Tricks of Memory

Sometimes I imagine that I’m in a room filled with all of the friends, family, and acquaintances I’ve ever known.  My wife is there.  So are my parents, my sister, and my whole extended family.  Arrayed around me are many of my best friends.  Jonathan and Ronald, two of my childhood basketball buddies, talk sports with a group of my Dallas friends.  They appear to know each other even though location and time separate them; in reality they’ve never met.    

Here and there, mixed in with the more familiar faces, I also see strangers I met only once—a retired federal employee who sat next to me on an Amtrak train from Boston to Seattle, who for his entire life had commuted from Spokane to Seattle only by train; a German backpacker whom I spent the day with wandering the ruins of Tulúm in the Yucatan; or Tarzo, a Brazilian journalist who, with a strange delighted glint in his eye, spun global conspiracy theories in a Buenos Aires hostel so many years ago.

Still others may be people I saw every day for a period of time in my life and with whom I barely exchanged more than a friendly “hello”, yet whose “hello” was just what I needed in that moment of a rough day.  Pete, a math teacher whose classroom shared a hall with mine when I taught Spanish near Houston, expounds on a recent scientific discovery.  Pete made me feel welcome in a school where, as a new teacher, I knew hardly anyone. 

It’s strange the tricks memory plays on us.  Storytelling requires chronology and sequence, yet memory is only sometimes chronological.  Everything it contains seems to have happened all at once.  I was reminded of this when I returned to my hometown, Austin, last year.  The more deeply I immersed myself in this massive city that once seemed small, the more random recollections exploded in my mind.  They lit up like so many thousands of lightning bugs on a cool Michigan night, bright and ephemeral and impossible to snatch out of the darkness. 

In an instant I remembered running through the woods near my friend Albert’s duplex.  We played hide-and-go-seek and tussled with other kids whose aim was to bully us.  Those woods are long gone.  In their place stand cookie cutter houses that over time have come to look as if they’ve always been there.  Their apparent permanence makes me question how big those woods were, with their sprawling live oak trees, where the odd rattle snake slithered among loose stones.

Over time I comprehend better why generations struggle to understand each other.  While in Austin I stopped by the ice cream shop I worked at when I was in high school.  I opened the very door I had windexed a thousand times and was greeted by a smiling teenager.  “Welcome to Baskin Robbins!” he said.  I told him I had worked there too when I was about his age.  He nodded but didn’t say much. 

Then it occurred to me that when I was his age, he had yet to even be born.  He wouldn’t enter this world for another four years.  Most of my world predated his.  Hence, it didn’t exist to him.  History before his birth was a mere instant, not the long, sometimes meandering personal history I had experienced as my life.  How strange, but also how exhilarating that we get to experience life with the same newness and exhilaration as every generation that has come before us.

*I’ve decided to start blogging again.  I have missed it, and it has been far too long.  I will be rusty for a while.  I invite any newcomers to peruse through my older posts. 

Pictures of Austin:

img_5028-2

img_5027-2

img_4947-2

img_4988

img_5021-2

img_5088

img_4932-2

Lost Footprints: Returning to the Places of Childhood

When I was a child, about once every two years my extended family would descend on a small island off the Gulf Coast of Florida called Sanibel.  We came from Michigan, Texas and Oregon.  We created on Sanibel a reality separate from the ordinary world, where we combed the beach for shells, swam out to sea, played volleyball and tennis, read and exchanged books, and stayed up late playing raucous games of canasta.  All of us gathered together–aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, children and cousins who saw each other only once or twice a year.  Together we fashioned a space in time and place that existed only when we were together and unraveled when we parted.

What can I say? Sea gulls are always awesome.

In early November I drove my grandmother from Michigan to Florida, where she will spend the winter.  One day I crossed the new causeway to Sanibel in search of the reality I had known as a boy.  But though Sanibel remains beautiful, though the ocean laps at the shore and murmurs in the same language as when I was a kid, though pelicans still glide across its roiling surface like World War II bombers and conchs, clams and sand dollars still pile up on its beaches in infinite number, this is not the Sanibel I knew growing up.

