Existing is a fickle thing, some combination of biological bare-minimums and feeling profoundly satisfied which ultimately makes us who we are. But what if you slip and fall and your biology is canceled out by blunt force trauma? What if you are watching your dog live his best life and take a golf ball to the back of the head, caught forever unawares that there was a municipal golf course just behind the fence from the dog park you’re sitting in?
There was so much more I wanted to do, so much I meant to say…
Both of these things happened in my life recently. First, the umpteenth concussion, which left me in a daze that has yet to subside. I forget to return texts and only realize that I was glad to see people after we’ve parted ways and I wish I had felt a whole lot more ‘there’ while we were together. I know I am a writer but I cannot find the words. I bury myself in a routine facsimile of life and trick myself into thinking that the biological definition of alive is synonymous with the spiritual.
And second, I watched the silhouette of a new friend disappear off a high cliff in total darkness, the nauseating silence rendering the plain, starry night anything but peaceful.
I am still alive and have no internal bleeding. She is still alive and her bones will heal. But in those moments, the cracks and the thuds make you realize the impotence of thoughts.
But because we are more than animal, we cannot simply lick our wounds and hunt more prey and seek new mates and forget that it all happened. Because we are animal, we must do the things which keep us alive until we feel whole enough to feel alive once more.
Feeling alive is a rare feeling. Oftentimes, we don’t even notice that we felt it until it slips through our fingers like water and our hands are left empty and damp. It is so hard to pinpoint happiness and all too easy to identify levels of grief or fear. Sadness is a response to loss or pain, fear is the product of uncertainty and existential threats. Survival mechanisms. Happiness is looking over at Hank while bumping down a gravel road in rural Kansas, noticing how happy he is to be riding shotgun with me, smelling the warm and malty scent of wheat and corn fields and the musk of pronghorn antelope, the sight of a lone turkey picking forlornly through a tilled field. It is a moment that you must try to notice and grasp tightly, for it will be gone quicker than the ending of even the longest hug you’ve ever received.
Then the winds shift directions and a combine harvester whirrs down the hill and your reverie is over. You are simply standing in the middle of nowhere, free to forget, free to be forgotten. The peak of ecstasy is fading, and you only know how good it was because a twinge of melancholy settles on you like the chalky dust of western Kansas all over the sides of your car.
Happiness is the moments when the pain dissipates and the fear is gone, if only because your entire consciousness is focused on keeping the mountain bike upright while dropping off a tall ledge and immediately ripping a rocky ninety degree turn. If only because you’ve seen a lot of sunsets but never one quite like this. If only because you’ll never get to tell her you love her, but for an afternoon you get to pretend. When the strength of the coffee is greater than the hole in your wallet. When the song you’ve heard a hundred times reveals a hidden countermelody or an unheard second meaning, and the beauty of art seems to show itself for the first time in your life.
Hank and I have been on the road this month, cramming things into the schedule and soaking in the precious few long and silent hours behind the wheel. He has met new dogs and seen old friends and astonished me when he remembers the right motel room door to a place we’ve only set foot in once. I have felt whole in places where nobody knows my name, sipped subpar coffee in fleeting moments of singular being, stood without concept of time while the light fades from the day and the concept of dinner remains blessedly far from my mind. I have felt broken saying hello and saying goodbye. I have marveled at the dozens of lives I could live if my car broke down and I stayed one day too many in any number of towns or cities. I have winced at the one life I have lived, at how little I do and how much I think, at how often I wish I had said one more thing once it is entirely too late and I am replaying some past moment in my head while I scan the road ahead.
The road is the place where it all makes sense, where there is somewhere to go and somewhere you’ve been, where you are not who you were yesterday and you will not even be there tomorrow. You can fall in love and never learn the names of streets and never see those plaintive, piercing eyes again. You can still taste the amber ale and probably will for the rest of your life. This makes sense when you are moving, but hurts when you are still. When you are alone on a mountain it is peaceful, when you are lonely in a crowded room it is hell.
I know how many days it has been since I last really wrote, but the tally falls on a numb mind, comforted by the trappings of life and dulled by another vicious blow. Even with the knowledge of how easily the wind can be knocked out of us for good, I struggle to do what I know I should. I even know why I don’t do it, but that only seems to make it worse.
There are people I should go see, letters I mentally reply to daily but never put in the mail, stories I could write, and places to be. But instead I work just enough to pay the bills, ride my bike to stave off ennui and to maintain a narcissistic physique, and chop vegetables for another weeknight stir-fry. The writing waits, because I have allowed it to slide outside the realm of ‘survival mechanism.’ I have replaced the need to feel alive with a way to survive.
But for those brief moments when I see the Monument Rocks in the rearview, when I sip my coffee a thousand miles from home, when I watch a wild trout sip my green drake fly from the surface of a boiling river, I remember what it feels like to be alive. And then, I write.