The real four-letter-word

He looked at me quizzically after I spoke, which is what people had been doing all day. “I guess it’s because of the rain,” he said.

I shook my head. “No, it’s because there aren’t any cars.”

He paused for a second. “You may be right.”

“I’m right,” I said with assurance. “Go ahead. Breathe deep.”

He was standing at the mailbox, a cheerful, very overweight guy who had seen me slogging up his steep street, and had said, “I bet it’s easier going down!”

That’s when I stopped and said, “Yes, but going slow you get to appreciate the air.”

When you turn off the approximately 6.4 million smoke factories in LA County, it has a drastic and simple effect on the air. It becomes clean and pure overnight. When you ride a bike everywhere, you don’t need an air quality report to know when things are clean.

For example, Long Beach, where I was today, is typically the dirtiest ride I make. You pedal through the Port of LA, then the Port of Long Beach, and then into the little smog-triangle created by the two huge and always crowded 405 and 710 freeways and PCH. The air stings your eyes, your nose, and it burns your lungs. When you arrive, the corners of your eyes are black. Your glasses are coated with film. If the air is bad enough, your teeth have black grit on them. Not such a big deal for me because it’s camouflaged by the coffee stains.

But today? The air in Long Beach was so crisp and sharp and loaded with contaminant-free oxygen that it felt like I was standing on a high mountaintop. The mostly empty freeways, the mostly empty Pacific Coast Highway, and the completely empty byways and side streets pumped out endless quantities of simple clean air. What was even more extraordinary was … spring.

Yes, in Los Angeles there is spring, with flowers, and showers, and songbirds, multi-hued life there for the basking in, and without the traffic it was all glorious. As I turned up the little street I inhaled a lungful of flower power; earlier in the afternoon I’d gotten caught in a downpour and smelled the crisp ozone of cold rain on dry asphalt mixing in with the smell of flowers.

Mind you, this is happening on the cutting edge of a global pandemic and economic calamity.

There’s that four-letter-word again, right? What four letter word? Well …

I’ve been pruning back the things hanging on my walls of late. If it’s not deeply personal, I’ve removed it and taken it down to the dumpster. What’s left are photos and paintings of family members or by family members, along with a handful of children’s drawings, and one poster.

The poster? It’s political but not hanging on my wall for that reason. It’s a poster of the last president, who I think did a really good job. But that’s not why it’s on my wall. It’s because the poster only has one word on it, at the bottom: “Hope.”

Everyone from Emily Dickinson, “the thing with feathers,” to the ancient Greeks “that which remained at the bottom of Pandora’s jar,” has their own conception of hope. For the ancient Norse it was the slobber from the jaws of Fenris Wolf when he was bound by the gods. And of course hope is one of the pillars upon which many, if not most religions, are built. But what is it, really?

The dictionary is, as dictionaries were made to be when it comes to words, indeterminate and ultimately useless. For the compilers of words a/k/a the clerks of nostalgia, “hope” is an expectation of a future outcome, “I hope I win the lottery,” “I hope we can make it for dinner,” “I hope that during stay-at-home we don’t run out of beer.”

For scientists, hope is a real and measurable thing, testable and subject to the scientific method and peer review. Hope is “the perceived capability to derive pathways to desired goals and motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways,” according to psychologist C.R. Snyder. In English, perhaps he means that hope is “thinking you can do something.” The scientific literature on hope is wide and deep; a quick trip to NCBI and a search for “hope” will get you more hits than a street fight.

That’s all well and good, but what is hope? And as a four-letter-word, is it really more important than “bike”?

Without doubt, hope is simply this: A conviction that tomorrow will be better. That’s why hope is what sustains people when things are bad, and it’s why hope is out of place among the self-satisfied, the prideful, the spiteful, and the bad. Hope is the province of people who are down but not out, who have taken it upside the face and turned the other cheek, who are straining against the odds but, as only Jim Carrey could have said, who see a billion-to-one shot as “So you’re saying I have a chance!”

Hope is seeded everywhere there are people but it only sprouts when hell rains down. Hope is the bit that humans have put between their teeth since humankind began, champed down hard, and refused to let go. Hope is the crystal clean air in Los Angeles, wafting up out of 6.4 million muzzled cars. Hope is the citrus-sage scent of lantana filling your nose along the unlikely roadside of urban LA. Hope is the natural world that fights back and purifies itself the moment we stop choking it with filth.

Hope is what happens when you’re pedaling down Sepulveda and the rain begins pouring down, you’re riding without a rain jacket, and in a few moments you’re going to be soaked, but you come to a railroad trestle and huddle against the embankment taking shelter from the rain, it’s the hope that tells you the wetness is going to stop if you only wait it out.

It’s a four-letter-word, and I suppose it’s frowned upon nowadays in polite circles. But life isn’t always polite. Sometimes it’s brutal and killing and utterly without remorse. Which is why we have hope. And now, clean air and spring blooms to go with it.



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Refuge under a railroad trestle

6 thoughts on “The real four-letter-word”

  1. Curt Richter. In 2006 I borrowed from his research to in an effort to help a young commanding officer in my unit who was struggling with demons. May we always be rats with hope . . . keep on “swimming.”

  2. David Atkinson

    Nice poster, hang it up. Please wear a helmet, if not for you, do it for the kids that may follow your example.

  3. “Worry” is also an expectation of a future outcome. The difference of course, is that it wastes your energy and does nothing to improve or affect what will happen. When in a serious situation it is important to save your energy for the real fight and not squander it unnecessarily. Kind of like bike racing. As in bike racing, in a genuine crisis there may be moments of pain, terror, and humiliation, but also moments of clarity, vitality, and joy.

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