No, that’s not right.  Sanibel remains the same; I have changed.  I’m not that little boy anymore who strolled alongside the ocean and believed it held all the answers in the world; not that boy who dreamed of quasars and nebulae, of unpacking the universe and deciphering its mechanism; not that boy who fretted over girls, wrote little poems about cresting waves and grains of sand, and wandered the beach for hours in search of the perfect sea shell.  No, I’m someone else.

Today I stroll down the beach.  The ocean laps at my feet.  I leave footprints in the wet sand and the waves sneak in behind me and wash them away, so that if I turned around I would see only an incomplete trail of footprints the waves had not yet erased.  A stranger may happen upon my trail just after I’ve left the beach, and though he could say briefly that a man had walked there, he could not tell you where that man had come from.

I feel like this image encapsulates the human experience.  We move through life leaving footprints in the sand.  Before we’ve walked ten steps the world wipes away the evidence of our presence.  Maybe we walk faster, sprint and get ahead of the deleting waves, but they always catch up with us.  We can pound the sand and so leave deeper impressions.  Our footprints may last longer, but still the lapping sea fills them in, erases them.

I returned to Sanibel in search of footprints I left there as a boy, but the ocean had long since washed them away.  It’s a mistake to believe that the places of childhood should somehow be faithful to me.  How many little boys felt about Sanibel as I did?  It was, is, will be their island, too, even as it really belongs to no person.  And that’s OK.

Osprey eating a fish.

Grandma knitting at the beach.

Sanibel Island, Florida.

Is the Moon Lonely? Time to Start Blogging Again

I’m going to resume blogging, meaning that I’ll start posting again and I’ll go back to commenting on other people’s blogs.   Michelle at Steadily Skipping Stones pointed out that blogging makes us better people.  I’m sorry I turned my back on it.  I’ve missed it.  I don’t know what to post after that upbeat doozie I published yesterday about pain, but I’ll think of something.  I’d like to write something about hostels and the backpacking lifestyle, but that will have to wait until later in the week.  For now, here’s something I wrote months ago and never posted:

Late one night, when I was three or four, my family and I were driving in our Ford Escort.  I was sitting in the rear passenger seat behind my mom, to the right of my sister.  My dad was driving.  I sat staring through the window at the full moon and wondered why it followed us, why wherever we drove, however fast we went, the bright white disc stayed with us.  I paid close attention when my dad accelerated.  If we went fast enough, if we caught the moon off guard, might we edge ahead of it?

I asked my dad how it matched our movement so perfectly, and he gave me a practical, scientific explanation about relative distances that made perfect sense.  Rational understanding of the moon filled me with wonder, but I couldn’t quite rid myself of the urge to attribute motive and agency to the moon’s behavior.  I always wanted to pretend that it was watching over us, or that it followed us out of curiosity and wondered why we stared at it so, or that maybe it was lonely and was begging for our attention.  And there you have the duality that exists at my core: the desire to rationalize everything paired with the urge to project fanciful romance everywhere.

The Geography of Identity; Where Blue Bonnets Paint the Hills

My sister, Becky, and me in a field of Blue Bonnets near Barton Creek Square Mall, on the edge of the Texas Hill Country

I’m returning today from a trip to Texas.  I went to Texas intending to find a job there and to return there permanently.  In other words, I changed my mind.  I no longer wanted to live in Kentucky.  I wanted to live in Texas.  But things didn’t quite work out how I had hoped they would.  So now I find myself in a hotel somewhere in Arkansas, about halfway to Lexington.  Leaving Texas is always hard, because I’m leaving home.  I’m leaving memories and people and places that cling covetously to little pieces of my identity.  I considered writing for my blog a piece titled “The Geography of Identity” in which I would map out where I’ve left different versions of myself.  The child “me” is in Austin.  He still clambers up trees, builds tree houses, catches snakes and frogs, scorpions and spiders.  His hair is still blonde and it still hangs to his shoulders.  I can still see him sitting on a hill of Blue Bonnets next to his little sister, Becky, one Easter weekend when he was four years old; meanwhile his parents are still snapping photos of them both for memory’s sake.

