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It's Nelly's World

Chance Brings Us Here

alec vanderboom

There was the sense of flying: air uplifting, lightening the weight of the body, and wings given by the engine below, just forward of the seat. And I wasn't really in the seat, or even on it. It was just a suggestion of a support. For a moment it was only me, a body detached, flying through the air of the Berkshires. Cresting a rise in the road, a voice cried from within: You are so lucky!

Lucky to be riding roads through a world still so beautiful as this one, lucky to be in this company, lucky to be at the endpoint of a thousand events (man's creating, odds after odds after odds, a machine such as this; three hundred years of English expatriates and their succeeding lineage grooming this landscape; all of history meeting in one impossible moment of a spring Sunday with me sitting at its very peak).

How I came to meet these people--a friend from twenty years and two lives ago; a new friend met by chance two years before, because a mention and a moment seized (and not that other one, or for that matter any of the dozens of possible others); another new friend who, though rarely seen because of distance and whatnot, still feels ineffably close--is either impossible to calculate, or is the only thing that could have happened.

Just because unexplainable things happen does not mean we need to find an unexplainable cause to explain them.


Lately I have been having conversations with several girlfriends who are desperately unhappy with their situations. Money troubles press in, or else money is not a problem, but there seems to be no time in the day, in the week, for anything but taking care of houses and children and husbands--Did I get a degree in English in order to make endless grilled cheese sandwiches and deal with car repairs and home renovations and arguments over how long he needs to be away for work? My only response to this unanswerable lament came a few weeks ago, when I found myself riding through a small backwater near here, one that oppressed me for the entire length of the red light during which I was trapped in it, when I realized, "Hey, I should remind them we could have been born in Wawarsing. We'd never have gotten out alive." There would have been no regrets that we could have done something with our fancy-college degrees, because that would have never presented itself as an option. Like our parents and grandparents before us, we would have graduated high school with a couple of babies already, and no chance to climb the stairs to see above the low roofs of our small place in life.

I could have been born in Wawarsing. But I wasn't.

To what do I owe the extraordinary luck of being born where I was, into a life that was nothing but an ever-rising staircase? Born into the extraordinary way the dice fell, clattering on the tabletop: doubles.

It would be more seemly to post here the results of my 2010 tax return, or my preferences in horizontal activities, than to delineate my beliefs on the existence of any higher power, but thinking on the vagaries of life does not make me feel entirely polite. So, the stone atheist finds herself sometimes bemused to the point of exasperation when she thinks in private on this subject. The only thing that gives pause to the forward march of her certainty is the fact that many people of far greater intelligence are equally convinced that she is wrong. She must be missing something, because it all seems quite simple to her. Anything that can think, will, or conceive must needs have a brain. A brain is a physical entity that evolved in vertebrates and some invertebrates. It is composed of cells. Although the universe is more filled with mysteries of which we know nothing than of discoveries we comprehend, it still seems impossible that a nameless something, even as great a one as god, could express a motive without having a brainstem. Where might this all-powerful mind be hiding its neurons? They would have to be very large.

Yet to me the mind-blowing complexity of everything is easily explained by a single phenomenon, one that does not require physicality: chance. Beautiful, awe-inspiring chance. It was by grace of this supreme mechanism that my particular conglomeration of flesh, will, and bones was poised atop a hideously complicated machine of German origin on this particular day in the company of others who came together by such an elaborate series of luck that it defies everything, or nothing.


A friend's daughter was occupying herself with a book in the Where's Waldo series. In these books, each spread is an intricate, impossibly detailed eye-twister of an illustration. In each, you are supposed to find the little figure of Waldo, but he is so well hidden sometimes you never do. You have to give up, or go mad. "I couldn't find Waldo on this page at all," she tells me. "I mean, look at it!" Indeed, there is no way to find Waldo among the many hundreds of Waldo simulacra peppering the page. "So I turned away. And then when I turned back, guess what? I had put my thumb right on him."


At a gas stop, while we briefly shared (helmets off to talk) the separate but combined experience that is the group ride--such luck as this!--I heard my phone ringing. It was another new friend, at the end of his own ride in the same state but for another, far more epic, purpose. Riding has many, many purposes. He had attained a difficult and hard-won goal, well over a thousand miles in under twenty hours. He told me of another rider, on a similar but possibly more difficult quest during the same day and night (a twenty-four-hour rally) who had hit two deer at different times in the same ride. On hitting the first, he stayed up. Only to then hit the second, which brought him down. What were the chances of that? And he was able to get to the awards ceremony, so he was lucky. But he hit the deer, so he was unlucky. Both at once.

There would be no way for me to comprehensively explain how it was that I came to be sitting at a picnic table outside The Creamery in Cummington, Massachusetts, with a collection of old and new friends on a collection of old and new bikes at two in the afternoon on May 22, 2011. I could have been in Wawarsing, watching my great-grandkids. I could have been in Delhi (India, not New York), bent over a washbasin. I could have been an amoeba. But for one thing: luck. Incredible, inconceivable, inexplicable, beautiful luck. In the absence of anything else, I'll take it. I have to. Because the world hadn't ended the day before.