To my family,
Throughout this very difficult year, you never let me stop living . . .
These moments are ours, and I am thankful for each and every one. Happy New Year!
To my family,
Throughout this very difficult year, you never let me stop living . . .
These moments are ours, and I am thankful for each and every one. Happy New Year!
In a word, Erika is passionate. About life. Love. Things that matter. And she writes about each, with sentences that sing, at Be Gay About It. In our final guest installment for the “Just A Little Crazy” series, she takes us two miles into the air to teach us a lesson about living with passion right here on sweet terra firma. Take a moment to visit the new Crazy! page to read previous entries in this series . . .
My earliest memory set the stage. In the first part of the memory, I’m wrapped in a blanket burrito-style at age two. I can see through the face-hole that it’s my mom, all nineteen years of her, cradling me as she runs, panting, alabaster against the coal black sky, her strawberry hair ablaze with each whipcrack of lightning.
In the second part of the memory, I’m being unwrapped by my slightly calmer mother on our neighbor’s velour sofa. The room is golden warm and there are pictures of the sweaty, later-years Elvis everywhere.
Two fragments of one event, equally traumatic.
It’s no wonder I grew into the hyper-aroused, hyper-prepared adult that I am today. Caution is an occupation and art form for me. I walk across parking lots with my keys splayed between my knuckles like a claw. I fill my tank at the halfway mark. I cut my fruit before I bite into it. Thanks to my sixth sense of foresight, I’ve lived a pretty safe life (touch wood). Sometimes, though, my sixth sense of foresight becomes my cross and I need to leave it by the side of the road while I meander off the path for a minute or two or, on especially confident days, longer. These meanderings are few, but conspicuous.
It makes sense, given all this, that my greatest out-of-the-box moment, my boldest foray into crazy, was both planned and prepaid for months in advance, and involved a single engine prop plane, a parachute, and 12,000 feet between me and the earth.
Never, never, never did I imagine that I would skydive prior to meeting my lobster, Jenn. It was on our second date that she showed me her skydiving video; it was during that 12 minute run-time that I fell in love. Not only with her, but with what is possible when risk is given a second glance. In the video, she’s charming and dangerously badass. I held my breath watching her arc out of the plane to Rusted Root’s Send Me On My Way and I wondered what it would take for me to do it, to skydive. We struck a deal: if she could convince my mom, warrior protector of my life, to tell me to do it, then I would. If only foresight had told me that this would be one of those rare times my mom would surprise me.
It’s July 2005. I’m 28 years old. I’m wearing a jumpsuit, a harness, and flight goggles.
I’m scared shitless.
My tandem instructor is Howie. He and the rest of the crew at AtmosphAIR are amazingly Zen human beings; such is their approach to flight. They talk to me about fear management, about letting go, about breathing and being aware. I’m like, “Yeah, okay. Right. Let go. No problem.”
We hike out to the runway and load into the plane. The noise of the propeller is enough to overstimulate me. How in the hell am I going to handle falling two miles to my death?
We taxi, we gain speed, and – lift off!
Howie offers me a Tic Tac (my last meal?). At this point, I’m secured to the plane by one questionable seat belt around one questionable strap on my harness. We’re ascending and I realize what’s about to happen. I make a decision right then and there – I will go through with this. I will leave all my emotional baggage, all my rules, right here in the plane. It will be good. Yeah. It will be therapeutic!
At 10,000 feet, the door flies open. The noise is unbearable. It’s cold and dry and – OH! – my friend Steve and his instructor fall out of the plane! Just like that! Gone! Howie shuts the door and I have serious second thoughts.
But Howie is already walking me through the steps. He’s fastening my goggles. He’s fastening the clips, snuggling our hips together. The engine stills. Howie whispers (shouts?) that he’s going to open the door and then does it. My heart screams out of my chest. Bulls thunder in my ears. Howie tugs on my sleeve. I will not let go of the plane! He tugs again and I think, “OKAY, OKAY, HERE WE –
You can actually see me mouth this on my video.
To be honest, the rest of that jump is a blur. I have the video, which retells the story of a typical freefall, typical parachute opening, and typical landing.
All I remember is being cold and unable to think anything at all.