I remember that when my sister and I sat on that hill I was worried about crushing the Blue Bonnets.  Actually, I was more than worried.  I felt terrible.  I also remember feeling silly sitting next to my sister, holding a blue Easter bunny and posing for a picture whose significance I would only understand decades later.  What isn’t clear in the picture is that the hill on which my sister and I are sitting rises up from Loop 360, one of the busiest stretches of highway in Austin.  Even twenty-six years ago cars streamed down that road nonstop.  I was aware at the time that we were posing not only for my parents, but also for hundreds of drivers and passengers as they shot out of town into the folds of the Texas hill country or made their way to Austin’s newest mega-mall: Barton Creek Square.

Everything outside of the picture still exists.  The four lane highway carries more cars today than when I was a boy, but it looks exactly as it did almost three decades ago.  The mall has changed very little on the outside.  A few apartments have risen on nearby hills with glorious views of downtown Austin and the thunderstorms that roll in from the east every Spring.  Everything in the picture, however, has disappeared.  The hill remains, of course, but Lady Bird Johnson and her army of Blue Bonnet enthusiasts stopped seeding that hill soon after my sister and I posed on it for my parents.  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that, in the interest of public safety, the city itself forbade parking on the shoulder of the highway to take pictures.

So now, at any given time of year, in any season, if you venture to the hill along Loop 360 you will see neither Blue Bonnets nor little children posing for their parents.  Instead, you will see pointy cedar bushes creeping down toward the highway.  But in my mind I see something different.  The blue bonnets still paint the hill azure, my sister and I are still sitting next to each other among the forest of flowers, and my parents still futz around us with their cameras, always just a moment away from taking a picture that today recalls a moment grown more poignant with time.

*I’m going to keep blogging, but I’ll probably post about once a week from now on.  I love sharing the world with anyone who happens to read these miscellany.  I’ll keep commenting on other blogs, of course.  Thank you for your time and conversation.  It means the world to me.

Losing Myself in the Desert

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California. My dad, Steven, took this picture. There are two people on the dunes. Can you find them?

*I think the second half of this post is much stronger than the first half.  When I write, I usually start off pretty weak, so why not be honest about that? 🙂

I sit atop a sand dune.  I stare out at the desert and I wonder at its bleakness.  I try to understand it.  I rest my eyes for an hour on one mountain peak.  I stare at a cactus.  I leer at a clump of vegetation that has crowded around a trickling spring.  The desert confuses me.  It envelops me.  It includes me, so that even as I gaze at that mountain and that cactus and those plants around the spring, I stare into myself.  Is that what I love about the desert?  That when I look at it I look at myself?  Do I gain a heightened sense of the universe peering in at itself through my eyes, and do I see myself as the universe does, as something small, fragile, barely existent, some spark that in a moment will fizzle out?  I try to understand the desert, but before long I realize that I’ve embarked on a futile endeavor.  I can’t hold this landscape in my mind.

Death Valley, California. That's my mom.

I love the desert because I lose myself in it.  My soul, my thoughts, my selfish drives, my everything seeps out into the emptiness that surrounds me.  In an enclosed room, let’s say in a prison cell, my self would bump up against the brick walls of the prison.  It would try frantically to slip through the bars and escape into a larger space in which it may roam with greater freedom.

Death Valley--this bench no longer exists.

In a prison cell I would suffocate in my own company.  But the desert disperses me.  It turns me into an insubstantial vapor that is now here, now gone.  I disappear, and with me my pain and my sadness disappear, too.  I’m nothing, and all that remains of me is the lingering residue of a thought, a question, a sigh.

Then the moment slips away.  The desert returns me to myself.  I remember who I am and what I’m doing here.  I leave my perch atop the sand dune and I carry with me the pain, the sadness, the complex mix of emotions that churn inside all of us even in our happiest states.  But I leave with something more, a memory of the sigh, of a moment in which I was both everywhere and nowhere, and everything was all right.

