Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Paralysis of Tragedy

Just like any other night on Two Notch Road, cars blinked past streetlights at speeds high enough to paint a mahogany ember over the deep indigo midnight sky. Buildings arose into sight as quick as they disappeared. A Cadillac with thick charcoal tinted windows came centimeters from my front bumper in what seemed like a second. No stop light in sight, my size 13 tensed the brake just enough to stop behind him in time.

Two flashes of blinding light turned night to day for an instant, and then back to night, followed by the torturous noise a volcano might make in full eruption.

Growing up part of the generation that witnessed the first fully televised war, Desert Storm, and the subsequent proliferation of all-things-media in every battle since, it’s no wonder I had a fairly good sense of what it might feel like to stand near a bomb detonation.

I yelled, not out of surprise, but out of something primal, like a drum beat it was over. I touched my face, was I alive?

That feeling right after a headlining rock concert ends, when it’s silent but for the crowds whisper, yet a layer of sound still hisses in your ears, that’s the feeling I had as I swung open the door to my truck. Everything slowed down, next to a sedan now resting driver side up stood a family of six, all crying, shouting, where were the paramedics? Where was the ambulance? Can someone do a head count, no body count, now? Please God.

Prayers aren’t always exercises in meditative stamina. I shot a prayer to God, please God, help them, whoever them was at that moment.

With my husky SUV shifted into park and the wide body rear fully blocking traffic I walked toward the wreck, now pushing smoke to the air like a steel tipi, I wondered for a second if anyone was alive inside, and then to the question of what might happen if the evolving push of smoke turned to fire, surely I’d die.

When tragedy happens the dead have a way of kissing you goodbye, ever so slightly letting you know that the steps you take are among ghosts now. When my grandmother passed away, the patron saint of my childhood, she said goodbye to me in a dream. When my uncle came to tell me the news that summer morning all those years ago I already knew my hero had left this earth, bound for the heavens above.

The family, now kneeling to the ground in pain, stood dangerously close to the fuming car. A man ushered them away, motioning with his eyes for me to get back. His bravery led to a pop of adrenaline chasing the fear out of my bloodstream, as my eyelids began extracting from their usual sleepy posture to just about the back of their sockets. I started to run, towards the car at first, and then into the hand of a man that pushed me back, telling me nobody alive was in the car with a shake of his head. Before I could speak he was gone, was he ever really there?

I regained my footing, standing still as a statue in the middle of a fatal pile-up scene.

Silence, the great exasperator, did her best to make me feel like there was something I could’ve done to save the passengers of that wrecked fuming collection of steel. I stood still while the paramedics darted by me on both sides.

Whatever time we have left is precious, and far too important to spend entirely on the road of self-fulfillment, for when the collision of life and death occurs we’ll want to pass on with a spirit of selfless giving, even in, or maybe in spite of, the paralysis of tragedy.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Running Towards Redemption

Ten summers ago I ran a road race with my father. It wasn’t anything serious, a sleepy 5k on a sticky summer night in South Carolina. One learns quickly upon moving to the south that outdoor events, during the summer at least, are reserved for the evening, because frankly it’s too damn hot to do much of anything when the sunlight radiates it’s suffocating heat into the thick muggy mid-Carolina air.

As I nervously approached the block of runners stretching near the starting line my dad tapped me on the shoulder, and whispered to follow him. We waded through hundreds of people on our way back. I wondered where we were going, the starting line was the exact opposite way, why were we walking away from it I thought confounded by what seemed to be an obvious disadvantage we were now placing on this father and son team.

Right before the race began we reached the very back of the field, and my father quietly said something I’ll never forget, he looked forward to the sea of bodies, and back at me, and explained that he liked to start in the back so that he’d spend the race passing others instead of being passed like those that might start at the front but not be in good enough shape to keep pace. It’s the psychology of it he explained, and we were off.

A penny, if you spin it the right way, on a flat surface can turn for seconds at a time in revolutions so fast the coin itself appears blurred, tails and heads become almost one, until the coin slows enough for gravity to pull it down to one side or another. The penny can fall, in theory at least, on either side just as easily.

When a man loses his money he feels inadequate, in his DNA is the need to provide, and with no money becoming a provider all the sudden doesn’t quite sound possible. With no money a man becomes almost irrelevant to a culture set upon, run by, and worshipped for monetary measures.

When a man loses love he has no shoulder to cry on, no one to listen to his feelings, to rub his shoulders and tell him it’ll be alright, that everything will be alright. No love to hold him up when he is too weak to hold his own weight, to push him for the better, and to champion his interests and goals as if they were her own.

When a man loses his car he has no transpiration, which often means the freedom he once had is no more. When a man has no torque in front of him, no rubber beneath, no wheel to rest his hands on, his life is at a perpetual stoplight, always red, never green, at least in a city with scant public transportation.

Combine the three, no money, love, or car, add in that unforgiving Carolina summer heat, and you have all the ingredients baking toward a depression of serious proportions. You also have something else, a gift, a wondrous gift that is so special, so unbelievably amazing, it has no price that one could pay for it. Beyond the bitter taste of what you don’t have, lays a honeycomb sweet opportunity to change your life in magnitudes otherwise incomprehensible, for the better.

Running from the back of the field in that road race a decade ago was so exhilarating, just when I thought I couldn’t possibly pass anymore people as I steamed through 3.1 miles, a few more bit the dust behind me. Finishing nowhere near the top wasn’t even on my radar as my feet dashed the finish line, because I knew that I was far from last, that my time was respectable, and that my effort was worthy, simply by counting all those that ended up behind me. Psychology indeed.

