘inflexible’ if you ask my parents and ‘wonderful’ if you ask my husband. At this stage in life, pleasing the latter outweighs pleasing the former by a factor incalculable to modern day mathematics.

The free time on the weekends, however, was hard-earned and it was MINE, dammit. I guarded it jealously.

I would pack food, a map and money then head out into an intersection of trams, trains and buses – taking the first that took my fancy. I would usually take it to the very end of the line, wherever that may be.

Over time, I found some of the most wonderful places including palace gardens, strange suburbs and obscure museums housing endless rooms of junk and one sole, shining, near-forgotten masterpiece.

The place I remembered recently, though, was a forest I stumbled upon on the very outskirts of the city limits – behind a massive construction site. I was walking around the abandoned-for-the-weekend site, looking at the machinery and bare skeletons of buildings, crunching through frozen mud and icy puddles. Looking up, I saw that the mud ended abruptly in a line a few hundred metres away. Beyond was thick, lush, green forest. I headed for it immediately, leaving only cracked ice-puddles to attest to my presence.

Finding a path into the greenery, I entered the forest and was suddenly surrounded by the glorious scent of pine needles mingled with damp undergrowth and fresh leaves. It was spring and new growth was beginning to peek out here and there, a dazzling light green compared to the grey-green of everything else.

As I walked along the path, I noticed movement and turned to see what it was. There, timid, wild and as surprised to see me as I was them – were a handful of deer. It was one of those wonderful moments when one takes everything in. I can still see fragments in my mind – the graceful necks, the beautiful dark eyes, the extraordinarily elegant legs and the flicking white of the tails. I remember trying to make as little noise as possible, almost holding my breath, so that these creatures wouldn’t be frightened away. They seemed almost ethereal to an Australian that had only seen this kind of wildlife on a screen or in a zoo.

Suddenly, at the worst possible time, my cell phone rang.

The deer must have been smart. Sensing that my parents were about to give me an earbashing, they started to move away. I wasn’t as smart as the deer, instead of just switching the blasted thing off, I did the first thing I could to quiet it – I answered.

The thing that tipped my parents off that something was awry was that I was whispering. When they found that I was whispering because I was in gradual pursuit of some deer into a lone forest, the alarm bells went off and the wild parental imagination kicked in.

I don’t know what it was about my parents, but they had the ability to conjure up the worst possible scenario in any given situation and slowly talk themselves into thinking it was likely to happen. This was somehow magnified by my physical distance from their protective wingspan.

Thus my standing in a forest was a natural precursor to being kidnapped and killed by a vile group of Russian Mafiosi who just happened to be – what? Out on a picnic? Conducting a drug trade in a little glade nearby? On a Sunday drive in the vicinity? Staking out the area for targets? I wasn’t quite sure, but I had learnt by that age not to argue (much) when I was merely arguing with the ghosts of someone else’s overactive imagination.

I eventually made it out of the forest alive (well, I’m here today to reminisce about it) and headed out that night to a classical concert. Sitting in the ornate theatre, scrubbed and perfumed, bathed in amber light and surrounded by sumptuous architecture, I was a million miles away from that morning’s foray into the grassy unknown. What astounded me was that as soon as the music started, I recognised a lightness of tone and a simple beauty that always reminds me of spring outdoors. I closed my eyes and found I could wander the trail again accompanied by the soft music. I could smell the pine needles and feel the brilliantly bright light around me. The deer became my little ballet troupe and kindly leapt to the music. It was wonderful.

I also learned something about risk.

I suppose that everything done in life is a risk to some degree. Sometimes the risk is physical, sometimes emotional, sometimes fiscal – sometimes we don’t even know what we risk. Had something happened to me in the forest that day, the newspapers would have had their story and it would have been added to parent’s arsenals as something else children shouldn’t do.

Nothing happened though. I’m almost certain that had I headed out to the forest every day for the 7 months I was there, nothing would have happened. Yet I gained something immeasurable – a place and a time, a scene and a beauty that I will always be able to recall in an instant should I so wish. The feeling of possession is only heightened because that moment was mine – gained entirely on my own momentum and experienced on my own.

Bad things do happen – but not as often as we are led to believe by the media. Every skydiver doesn’t plummet to the ground, every love affair doesn’t end in tears, every dream doesn’t wither away once ‘the practicalities of life’ start gnawing at it. It’s when we avoid the wonderful experiences of life because we illogically expect the worst that we miss out on the best that life can bring.

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