——–

This was something I was going to expand on during my trip to Chile, but it’s fine as it is.  When I wrote it, I was thinking of Death Valley, where from some points you can see mountains two hundred miles in the distance.  And at night, if you park yourself at the southern end of the valley and look north, you’ll see dots of light below the horizon.  They stand still.  You know they can’t be buildings because the desert is empty.  You know they can’t be stars because they lie below the horizon and they don’t twinkle.  They don’t flicker like candles suspended in space.  They shine steadily.  After a moment you see that the dots of light are moving.  They rise and fall with the contours of the now invisible mountains that line the valley.  They sway right, they sway left, as if unsure where to go.  Every right-left motion brings them closer to the valley floor.  They sink deeper into the sea of darkness.  You hear nothing but the sound of your own breathing.  You hold your breath and you hear even that, because there is nothing else, only the mysterious dots winding their way silently through the emptiness.

You realize that the dots are headlights.  They light the way for a lone driver, maybe a family.  They may be thirty miles away from you, but since nothing stands between you and them, they’re as present as a stranger sitting across from you in a café, sipping her coffee, glancing your way in between sips.  Who is she?  Who are they?  And where is everyone going?

Funny: The first half of this post was about losing yourself in the desert.  The second half was about finding yourself, and in some strange way connecting with a distant dot of light that represents a person who will never know you saw her.  Alone, in a prison cell, I would see myself everywhere and I think that eventually it would drive me crazy.  In the desert, also alone, I would see myself nowhere; the landscape would erase me for a moment, and I would become nobody.  But again in the desert, seeing another human being thirty miles away, I would feel my individuality contrasted against the driver of the car.  I would come into focus, and so would she, and I would feel some kind of fellowship with someone I’ll never know.

Old, old car near an old, old gold mine, Death Valley.

Death Valley. My dad took this one, too.

NOT Death Valley. This is the Grand Staircase Escalante, in Utah. I'm including this picture because of the road.

Also not Death Valley. This is from the Great Sand Dunes National Park, in Colorado. Don't we all want to take our own version of that famous Ansel Adams self-portrait?

Heavenly Dreams: The End of the Shuttle Program

I will NEVER take photos as good as NASA's! That's one shortcoming I can forgive myself.

When I was a kid I dreamed of being an astronaut.  Images of space shuttles launching into the heavens, men frolicking on the moon, and fantasies of traveling to Mars pervaded my mind.  Space held such wonder for me then.  The first shuttle disaster happened when I was six years old.  I understood the tragedy.  I knew people had died and that the nation had suffered a wound.  I saw my mother shed tears at the news of the catastrophe.  Yet I persisted in my dream to one day either take my own chances in space or at least study the heavens as an earthbound astronomer.

Pale Blue Dot

As I’m sure happened to most kids of my generation, eventually I abandoned my aspiration of going into space and concluded that such a dream was unrealistic.  But I held on to my love of the star speckled dome that opened above me on every clear night of my life.  Sometimes, when I was young, I imagined the night sky to be a dark, hollow sphere surrounded by a medium of light so bright that it must be liquid in quality.  I imagined that our world was nested inside of this black sphere, that its outer shell was shot through with holes, and that through these holes the light outside leaked in little by little.  Brighter specs were bigger holes.  Our sun was the biggest of them all and gushed light aplenty like a perennial spring.  I thought that with each passing moment the hollow sphere in which we were suspended filled with more light, and that if light were the stuff of happiness, then over the eons it would fill our world with a radiance so thick that one day we would be able to run our fingers through it as through water.

Servicing the Hubble Telescope

Twice when I was a boy I remember running into the street to watch the shuttle streak across the evening sky over the Texas Hill Country en route to Cape Canaveral, leaving a trail of plasma in its wake as if it were slicing the heavens in two.  And I remember vowing one day to watch a shuttle launch.  Only one opportunity remains.  The last shuttle will lift off this Friday, July 8.  I won’t be there to see it.

Nowadays I take these Hubble photos for granted, but they're still awe-inspiring.

Is human space flight a waste of money?  I don’t know.  All I know is that as a kid I marveled at the idea of launching people into space.  I idolized the men and women who sat on top of those rockets and, as it turned out, had about a one in fifty chance of never coming home.  For all of society’s delusions about the safety and the routine nature of the shuttle program, I think the astronauts knew the stakes.  They left the comforts of earth, pushed the boundaries of human ingenuity and potential, and in doing so they gave little kids something to dream about.  Armies of scientists, engineers, and (yes) tax payers stood behind them and made the whole spectacle possible.

