Playing the Blues on Vortex Street

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

John Donne

On the heels of thinking about rivers that move so slowly it’s hard to tell they’re going anywhere, or those lazy spots where everything’s so wide it loses focus, I also see a place where things speed up … in reverse.

In an eddy, liquid spins backwards as it flows past an obstacle.

The old school language for this is backsliding, but the liquid in an eddy will eventually flow downhill with gravity, so this language feels more hopeful. That’s easy when your life is like a river, but what about when mapping your life feels more like oceanography?

Sometimes life feels more like an ocean than a river. Tides slosh us back and forth, and the meteorological systems that accompany and impact our routines are far more complex than the ecosystem of a simple river.  Then there’s the foundational shifting of tectonic plates; in short, life throws so many transitions, changes and complications we easily end up adrift in an ocean when all we hoped for was a ride downstream.

Ocean vortices, also called mesoscale eddies, can sometimes last for months, and cover areas as big as 500 km in diameter.

Even more intriguing is the Karman vortex street, a phenomenon when eddies in a repeating pattern happen on the backside of a blunt object, such as Guadalupe Island, 150 miles west of Baja California. Guadalupe causes a vortex street almost every day from June to August. The alternating eddies formed in a vortex street in the lee of an island take turns in a repeating pattern.

Obstacles that cause regular patterns in our lives can be surreal. Sometimes the obstacles in our lives are permanent and create vortex streets which become part of the landscape. Some days we can ignore them completely because we live with them; other days we have no choice but to acknowledge their existence.

I was talking to Jason (name and story used with permission) last night. Jason routinely places in the top ten in local triathlons, recently he placed 6th in a field of 200+. He once qualified to participate in the Best of US Amateur triathlon and flew from Alaska to Vermont to compete in what turned out to be a pretty exclusive race, with only a handful of male and female qualifiers invited from each state. (He wasn’t one of the top finishers that time, though.) His level fitness comes partly from an incredible work ethic and partly from a diet extremely low in fats because his body can’t handle them. What people don’t see when they watch Jason compete is his chronic familial pancreatitis, with a suspected slow-growing tumor; and he also battles renal cell carcinoma. Jason has undergone multiple surgeries and has been in danger of losing his life. He schedules medical procedures so regularly, he says, “it’s like the way you would schedule with your dentist or eye doctor.” (He tells me that tomorrow, July 22, he has an endoscopy scheduled.) Who knows if he would still be surviving if he didn’t push his body to the limit in training and competition whenever he’s healthy? It gives him the ability to fight when his illness takes over for a period of time.

This condition is Jason’s vortex street. “It’s surreal,” he says, “I’ll place sixth out of more than two hundred in a triathlon, then I’ll come home and there will be a medical bill I have to pay. I don’t feel sick, I feel great.”

The last time he was in the hospital, I went and sat with him for a couple hours, and I cried. I wonder when I will lose some of my closest friends who deal with diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and I treasure the small interactions of our lives; the sharing of a picture of their children on Facebook, a phone call to say “congratulations” for small victories, or “I’m glad you’re feeling better.” If, and ultimately when, we lose these “clods and promontories” as John Donne called them, we will all be the worse. When the bell tolls for them it also tolls for us. We all sing the vortex street blues.

Singing the blues is a simultaneous sharing of woes, while feeling good somehow that a better day will come. My friend Jonathan wrote a song that begins like this:

Better days gonna come again/ put your raincoat on, you’ve been stuck in here too long.

We have to get out. Jason does this better than anyone I know. His body creates one of the most intense vortex streets, a constant drag to the leeward, but his discipline to get his raincoat on and get out is an inspiration.

We often do feel like islands, (and we feel that our own physical selves are that obstacle which causes a vortex street) and yet John Donne insisted, we are not alone, that we must grieve every clod lost to the waves. When our friends are singing the blues on vortex street, our job is not to ignore, but to acknowledge, and to celebrate small victories as we navigate through the eddies. Perhaps worse than the backwards motion of backsliding, like a temporary eddy in a river, is the three-hundred mile wide mesoscale eddy in the ocean, or the vortex street that follows us around like a pair of ribbons streaming behind us, creating drag. The mesoscale eddy or the Karman vortex street are disruptive, regular, and part of the ocean that picks away at our continent.

What’s am I listening looking for? What’s the value of recognizing a vortex street in a friend’s life?  Look for ways to find inspiration from someone’s efforts and then highlight it. Invite people to get their raincoat on and get out.  See people in poverty rehearse and perform a symphony in spite of it. When you see people in pain who compete in spite of it, share each others’ stories (with permission!) and be aware that some of us live with permanent obstacles. The vortex street comes from permanent obstacles, difficult surroundings, but it leaves a trail of beauty if we’ll only look for it.