For the past six weeks I’ve been entrenched in the birth throes of an industrial project, feeling myself slowly succumb to its eye-dimming cocktail of fatigue and necessity. I’ve been watching myself sigh in the hallway, crack jokes over the intercom, eat meals with forks unable to spear anything that wasn’t already mashed, and enter a stupor of gratitude when the person beside me stepped out of the darkness carrying a solution– something half-corroded with wires hanging off the side that just five minutes previous had been rescued from the enduring anonymity of a scrap pile.
We pressed buttons and touched screens still protected by their factory-applied films, and nothing happened. We pursed our lips. Nothing-at-all was to be our most relevant data point. We examined the bifurcating field of plausibility in which we stood, and then checked the fuses. We re-discovered switches and disconnects we’d already taken for granted. Electronic devices that we contacted for answers failed to report for duty, or if pressed upon, produced streams of nonsense. We jumpered them out. Shut them up. Listened to what remained. Then we reconfigured them. We hooked up new wires to check on the old ones, and we stared dead-eyed into the inanimate faces of gauges, with tarps whipping in the wind beside us, wondering which of us was the liar.
Deep in the night, in the fissile period between midnight and the first scent of dawn, an hour or two before the daily onslaught of commuting machines, birds with voices like squawking check-marks hijacked the nearby bridge, filling the air with their signatures. They claimed it as their own. Reveled for a moment in the glory of who they are and have always been. Remembered, like we did as children, when we sneaked through the neighbor’s garden with our eye-patches, capes and plastic swords. For that moment, that window of time, the wind, the seashells and the tree-tops tucked along the water belonged to those birds again, as they had for countless generations of their forebears.
An hour or so later, a shift change. We were back on the scene, laughing about Murphy and Occam, buckling our overmatched forks against carrots and deep-fried chicken pieces the color of breast cancer awareness. We cursed– not at events themselves, but at our collective fall from grace. Same as the birds. Same as the car horns, the whistling factory alarms clogged by dust, and the banging together of rail cars down on the tracks. All of it sounded the same, like a face you keep seeing in the crowd. Somewhere in all of this there was something we’d lost.
* * * * *
As the one so appointed, I gave progress briefings each morning, and was called upon at various times to explain how this or that phenomenon could have happened. We thought you would have known better, they said. Couldn’t this have been avoided? It’s important that we all understand the root cause, because none of us can afford for this to happen again. None of us.
The imponderable weight of commerce bound us all together.
The night before, fifteen hours into a shift laced with an aromatic white-out of curing insulation and refractory, we’d discovered the meaning of a particular resinous vapor. A cloud of smoke had suddenly emerged, pouring out of somewhere it shouldn’t have been. Fire alarms in the next building had triggered. We’d shut it all down. We’d been on the verge of real progress– had been spinning at twenty-six thousand rpm for several hours– but now the end was in jeopardy.
Only two weeks left, and something you don’t walk into a store and buy had been reduced to ash.
Yes… the root cause…
Once you find and correct the root cause of a particular phenomenon, it should never happen again. Never mind that all of this– all of this– is simply what separation feels like, that every splinter of experience is an instant replay of the choice we once made together to try things out alone. The birds clamoring under the trestle, the criss-crossed wires, the inscrutable gauges, the gaps in logic, the inadequate accommodation of the unexpected. The uncertainty, weighted by fatigue, weighted by millions of somebody else’s dollars tied to a particular, rapidly approaching spot on the calendar. This is simply how separation feels.
Thankfully, it’s never unattended, this separateness that’s only a costume. Underneath, there’s always the grace. The way a side conversation steered us away from danger. The way we found what we needed when we most needed it. The way someone unbidden stepped in to fill the gap. The way logos and branding eventually failed to matter, and blurred into something eminently more human.
It’s only afterwards that we see it: the way we gather together sometimes with our check-marked voices to cry out to one another, to rankle, to fester together and wear down upon our shared necessity, to get down to the bottom of it.