I’ve skydived five times now. I’ve somersaulted out of the plane, I’ve parachuted through a cloud. I’ve landed on my feet and on my ass. My last jump, however, put me into indefinite retirement; the chute opening was a bit rough and I experienced whiplash (not to mention my life flashing before my eyes at 120 miles per hour). Also, a dear friend who had also been one of my tandem instructors died during a jump last September. It was a medical incident and had nothing to do with skydiving, but it rattles me just the same.
Retirement or no retirement, my initial foray into crazy changed me. I’m much better able now to let go, to find my breath, to mark time without anxiety. I’m better able to forgive and to resolve emotional conflict, internally and externally. I’m at least capable of proceeding without caution.
And while my habit may be to plan like crazy, thanks to my five times out of the box, I’m now just crazy enough to go without a plan.
Once in awhile.
Why? Why was it that in cases of real love the one who is left does not more often follow the beloved by suicide? Only because the living must bury the dead? Because of the measured rites that must be fulfilled after a death? Because it is as though the one who is left steps for a time upon a stage and each second swells to an unlimited amount of time and he is watched by many eyes? Because there is a function he must carry out? Or perhaps, when there is love, the widowed must stay for the resurrection of the beloved – so that the one who has gone is not really dead, but grows and is created for a second time by the soul of the living?
~ Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
The funeral has come and gone. A frantic weekend of trying, and mostly failing, to sleep on a blow-up mattress; driving through rain and tears back and forth between the homes of relatives, the funeral home, the church, the cemetery; getting reacquainted with cousins I haven’t seen in too long, one in particular whom I haven’t seen face to face in nearly a quarter of a century.
The roller coaster ride requisite for such times left me emotionally drawn and quartered.
On the morning of the visitation, my father and I sat on the floor for an hour or so digging through old photographs . . .
. . . of times way before my time, but not his. He’s the one on the left. A handsome young lad, no? These memories belong to him alone . . .
. . . and they carry a weight only he can bear. Some memories however . . .
. . . are all mine. This one made the front page of the Grayville paper on May 21, 1970, just days after the Kent State Massacre. That’s me . . . protesting.
My son? He laughed most of the way through is first real haircut. I’ll never forget the way Papaw and Bob, the local barber who has trimmed the hair and tickled the ears of four generations of Thomas men, joked about the old days: glass bottles of grape Nehi chilling in a lift-top vending machine in the corner; refreshment in twenty-five cent servings; my lack of bravado when confronted by those annoying clippers. Neither my son nor I remember much about our respective trimmings . . .
. . . but we’ll never forget this day. This was as close as my son could get to Papaw’s casket. He sat on the front pew and played his guitar. Tears in his eyes. Other, more concrete and perhaps happier, memories flooding his head.
The man in the casket is not my grandfather. These pictures are not him either. What he was – the essence of the man – lives on in my mind. The way he looked when he smiled, gazing over his glasses or down at the afternoon paper. His gentle sense of humor. His willingness to lend a hand in whatever way the situation demanded. When I think of him, I think differently. I am more compassionate. I let things slide. I find beauty in the simplest of things.
The words of Douglas Hofstadter, from his book I Am a Strange Loop, floated through my head most of the weekend. At the heart of this challenging yet poignant book, amid references to Kurt Gödel, Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, and Fibonacci sequences, lies a touching memoir about coming to grips with the death of his wife, Carol, of a brain tumor in 1993. This passage resonated with me when I first read it a few summers ago, and it lingers heavy today . . .
What is really going on when you dream or think more than fleetingly about someone you love (whether that person died many years ago or is right now on the other end of a phone conversation with you)? In the terminology of this book, there is no ambiguity about what is going on. The symbol for that person has been activated inside your skull, lurched out of dormancy, as surely as it had an icon that someone had double-clicked. And the moment this happens, much as with a game that has been opened up on your screen, your mind starts acting differently from how it acts in a “normal” context. You have allowed yourself to be invaded by an “alien universal being”, and to some extent the alien takes charge inside your skull, starts pushing things around in its own fashion, making words, ideas, memories, and associations bubble up inside your brain that ordinarily would not do so. The activation of the symbol for the loved person swivels into action whole sets of coordinated tendencies that represent that person’s cherished style, their idiosyncratic way of being embedded in the world and looking out at it. As a consequence, during this visitation of your cranium, you will surprise yourself by coming out with different jokes from those you would normally make, seeing things in a different emotional light, making different value judgments, and so forth . . .
