The Stories Our Pictures Tell Us, Or, What I Learned from Sitting Alone for Two Hours in a Closet

                                                                                                 
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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot — “Little Gidding”

I just got back from a wonderful weekend in Philadelphia with my family. I always tell people from out of town that though I grieve summer’s end, the best time to visit PA is in the fall, where the gold, crimson red, and yellow trees will call you into attention, causing you to notice every little thing around you that you’d normally overlook. This weekend was no different. The sun shone all weekend, tall trees telling tales in goldenrod and setting sun orange.

It was a good weekend. One of those weekends that make you look deep inside of yourself and feel absolute gratitude for getting to experience it, all of it. I spent the majority of the weekend at Villanova University where hundreds of students put on the world’s largest student-run event for Special Olympics.  Cheering loudly, I’ll never forget the way they lined the walkway back to our cars, and high fived each athlete, as though we were married couples walking out to a procession line. When I told them thank you for their abounding energy, they just smiled, and replied, “We love this. It’s our favorite weekend all school year.”

I woke up the next morning and got to run with Special Olympics athletes in a 5k, delighting in the sun meeting my bare legs. November 2nd is far too into fall to be able to wear shorts, but today is different. The sweet 70 degree sun smiled at our legs. We danced the night away in the gym at the annual dance the students run, there we did the Cha Cha Slide, the Cotton Eye Joe, and The Wobble, whose choreography and lyrics I still don’t understand.

I watched my sister play soccer Sunday. For far too long in our relationship, she was the one watching me, and now I was thrilled to give back that time and attention to her. It was, perhaps, a moment of reconciliation, as if to make up for lost time.

As Sunday evening approached, the sun sunk at 4:58 PM thanks to daylight savings time. An extra hour of sleep? No thank you, I’d take an extra hour of daylight over extra sleep anyday. After sunset, I went upstairs and noticed a journal peeking out from my closet. Curious, I decided to take a look. Inside lie four boxes filled with letters, greeting cards, old swimming times, old swimming workouts, high school and graduation pictures, and friends’ wedding programs. There were printouts of old AIM conversations with boys I had crushes on. My polka dot scrunchie I wore way after scrunchies stopped being cool. I’m always a good 3-5 years behind the latest fashions.

A strange, but wonderful sense of nostalgia warmed me up like chamomile tea on a snowy day. I’m re-reading a wrinkled letter from one of my good guy friends from high school. One of my best friends created a senior project where students were asked to anonymously submit essays describing their experiences of love in order to “purge their feelings and maybe come to some resolution.” I don’t think it was until my binge in the closet that I fully appreciated the magnitude of her endeavor. Guys and girls alike anonymously poured out the most vulnerable parts of themselves on paper. I can’t believe he even gave me his letter, so personal. So visceral. I felt like I was reading a journal entry from a 35 year old who’s looking back on the thing or two that he’s learned from the journey he’s been on since he said “I Do” at an altar.

Their were greeting cards marking birthdays, apologies, thank you-s, and just-because’s. There was that note that my neighbors wrote me right before we all thought I’d be leaving for Peace Corps. Though I’ve made peace with my decision, it still stings a little bit each time I come across that name, or see a piece of paper of something I signed in the copious amounts of paperwork that the process entails. It hurts a little when dreams die. It hurts a little when you remember a part of yourself that was so filled with life, pulsating, passionate life. If I’m honest, there’s a part of myself that I never fully regained when I said no to my dream. Even though I’m most grateful for the ways in which I’ve healed since that time, looking back on ourselves and our lives can be hard, can’t it?

There’s my grandfather’s passport. I never got to meet the man, but from what I hear of him, he was the most amazing person. I’ve only ever seen pictures of him with the family or alone in solitude in his church robes. He was a pastor, a thinker, and I’d love nothing more than to pick his brain. He died at all-too-soon age of 53 from a heart attack in the middle of his kitchen. It hurts, doesn’t it, when you don’t get to meet the people that you want to meet? When lives are interrupted without your permission? Now, all that’s left in my hands are a picture of him at this last church service in Illinois before he and the family moved to PA and his old passport. I began prodding my dad for passport explanations. Why did he go to Russia, and South America, and who did he go with, and how long was he there for? Half of the stamps we couldn’t decipher, after all it was an expired passport from 1971.

There’s cards from my grandmother that all looked pretty standard: Hallmark cards signed in small, shaky cursive- “with love, Grandma.” I loved her; I know I did. It’s just that she had an aneurysm in 1985, just a few years before I was born. My only memories of her are of when she was in a walker. She and my aunt would come over for every birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas you name it. We would blow up whoopie cushions, put them under her seat, and after we heard the fart sound, we’d erupt in laughter while she proceeded to ask us to stop it. We would just keep laughing. And we never stopped it. I loved her presence; it felt like home whenever she was in our house. I just doubt that as a kid, I fully appreciated her. And she’s gone now. I still remember that dreaded phone call at my friend’s graduation party in June 2003. When the phone rang on my friend’s house line- I didn’t own a cell phone at the time- it was my mom on the other line. “I need you to come home now. It’s about Grandma.” And so, as soon as I got home, we went to Artman Nursing Home, where I saw a dead body for the first time. It was weird. And I didn’t like it. So I cried. We left, not talking much, and a week later I went to my first funeral. Our neighbors were there, as they have always been for every major life event. I still remember Mrs. Beerley giving me a big hug, as she looked me in eye and said, “It’s ok.” I hope Grandma knew how much I loved her, even when I didn’t express full interest in her life. I know she’s chock full of stories, like her husband (my grandfather), whom I also didn’t get to meet because life was cut short.

