Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Franz Kafka is my copilot

What good is a family that cannot come together in crisis? Is there any emotional profit from believing in an eternity spent with anyone who refuses to change, and cannot open up their heart and mind to unconditional love and personal growth? If we carry with us into the next life our personalities, thoughts, knowledge, and attitudes, is there any real chance at reaching this blissful and eternal happiness to which we lay claim? As we sit on our respective pews each Sunday, fighting to stay awake during the less than inspiring discourses, each one filled with more cliche and misguided opinions than the last, does any one of us feel like jumping up and shouting a joyful Hallelujah? In our greatest moments of spiritual survival, as we ride roughshod over the blackened remains of temptation, fear, and filth, do we look back to check for innocents in the wake of our self-righteous destruction? Do we listen for the sound of hearts beating in the chests of our supposed enemies, the ones we face each day when we walk out the front doors of our hallowed homes and into the dark and dreary world? Are we truly surrounded by evil on all sides, tempted by those we work with, and threatened by the choices made by people we dare not interact with? Do we, the self-appointed mighty live in such fear?

Rewind my clock. Take me back to March 24th, 2009. I felt differently about so much, including all of the above. But it has been a year out of Kafka, and I have undergone a metamorphosis. Still, after so much change I remain flawed, but I revel in it because to be flawed means that there is the possibility of change still living within me. To stop changing would be death, though not in the physical sense, because to shed this life is in itself just a gateway to more change. No, to stop changing would be an emotional, spiritual death, and I fear that more than anything else. To end the passionate tide that ebbs and flows within me would put an end who I am, and I am starting to like who I am. 

I am not yet close to figuring it out, and so a daily choice is mine for the making; move ahead and be, or stop where I am and end.

I am so damn tired tonight; I wonder what I will choose tomorrow?

Monday, March 22, 2010

These Dreams Go On... #1

Last night we drove away again. We didn't know where we were headed; we didn't care. The kids were grown, living happy lives of their own. Our work as parents was far from done, but it was time to spend some time alone. No packing, no toothbrushes, no stopping the mail. On a mutual dare we climbed into the car, opened the moon roof, and turned up the music. Come the dawn we were miles from anyone and anywhere we ever knew. I felt lighter inside, like the morning after our first date. Our only commitment to each other, the only decisions to make being left, right, or straight. No fears, no doubts, no nightmares, just the possibilities of the open road. Not knowing the end of the journey, forgetting the beginning, and thrilling at the in between.

Maybe tonight we'll go see the world's largest ball of twine.  

Friday, March 19, 2010

My First Cigarette

When all is said and done for the night, I close my eyes and listen to the dialogue of a British television show entitled "The Smoking Room" playing through an earbud jammed into one ear. The premise is this; several employees of some nameless company pass time in a designated smoking room. While most enter to "have a fag," others are merely there to socialize and idle away their break time. The camera never leaves the room, so all of the action and dialogue take place amid the grey haze of cigarette smoke. I don't smoke, but I do love this show because it is well written and the characters are flesh and bone. They have flaws and fears and dreams, and while not one of them is always likable, they are all empathetic and tangible.

During the week that Jared was missing. I would lay awake with worry each night, unable to sleep as my mind raced with dread, regret, pain, and hope. Of course, the day came that we found Jared dead in the woods, and in that moment dread, regret, and pain ganged up and beat the shit out of hope, giving him a bloody nose and broken teeth. I couldn't sleep, and each night experienced the panic of rapid pacing inside my own head. A couple of sleepless nights later I found myself on the couch, wide awake and out of my mind with grief. I turned on the PS3 and streamed "The Smoking Room," which I had downloaded before so much of my life turned to hell. For the first time in days, a quiet fell about me. I closed my eyes and listened to the dialogue, and it seemed as though a small crowd of new friends had formed in my living room, chatting away as I took a nap on the couch. I fell asleep just a few minutes into the first episode, but when it ended my eyes popped open as if set to a timer. I reached for the remote and started the next episode, and the same thing happened. I made my way through most of that night in this manner; grabbing twenty minutes of sleep at a time while my new pals from across the pond discussed the minutia of life, huffing and puffing away as they did.

As I said earlier, I am not a smoker. Jared was, and I can remember a conversation we had about "cigs," as he called them. He was trying to cut back, because he said that the first puff on a cigarette after not having smoked one in a while was like an orgasm, a rushing sensation through the body and blood. I pointed out that with few exceptions, having repeated orgasms would not kill you, and would certainly not cause lung cancer or emphysema. I did, however, admit to a certain degree of curiosity regarding smoking, but acceptance of my addictive personality and the fact that I was too much of a coward kept me at bay.

