A couple of Saturdays ago, I unintentionally went contra dancing. And though I’ve been before, I never understood the appeal of it. This time, though, I really enjoyed myself. I needed to get out of my head for a while, and while I’m not sure why this time was different, it worked.
At one point, the caller said something that made my ears perk up: “It’s more fun when the dance almost falls apart, but not quite.” And so it was. We were all out on the edge of competency. Okay, maybe not the experienced dancers, but those of us who didn’t completely know the dances were hanging on by a thread. I did okay when I had an experienced partner, and when everyone else was more or less in the right place, going in the right direction. Other times, not so much.
It’s Saturday morning, and I’m motoring through the mountains of eastern Arizona. I am unfamiliar with the road and not feeling confident that the roads are well marked, either. I’m not bad with directions, but when you’re navigating through the mountains, the way is not always apparent. I’m traveling from my parents’ house south of Tucson in Green Valley (where my sister, Dana, and I were helping them celebrate their fifty-fourth wedding anniversary) to the White Mountains Bluegrass Festival in Pinetop-Lakeside.
I keep imagining that chaos is just over the next rise. And that is one of the things that drives me. I believe that chaos has a few things to teach us.
My dad is retired from the Army, where chaos is the supreme enemy. During a trip to the commissary (grocery, to you), he arranges items in the cart according to whether they need to be kept cool or not, and then, as far as I can tell, he groups everything else by shape and size. He’s not alone. It seems to me that every resident of Green Valley places a premium on orderliness. Gardeners prune and preen; every dead cactus pad or leaf is picked up and disposed of. Decay that can’t be removed is painted over.
But certain things you can’t control. An ambulance parks in front of a patio home. The empty stretcher is borne in by buff, young EMTs, and carried out laden with wrinkled, damaged flesh no longer sustained by the heart. No siren is required for this journey.
In an instant, our illusion of control vanishes. But in those same instances, the chaos that we are so afraid of — and so intimate with — also vanishes.
“…No more sorrow, grief or pain,
All the time will be the same,
So happy I’ll be, forever more…”
(Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, So Happy I’ll Be)
The truth is, for some of us, the middle is boring. And we don’t want to be happy forever more. Enter chaos.
In so many ways, we humans encourage chaos. We’re compelled to it. Some examples: breeding of any sort, home-remodeling projects, and foreign travel. Oh, and breathing. Change and her best friend, Chaos, are exactly our lot. It’s what being alive means.
The knowledge that you are not in charge is powerful information you can use. Unless you’re cleaning out the refrigerator, you are not in control. (Even those small jobs are not risk free: I never know what other life forms I’ll find in the refrigerator, for instance. But the risks are less consequential.)
I hypothesize that the importance of the discoveries I make are directly proportional to the level of risk: if taking a big risk doesn’t kill me, I’ll probably learn some gigantic lesson from it. (But only if I’m paying attention.)
Here’s why: personal growth that comes out of controlled situations is limited by our imaginations. We can only be and do what we can imagine, and we don’t even consider the approximately seven billion other possibilities that await us out in the universe. Risk and chaos throw us a curve ball; they force us to think bigger, scarier thoughts and to consider possibilities beyond.
At the bluegrass festival, there are a few jams happening around the campground. Since they’re impromptu and unrehearsed, jams have some of those same qualities of contra dance. The level of musicianship varies, not everyone knows the tunes, or is even in tune (though you can always hope).
Sometimes the music is lively and fun to listen to, but not particularly edgy.
But other times, someone takes a risk. A tune gets tossed into the middle of the circle like a gauntlet. Sometimes a train wreck ensues. Other times the rendition almost falls apart, but the center holds fast. The song rises up into the night sky, through the piney woods, a peace offering to the chaos of the universe, forever more.