There were newspaper clippings from our local newspaper. I grew up in a neighborhood in which teachers came to school early to provide homework help. It felt safe. One time, the crime section read: “Three flags stolen from Flourtown Country Club golf course.” Really, I’m not making this stuff up. There’s also that time, because our town was so small, that I got in this same crime section for careless driving. It was an early morning, a long day and even longer night on July 2nd, 2005, as friends and I spent the day at Philadelphia’s Live 8 concert advocating for global action to end poverty, especially in Africa before the G8 summit. At 12 AM on July 3rd, I crashed into a telephone pole, wrecking public property (along with my car) and was even told I had to pay for it. A week later, I re-lived it all over again as I read “Melissa Otterbein, 18, cited for reckless driving….” Fortunately, I’d built enough rapport with the parents whose kids I coached and babysat. As I received cards from these families, all I could think was, “Hopefully they didn’t read the newspaper.”

I found some old CDs in the memory boxes, including a couple Christian cds. I stopped listening to Christian radio about two years ago when I grew tired of hearing infomercials about how there’s new aged speakers on Oprah who are leading people astray and if we really love people, we shouldn’t let them listen to these people. I grew tired of their cheesy slogans that they would repeat multiple times per hour. “Family friendly, kid safe.” What about those of us who don’t have kids? Does that mean public radio is evil? I hardly think so. Anyway, as I drove home later on, after I had left the closet, a strange familiar came over me as I found myself nervously singing the words again for the first time in a long time. I thought about the times when those songs carried me though difficult nights, when things weren’t so good at home. Or when I’d have those occasional teenage relationships dilemmas, experiencing life’s stress, but oh, I was happy. It didn’t even feel weird anymore to sing these songs. The attachment felt peaceful, like I could enjoy it while keeping it a safe arms-length away. I guess that’s where I am with Church now. I love God, but seem to keep Church that arms-length away. It wasn’t God who scared me, it was Church, well, just some Churches, that often minimized how I could find the love of God in my sister’s smile instead of ancient text that angered me most of the time.

It’s funny, I spent almost two hours in that closet and left the room a lot messier than I found it. I figured it would give me a good reason to go back in there the next time I’m home.  It’s amazing where photos and cds, or letters and decorations and old newspaper clippings can take us. It’s amazing how words on crinkly paper from a decade ago can help you make sense of today. It’s amazing how a box of photos that we can no longer reprint because we stopped using 35 mm film about the same time we stopped playing with pogs can spark up warm fuzzies and fear all in the same memory. TS Eliot once said,

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

I sense that in my boxes of nostalgia. I sense that we’re on this journey and the good, the difficult, the crushed, the joyful all carry us into our future in untied fragments. Someday, some great-grandchild might finger through our letters and CDs— what the hell were those, never the less tapes?–and smile. Perhaps they’ll ask their parents about us or put us back in a box. Or perhaps if you lived a life bold enough, they’ll proudly place your picture on a nightstand and smile at it when they wake up in the morning on their way to work.

It’s a strange life. We live it once. That’s it. And all that’s left are the memories. Half of them, we forget about, until an old photo jogs our memory as though we need basic instructions on how to look back on very own lives that we created. We do things everyday that we won’t even remember doing tomorrow, let alone 40 years from now. That’s weird.
But I hope when you go to bed tonight, you feel the love of those people.
I hope you keep taking those photographs, even if you’re scared to document this time of your life because you don’t want to re-live the pain you’re going through right now by finding it buried in the pixels of an old photograph. I hope you keep writing those journals, even if you don’t want to read the sad tale you documented on paper ten years from now.
Or maybe you’re having the time of your life, too busy to sit down and even capture it. But one day, though, someone’s going to look back in order to find themselves because they got lost too. We all get lost. I’m trying to keep up with these memories in order to make sense of my life and maybe you are too. It’s amazing how five people can experience the same event, but none will recall it the same exact way with the same exact details. We each bring forth our little vignettes and keep our lives sustained into another year, another decade, another century, or even millennium. It’s ok to look back on your pain. It was a part of your struggle. I only hope that the painful parts of your story will find some healing. I hope there’s days you can’t pen down because you were so overwhelmed by the privilege of being alive that even if you tried to write it down, no one would get it. Perhaps you too, just like TS Eliot will live along some day and be able to put back the pieces. We’ll find ourselves and lose ourselves until we glance up to the endless sky in these cracks and crevices of darkness and of light.