I miss Jared, and part of missing him is missing the way he smelled, which for me was a blend of cigarettes, cologne, and warm skin. One night last summer, Elizabeth and I stood together in our closet and buried our faces in one of his favorite tee-shirts. We cried because we missed him, but then laughed because he would get such a kick out of our foolishness as we sniffed so frantically at his memory. It is hard to describe the emotions dredged up when I catch a hint of his scent on a passing stranger, it is like a mix of anxiety, grief, and happiness.

So, returning to my nightly lullaby; I am not sure how long this will go on, but for now it works. I can fall asleep at night, albeit it very late, with my mind free from racing against itself, and let the dreams about Jared wash over me, as they do every night.

Hey, it beats the hell out of drifting off to sleep with a lit cigarette dangling from my lips or fingers.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Tribute to a Llama Rancher

I met Randy in October of last year while passing through Holbrook, Arizona. There is an A&W restaurant and gas station on Navajo Blvd, and my brother Michael and I stopped there for food and fuel on our road trip to the Grand Canyon. We had just spent a few hours driving and hiking through the Petrified Forest National Park. The journey had been ethereal; while taking in the Martian landscapes, stone trees, colorful vistas, and cobalt sky, I imagined that we had passed through a wormhole to a time when this corner of Earth had served as God’s personal art studio. We entered Holbrook just minutes after exiting the park, and I pulled the little black rental car up to the pump and shut the engine off. As I sat there in a moment of silence outside that A&W, a desire to turn the car around and disappear into the desert fell upon me; I needed a beautiful escape from the ugly reality that had become my life over the previous five months.
         Michael and I were on a quest; our brother Jared took his life last summer, on June 3rd. He had been missing for several desperate days before my wife Elizabeth and I found him lifeless in the woods behind his house. This was not his first attempt at suicide; only two months prior to his death, Jared had quit his job of more than 12 years, jumped into his car, and headed west to see the Grand Canyon. His plan was to gaze upon its beauty before ending his life surrounded by it. He ran out of money in Kansas City, and so in a quiet and lonely roadside motel he had taken a bottle of sleeping pills chased by a bottle of liquor. The maid service found him unconscious on the floor, and he was rushed to the hospital in time to pump out his stomach. We were blessed to have him with us for a couple more months, and while his struggle was day to day, we thought he might make it. Little did we know that he would make anther attempt so soon, and little did we know of the agony and suffering that we have dealing with since his passing. In an effort to find some peace, and in a desire to share something special with my little brother and fulfill one of Jared’s last wishes, Michael and I were driving from Kansas City to the Grand Canyon to finish Jared’s journey. We carried with us some of his ashes to sprinkle into the canyon on his birthday, October 25th. The time with Michael in the painted desert had been a bittersweet and beautiful escape; to return to civilization, even a one-horse town like Holbrook, Arizona did not appeal to me in the least.
         So, with the back-story now in place, let us return to that A&W service station and my desire to escape into the desert. When I snapped out of my desert trance, I hopped out of the car and pulled my credit card out of my wallet to swipe it and pump some gas. It took me a moment of slow confusion to realize that there was no credit card slot.  Slow to modernize, this gas station was old school, the pump an older model with the numbers that spun vertically, counting the gallons and their cost with a whirring and clicking sound.
“Michael, check this out, the pumps here are so old!” Michael walked over and snapped a few photos of me smiling like a mouth breathing simpleton, my eyes wide in awe at the numbers as they rolled past. The whirring and clicking of the pump, the spinning numbers, the smell of gasoline, all these things combined to re-construct the memory of Jared and I scrounging for change to gas up my ’72 Chevy Nova every morning after seminary. It would only take a buck or two to get us around until the next day, when we would do it all over again.
         “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore, do they?” The words came from a throat that had sucked in the smoke of more than a few cigarettes over the years. I turned to face a pot-bellied, scruffy faced man wearing grey sweats and a maroon tee shirt dribbled with stains. On his head he wore a dark baseball cap with “Marines” in bold script across the front, the anchor and globe emblem to one side.
         “Hi guys, you look like you’ve been on the road a piece. My name is Randy, and that’s my van over there at pump number two.” He extended his hand, and I took it. His fingers were pudgy, but strong and calloused.
         What followed was an hour-long conversation over delicious A&W hamburgers and root beer floats. Michael and I sat in a booth across from Randy, his wife, and his mother, who was confined to her wheelchair, which had an oxygen tank strapped to one side. Randy was a llama and emu rancher from Denver, and he had some very interesting stories to tell about emus killing coyotes and stomping their carcasses into the prairie. He loved his ranch hands like family, and they were welcome to any of the food in the freezer. He moved on to the purpose of their road trip; he had purchased the van because it had wheelchair access for his mother, who had been given very little time to live. Her last desire was to take a road trip from Denver to California, taking a ride through the beauty of the Southwest and visiting family along the way. He was hoping she would last the week to see her sister.
“Nothing matters more than family, you can’t take nothin’ more than family when you go.” Randy told us this more than once during that conversation.
Michael and I shared our story about Jared, his death, and our quest to finish the trip he had started. Randy sat and listened to every word, empathetic to our loss and pain. He spoke then of his own attempt at suicide, and how his own brother had succeeded at taking his own life, adding to the pain and misery that was Randy’s life. Randy confessed to having spent some time in a wheel chair. He had only truly needed it for a few months due to an accident, but depression kept his sitting in it for seven years. His self esteem and will to live were all but non-existent for nearly a decade, until one day he woke up and decided his pity party had lasted long enough. Since that day he had done what he could do make amends for those dark days and the pain he had caused. He had started loving himself and his family, trying to be a better husband to his wife and son to his mother.
         As we wrapped up our conversation, we wished each other well, and Randy invited us to spend time on his ranch outside of Denver anytime we were in the area. We said goodbye and thanked him for crossing our path, leaving us better off than when he had found us. Michael and I drove to Flagstaff uplifted by having met a fellow traveler on a mission who at first glance had appeared to be so unlike anyone spinning around within our normal social circles, but had proved to be the kind of person that each of us should welcome in. It made our journey, already an unforgettable experience due to its purpose, that much more memorable and life changing.
         Had you been sitting in that A&W that afternoon, you could have reached out and squeezed the tribulation out of the air; full of sadness, regret, loss, pain, suffering, worry, agony…my little brother Michael and I felt as if we had been set adrift in a sea of strife aboard a rubber dinghy. The hope for a calm, safe harbor and blue skies had all but faded amidst the dark clouds above and the grey of angry waves that threatened to crash down upon us and swallow us whole without mercy. At times we could not see past the next sorrowful wave, and would just lay in the bottom of our little craft, the cold waters of Jared’s death soaking our skin and draining us of our will to go on. In a moment of extreme conditions, Randy and his little band of experienced sailors pulled their large and seaworthy ship up along side our little boat, creating a temporary shelter from the storm.  His life story, coupled with the selfless, loving act of driving his mother across the desert in her waning days demonstrated to Michael and I that we could weather this storm, and that a safe, warm, blue-skied harbor lay in wait. Randy stocked us with provisions, patched a few of the holes in our hull, and reminded us of the map that we had been given long before this ordeal began. The journey would be long, the dangers many, the urge to despair overwhelming, but we would make it.