Hubble photo of a galaxy.

Maybe that’s what dazzled me more than anything: the space program emerged out of millions of hours of labor.  Over sixty years tens of thousands of people devised improbable ways of accomplishing the impossible.  It cheers me to think that all it takes is something like one hundred thousand clever optimists toiling for decades to pull off six manned moon landings, one hundred and thirty-three shuttle missions, the launch of a lone telescope that revealed the universe to be even more stunning and mysterious than we imagined, and dozens of missions to planets, asteroids, comets and moons throughout the solar system.  That we were able to harness the creativity of thousands and direct it to one romantic end gives me hope for the future.

The sun as photographed by NASA's Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope

Jupiter's Red Spot, which has changed significantly since I was a kid.

Saturn as photographed by the Cassini spacecraft

"Stellar Snowflake Cluster"--Hubble

*Disclaimer: I took none of the photos in this post.  I have never traveled into space, never floated above the earth, never orbited the moon.  I did build Star Trek models when I was a kid.  That’s something.  You know you did too… the one person who knows I’m talking about him or her.  You!

All photos from NASA.

*I actually searched for the official number of successful shuttle missions.  I found the numbers 123 and 119, each source dated this year.  TIME published an article today that placed the number at 133.  I guess I’m going with that one!

Always On the Run

My elementary school used to put on a carnival every spring.  There would be food, a dunking booth, a petting zoo, and a place where you could have your caricature drawn. In the music room, students created a haunted house out of butcher paper and flashing lights.  Outside, near the front office, parent volunteers would paint stars and rainbows and other colorful images on your face.  White canvas booths lined the parking lot, and within them artists sold paintings and crafts.  If you grew tired of the bustle of the carnival, you could always cross the street to the nearby park and spin on the merry-go-round or bob up and down on a see-saw that no longer exists.

What’s odd is that instead of participating in all of the fun and games, I would wander around until I found a certain girl that I liked.  Then, once I found her, the two of us would initiate what eventually became a sort of annual tradition.  She would chase me around the carnival for hours.  We would run into the school building, through empty hallways and classrooms; then we would emerge onto the playground, scamper up and down slides, around swings, climb monkey bars, only to end up back where we started, in the thick of the carnival crowd with all of its noise and boisterous energy.  At regular intervals we would both stop and take a break, standing within ten feet of each other, panting and out of breath, eyes locked together saying everything our mouths were unable to say.

I never let her catch me.  I always maintained a pace that would keep us within ten to fifteen feet of each other, but never, not once, did I allow her to penetrate that fuzzy boundary.  And I wonder now, as I did back then, what was wrong with me that I prolonged the chase and never allowed it to reach a conclusion?  Every year it was as if we resumed the whole endeavor anew, beginning where we had left off the year before, only to leave things unresolved again.  We both understood the rules.  Each of us knew when and where to find the other.  These rules of the game were implicit, unspoken.  We communicated through eye contact and nothing more.

In the end, nothing changed.  The little girl never caught me.  Why not?  Because I could acknowledge my fascination with her, yet I could do so only at a distance.  I sought her attention, yet at the same time I fled from it.  Now I realize that’s the story of my life.  I run from things.  No, I don’t run from things so much as from people, from relationships.  Not only because I’m often scared, but also because I enjoy running.  I love being chased.  It always gave me a sense of power.  Make others chase you, avoid being caught, delight in evasion.  But you see, the problem is that eventually those in pursuit give up on chasing after you.  They disappear and wander off in pursuit of others who play more fairly, who understand that eventually, you have to be caught.  And long after they’re gone, you realize that you’re running all alone.

*This post is actually five years old.  Honestly, I don’t feel much like writing lately.  My apologies.  I’d like to say something about what it feels like to leave Texas, again, not knowing exactly what I’ll be doing three months from now, but I don’t have it in me.  I feel confused.  And sad.  Texas is home.  Rather, it used to be home.  Words seem kind of inadequate at the moment. I may just take a break from WordPress altogether.  We shall see!

*Update: I’ll keep posting, but maybe more like once a week from now on.  That’ll do. 🙂  Thanks, everyone.