The gift of starting at the back of a race, and in life, is in experiencing something from nothing. Seeing progress not in the context of a lifetime of progress, but in that of having nowhere to go but up in the moment. Instead of carrying the faults of ambitious goals gone ary, we celebrate the smallest of victories out of nothingness. A strip steak to the rich is dog food, to the poorest of the poor it is a meal reserved for only the most special of occasions.

This past summer, years after the road race, when I thought I’d surely have it all figured out, a season of despair had arrived so unexpected. Just when I thought things could not get much worse, they started to get better. The fall and winter brought so much right, so many smiles and laughs have been had, and my old Subaru has to be the best car I’ve ever owned if for nothing else that it cost $2,500 and runs like a gem. The money I make now comes from the hardest work I’ve ever done, and is the most gratifying. I do as much pro bono work as paid, and it’s totally awesome. Life these days is as sweet as the tea down here, not because everything is as good as it’s ever been, but because everything is now the way it should be. I am who I want to be, finally, and while arriving at the destination of being my true self is enormously fantastic in it’s own right, the real blood pumping, finger tingling, eye bulging excitement comes from what I, no we, can do now. The world really is my oyster, and yours too.

That penny spinning, I envision you like that, all of us actually, a motion-filled entity that can at any given time land to do good, to give unselfishly, to toss ego in the trash can, and just serve and build a better place, as it can fall on the side of self-gratification, one-upping the Joneses, and far worse deeds that arrive from our inner desires to do wrong.

When I speak to others and they share with me, maybe because I welcome openness, or maybe because of some otherworldly reason, they share their desire to do more with their life. To build a business that matters, or to give to the poor, or the church, or to students with no school supplies. Each time I hear such wishes I think of that penny, and of the race, and how if we just take a minute to walk to the back of the pack, shedding all our thoughts and perceptions of who we are, or what others think we should be, before a nightmare of a life does it for us, we are capable of so much goodness… Maybe even enough to change the world.

Saturday, December 3, 2011


Not long ago I purchased a laptop desk after hearing from friends and reading in the paper that extended use of a laptop computer as the namesake suggests on one’s lap can possibly cause infertility. Being tethered to my MacBook Air for more hours in a day than I care to admit, it seemed like a smart preventative investment. Preservation of unborn children has been on my mind lately.

A crazy man stands firm in the middle of a busy four-lane thoroughfare in an industrious area near my home. Wielding dolls that look straight out of a Chucky movie, and grotesque picture signs of lifeless fetuses while dodging cars and trucks that almost seem to speed up as they near him, the man finds time to wave at passersby. I don’t know his name, but for at least a decade, the time I’ve lived here, he’s furiously waved his signs and dolls in an effort to get expecting moms to think twice about having an abortion. If you live in Columbia, South Carolina long enough you too will get the shock treatment.

On 60 Minutes recently Scott Pelley interviewed a homeless Florida family living in a van. What was more striking than the picture of Pelley, an upper middle class income earner to put it modestly sympathetically interviewing a poor homeless family, was the nature of the children. Calm and resolute, the children stood as reflections of their parents, the words whispered from their mouths could’ve easily come from mom or dad, like a circus maze mirror, distort the size of their parents and you’d get the children. As brother and sister stood side-by-side extolling the benefits of the simple life their parents proudly looked on like a young couple would at their son or daughter’s first soccer game.

Over craft beers with a friend last night at a local pub, by the way that’s what people do in their thirties, they drink craft beers at pubs instead of buds at dive bars, a woman caught my attention. Tall with dark hair that curled off her head ever so slightly falling in her firm-as-can-be snow white face, no smile or smirk evident, like she hadn’t grinned in her lifetime she beamed of natural beauty. You know the kind of beauty where makeup isn’t needed, and just about anything she wears looks like her go-to best outfit? That’s the kind of beauty this woman had.

As she floated across the floor she glanced at me, blatantly catching my eyes fixated on her, headed somewhere intentionally, or maybe just to stretch those long legs, she went gracefully through the cluttered beer boasters and chatty girls with their cell phones and gossip. I turned around, surely there was a clock above my head, or maybe a window beside me, something that would call her attention to where I was sitting, or was she looking at me? Minutes passed, lost in conversation I’d almost forgot about the whole thing, when she appeared a second time. She navigated the swelling crowd eyes meeting mine, body moving effortlessly. I stopped to take the scene in and as my eyes froze on her, she reciprocated, just to walk out of the bar never to be seen again.

My mom told me, some years back, that I was to have an older sister, her name was to be Jean Vee Ev, which I guess means Genevieve in French. What a beautiful name I told her, my mom smiled and nodded. Jean Vee Ev was never born, but her ghost still visits often.

Colton, the young boy profiled in the bestseller Heaven is for Real, a tale about visiting the other side, was interviewed not too long ago on TV about meeting his miscarried sister, which made me feel better about thinking of Jean Vee Ev from time to time.

I wonder if you asked a healthy happy ten year old girl how she felt about the zealotus doll waver if her mom had decided to have her after being accosted by one of the very signs the man waves so vehemently. Would she not thank him for her life? If all of this insanity led to her safe arrival, in a crazy ass way is this not the best thing that ever happened to her?

Would the homeless jobless parents give their children up if they could? It surely doesn't seem to be the case. Would they take their children back if they could, just to save them from suffering a fate most children could never imagine after hearing the humility and wisdom in their young voices on TV? It seems as if in their own way, van and all, they’re doing well enough, and are thankful enough for their children to not take anything back.

The woman in the pub, she made me think of Jean Vee Ev, dark haired and stoic like her mom, would she have been happy to live life on this earth? To endure the ups and downs of life for a chance to make a difference in another life? Unsettled and out of place in that pub, ready for things far more important than a martini to come her way, she walked out the door assured that the next day she’d get to her volunteer gig at the shelter earlier. Surely like my mother she’d be a difference maker, a world saver, wouldn’t she? Some days I can only wonder.