Thanks, Randy

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Cop Out

This afternoon I was down at the police station, sitting in a cruiser. Above my head, in a ceiling rack, was an automatic rifle. It looked just like the one I carry while playing a certain game on the Xbox. The laptop I was working on took some time to reboot, so I spent my time checking out the buttons, switches, and equipment used to fight crime. The chief was on his phone, just a few feet away, so it was impossible to ignore the words that came; suicide, rifle, mess, nothing left, these words made their way into the air around him with the same ease that words like hard drive, update, software, and network make their way into the air around me. I felt a sudden sweat position itself in a fine layer over my skin, and a pain stabbed at my stomach. I willed the laptop on, begging it to find hidden speed in its aging processor so I could verify the updates to the database that kept the mean streets of New Hampshire safe and get away from that phone call. Instead, more words; scholarship, full-ride, honors, alcohol, drugs, pressure, parents, denial...they all gathered in my ears and pried their way into my head, forming a hot ball inside my skull. It was hard to breath softly and my eyes blurred, the tears making their daily appearance at an inopportune moment the way they always do. I wiped them away on my sleeve, and forced myself into the distractions of work. I carried on.

After a few more agonizing minutes, the chief hung up with a sigh. He told me he had to run and asked me to lock up the station as I left. Within a minute I was alone, staring through the windshield at the fire trucks, ambulance, and vending machine in the quiet garage full of shadows that I hadn't noticed before. Bad words from the chief's one-sided phone call bounced around inside of me. The tears came on again, and I let them run their course this time, my work on the database finished. I sat back in the driver's seat and put my hands over my head, resting them on the weapon above. It felt nothing like the gun that I carry while playing a certain game on the Xbox; it felt cold, hard, and lethal.