The sad truth is, of course, that no copy is perfect, and that my copies of Carol’s memories are hugely defective and incomplete, nowhere close to the level of detail of the originals. The sad truth Is, of course, that Carol is reduced, in her inhabitation of my cranium, to only a tiny fraction of what she used to be. The sad truth is, my brain’s mosaic of Carol’s essence is far more coarse-grained that the privileged mosaic that resided in her brain. That is the sad truth. Death’s sting cannot be denied. And yet death’s sting is not quite as absolute or as total as it might seem.
When the sun is eclipsed, there remains a corona surrounding it, a circumferential glow. When someone dies, they leave a glowing corona behind them, an afterglow in the souls of those who were close to them. Inevitably, as time passes, the afterglow fades and finally goes out, but it takes many years for that to happen. When, eventually, all of those close ones have died as well, then all the embers will have gone cool, and at that point, it’s “ashes to ashes and dust to dust”.
Memories. They are what we have left. And I’m learning that, at this point, they may be more than enough . . .
This morning I searched and searched for the time needed to compose a quality post for you, but alas none was to be found. I have to rush to work for a twelve hour rendezvous with madness, so this is the best I can offer.
I hope you don’t mind, Gwen.
Gwen is a blogging buddy of mine. We have many things in common – our religious upbringing, family craziness, and a love of writing. Her’s blows my mind.
In her latest post, she shares about The Persistence of Memory. Here’s a snippet:
It seems that so much of what we remember about our past are those dramatic moments, moments more likely to contain rage and pathos and passion than calmness or happiness or boredom. Do we remember those things because they make good stories and retelling the tale makes it stick? Or do we truly prefer to think of ourselves as living from thrilling adventure to animal despair?
Do yourself a favor. Click on the link, either the title of her post above, or her site “Woman on the Verge” in my blogroll. You won’t recover quickly.
Gwen, you’re one of my blogging heroes. Thanks for your prodding and honesty.
Now I’m off to work.
My best friend got married last month to a wonderful guy named Jim. We all went to school together just south of Chicago and we celebrated our 20th class reunion this past summer. That’s where Char and Jim met . . . again . . . for the first time . . . if that makes any sense . . . and they now live in that magical happily-ever-after place reserved for truly special people. I couldn’t be more thrilled for my friend.
I first met Charlene during our junior year. The details are sketchy, just hit-and-miss recollections in my aging foggy mind. I think we had a mutual friend, a guy she once dated, or was perhaps dating at the time we met, the same guy I had become friends with in some class, perhaps drafting or maybe something as forgetful as gym. I must have sat with him a few times at lunch – pizza and fries, back in the day when school lunches didn’t need to be healthy – and Charlene and I became acquainted. At some point our mutual friend left the picture (and the table) but we stayed put and sat at the same lunch table, eating the same greasy food and drinking our half pints of cold milk, for our remaining time in high school.
I only recall a few mutual friends between us. She hung with a different crowd, the kids who were more affluent or brainy, because they were the kids she knew best, having lived in the area all her life. I was new to the area and the kind of guy who knew a bunch of people but associated regularly – truly considered as friends – a select few. I was quiet when I was being serious – when I was being truly “me” – and Charlene let me be that way. Around her I could contemplate things and just talk and she’d listen and offer her honest opinions. We hit it off nicely.
I eventually discovered that she lived nearby so we began spending time at her place. I met her mom and dad, two kind-hearted, friendly folks who always welcomed me into their home with a smile and an occasional warm cookie. Over the years since graduation, Charlene and I have gotten together many times at her place to catch up on our lives and being there always brings back some comfortable memories. We also hung out at the mall quite a bit. Charlene was good at the mall thing. She loved the walking and the people and the good food. I also remember the simple pleasure of just driving to the mall. She’d manipulate the radio and sing along, especially when Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam came on.
Being with Charlene was fun. Her smile was infectious, as was that mischievous smirk that sprung upon her face when she was about to share a particularly opinionated remark. Like at our senior prom when she sent her steak back because it wasn’t to her liking. Where I was the kind of guy who would just let that stuff slide, she would have none of that nonsense. She got what she wanted out of life.
