The idea is better than the writing, I think, but I put it in here because sometimes that’s enough.
One of the weirder things I do as a dad is putting a scrap of poetry in Natalie’s lunchbox whenever she decides she doesn’t want to buy whatever’s on the school menu for that day.
This got started — I don’t even remember how — in first grade, and the kid’s closing out fourth this year, and she packs a lunch three or four times a week, so we’ve pretty much run through Blake and Whitman and William Carlos Williams and Emily D and cummings, and even Marvell and Czeslaw Milosz and Franz Wright and Kay Ryan and, of course, Charles Simic, who, it turns out, really pulls things together in the mind of a seven-year-old. Maybe that’s why I like him so much.
A few days ago, I found these lines in a poem called “From Blossoms,” by Li-Young Lee, and wrote them onto a piece of paper torn from one of my notebooks, and in the morning put the page in Nat’s blue-checked, soft-sided lunchbox:
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
Yesterday I had a monumental hangover. The lunch ride was, as usual these days, packing some heat but, like I said, the usual. All around me people were chatting and sitting up and gesturing and looking at pretty birds and making jokes. Every few streets, for sure, someone had to dig down a little to keep the string together or to latch back on or to put the hurt on someone for the temporary hell of it — but the whole pack was on the social side of fast, no question.
Except for me. I started out more or less pre-bonked — dehydrated, and underfed because my stomach wasn’t going to stand for any calories. I was tired. Devoid of electrolytes. Squinting from the headache that pounded in time with my pedal strokes.
And that was during the warm-up roll out of town.
About thirty minutes in, I realized I was going to get dropped. I was just too sick, too tired, too wimpy, too old, too empty.
I thought of the apple that contains in its skin not only apple flesh but everything that made it an apple. I know the lunch poem references a peach, but I didn’t then. I remembered the fruit as an apple, a shiny red one (though I prefer green granny smiths), perfectly formed like the ones you see in a picture book, wet, a stem curled just right up off the top. I thought about how Nat wanted to quit the oboe and I got her to practice regularly until she realized she was having fun, and I thought about how I dribbled a soccer ball with her fifteen minutes a day for months straight so she could make the travel team, and I thought about that night at dinner when she might ask how my ride was that day and I’d have to say that I got dropped, I couldn’t keep up and, in fact, I probably gave up.
For the next two hours I used every little trick I knew to save energy and ride in tight and cheat on hills and curves and do whatever it took to hang in with a simple social bicycle outing. After awhile I forgot about the apple, even. I just kept saying this to myself: Every ride I do is every ride I’ve ever done.
It meant, to me, anyway, that all the pedal strokes of my past could get me through the hangover ride; but it also meant, right there, as it was happening and I was breaking down and doing everything I could to hold myself together, that how the hangover ride turned out was going to help determine who I end up being when I am at the end of being.
Or maybe it was just a ride — not some imaginary, poetic apple that should have been a peach anyway, but just one more bike ride that doesn’t matter much beyond the calories it burned. I’m not hungover today, and I sat in there with a faster group for a longer time, and without any angst or regret I peeled off early to get back to work, and I’m happy.
In the whole mess I only really am sure about one thing: I’d have been dropped on the Thursday lunch ride if Natalie had been hungry for the Hornet Hoagie, green beans, oranges and milk.
Originally published in the March 6, 2009 Sitting In