I imagine some people probably considered us more than just friends. I don’t think that we ever did. It’s funny, but as I write this I can’t recall a single conversation where we hashed out just exactly what kind of relationship we had. We did things that couple did – hung out a lot, went out to dinner, went roller skating and miniature golfing, even prom – and yet it was all so platonic (as a philosophy major, I just love that word!). I only remember holding her hand once (while roller skating . . . more for balance methinks . . . she was a pro and I was decidedly not), and to the best of my knowledge we never shared a kiss. You’d remember something like that, wouldn’t you?!?! What we shared went beyond all that mushy stuff and came at a time when I needed that sort of transcendent bond. Sure I was excited when she accepted my invitation to prom, so excited that I got a ticket speeding away from her place after an evening spent hashing out the details. Even as the cop wrote me the ticket, I couldn’t stop smiling. (That’s us, in the picture in the upper left, at prom in 1987. Almost Paradise was the theme . . . ) But my excitement was of a nature quite foreign to many people. I considered myself an oddball in high school, not one of the cool kids or even a kid worthy of any sort of elevated social status, and to be accepted and cared for by such a kind person with no strings attached or unspoken expectations gave me a peace that comes rarely in life. I’ll always appreciate Char for that acceptance and unconditional love.
Upon graduation I moved away to the frozen north country of Minnesota and Charlene decided to attend a nearby school so she could stay at home. I met Garsy, my wife-to-be, that first semester away at college and the relationship Charlene and I shared entered a new era. It’s funny to think back about it, from this long-removed space in time, but I don’t think Charlene liked my new, official girlfriend when they first met. I recall that familiar smirk well and an uncomfortable air, a shifting of opinions if you will – not a jealousy, just a sort of shock at how rapidly I had settled for someone new. They were cut from very different cloth and I hadn’t exactly expected them to relate to one another immediately, if every at all. So it was a difficult time for me, for while I didn’t necessarily need Charlene to like Garsy, I did want her to be happy for me. I wanted my family to like Garsy, to also be happy for me, but they were always very fond of Charlene and to see me walk away from our relationship was hard for them to understand. But those crazy moments of juvenile discomfort have been washed away and, as adults, Charlene and I share a history that, though for a brief time – and from my obviously one-sided perspective was rocky and uncertain – has been polished by the passing of time.
Charlene has had several relationships in the time since graduation, but none of the stuck for her. Obviously I don’t know all the details. But I do know that her patience has finally paid off. Her and Jim hit it off immediately and began dating after the events and people surrounding our class reunion faded to memories. I was so thrilled when I got the email telling me that they were getting married. Of course they had to run off to Hawaii to tie the knot (that’s them in the corner down there on the right) and didn’t even invite me. How rude!
So tomorrow, Garsy and I will travel to Chicago to celebrate with Charlene and Jim, and a bunch of other folks from the class of ’87, their new life together. I remember Jim from high school, but only as a face. I can’t recall a single class we shared or a conversation we engaged in. I simply remember him as a nice guy. I’ve heard a bit of his story about life after high school and suffice it to say (especially when you hear him tell it) this new chapter in his life is a very welcome and exciting one.
And yet, even after all this time, and many happy years of faithful married life, I find it difficult to let her go. Isn’t that odd? It’s as though I’m realizing for the first time that what we shared all those years ago might just have meant more to me that I’ve ever admitted. To even type those words, much less acknowledge their presence in the nether regions of my mind, is startling. She was never mine to cling to or ever consider giving away. There is always just a memory, and a biased, incomplete one at that. And I find myself needing to push those feelings aside to make room for this new chapter in her life. It’s a process that has already begun, and it feels good to let her go. And in letting her go, I make room for all kinds of new memories and feelings. Feelings of happiness for her and Jim and their future together. Memories of sharing time together in a new season of love and growth and surrender. Memories and feelings which, however unexpected and strange, are most welcome and built together one precious moment at a time.
Here’s to you, Charlene and Jim. May you build a relationship that is solid and grounded in not one but two sets of footsteps walking side by side through the paths of life.