“It’s a victory to remember the forgotten picnic basket and your striped beach blanket. It’s a victory to remember how the jellyfish stung you and you ran screaming from the water. It’s a victory to remember dressing the wound with meat tenderizer and you saying I made it better…” -Jenny Hallowell, A History of Everything, Including You
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Like Contrails in the Sky

Source: CORE Aviation

Source: CORE Aviation

“It’s like those streams in the sky that airplanes leave when they fly,” I told him.

“What do you mean?” He asked.

I told him about a quiet summer day back when I was 17, lifeguarding at a mostly empty pool, deeming it safe enough to take a few moments to stare up at the sunny, blue sky instead of the one adult floating steadily on his back in a shallow pool. Growing up not too far from the Philadelphia International Airport, it was always easy to find a couple airplanes in the sky at any given moment. I counted all that I could see from my two little eyes- from the innermost tear duct, to the outermost corner of my eye just before sclera meets skin fold. There’s three; There’s four, I noted, continuing to count, only halfway through my inventory of the azure sky. But rather than counting, I found something else that caught my attention: the evaporation of those white, jagged, cloud-like lines that the planes leave behind. Turns out they’re called “contrails,” short for condensation trails. Contrails are formed when the water in jet exhaust meets the wet, cold air of the atmosphere at 30-some-thousand feet. Upon this collision of jet exhaust and moist air, the contrail condenses and freezes into ice crystals, making a thin cirrus cloud. How long these vapor trails remain in the sky depends on the temperature and humidity at the altitude of the contrail’s formation.* Regardless, whether seconds or minutes, slowly, the end tail will dissipate, showing no evidence that the plane was once hundreds of feet behind, in another position of the sky. Gone. Nothing you can do can bring those jet lines back.

It’s a lot like life, I realized that summer day on the lifeguard stand.  

Now, I walk around each day with this strange, sickening sense that whatever I’m doing right now with my fingers, or whatever conversation I’m having with the person next to me, is just like those contrails, never able to be repeated in that specific place, time, and date. I go to bed each night, thinking about what happened since I left it this morning. I can’t remember half of it. What did I eat for breakfast, anyway? Did I tell my parents I loved them today? Yikes, did I really gripe in my head over who was the last one to discard the free newspaper full of ads that unwantedly finds itself on our sidewalk each week?

I feel like I walk around, and each moment is slowly evaporating, never to be tasted, touched, patted, embraced, changed, re-shapened, molded, or experienced, ever again, at least not in real time. There’s nothing I can do to bring back what happened 15 seconds ago. Whatever you’re doing, and I’m doing, right now, will change, in just a few short inhales, exhales, and blinks, almost imperceptibly, perhaps. But change it will. This hour will not last. This day will not last. This year will not last. And you too, no matter your age, will become old one day, perhaps if we’re lucky enough to see the rising sun on our one hundredth birthday.

We live life forward.
We look back on old pictures.
We try to remember.
Often, we forget.

That is, until Aunt Lou, or your college roommate, or your dear parents remind you of something. The still frame that they remember in their head.

Some story.
Some funny thing you said.
Some detail you couldn’t recall.

Some bit of the scene that you didn’t quite remember, but now, upon provocation, comes forth, memory jogged by this person’s memories. This causes your heart to quicken and a smile to slide up your face, as though you were wearing lose suspenders, and now tightened them for a satisfying fit. You then chime in your memories of the new scene you now remember, your contribution to this mutual, shared memory.

But that’s it; that’s all they are now. These still photos.

We look at the past, and no matter what shade of awful we went through, we can now talk about the hard practice we survived as a high school varsity football player, singing about our glory days. Or that immensely intense triathlon race, that in the present moment, leaves you half miserable, in fervent longing for it all to be over, and yet, you keep running, half flooded with a bizarre energy that sustains your movement until a finish line tells you to stop, tells your endorphins to surge, and your heart rate to decelerate. Now that it’s over, and you’re re-visiting the experience as a memory, we’re glad these kinds of experiences were so hard. It makes us look like champions, looking at these still photos of our hard work in the comfort of our own home, heart rate relaxed.

We smile at the graduation pictures. Smile at the pictures of our parents, before they were our parents. We laugh at how silly we looked in our teddy bear vest on 5th grade picture day.

All of this leads me to wonder, awe, and melancholy over the mystery that is the passage of time.

I mourn it.

For all intents and purposes, that time is gone.
How is it that our minutes evaporate?
How is it that we can’t go back?

It’s like a locked door, with no key to open it.
We scratch our head, looking up for answers. Did it even happen? Did all of this even happen? 

I yearn for yesterday’s moments all over again, from my morning bike ride commute, to the belly laugh that my roommate and I shared, as if to have one extra day of life. I want to re-experience the morning of April 4th, as I was about to embark on my flight to Portland for four days, a sojourner excited to interact with west coast folk. I want today, and I want the future, to enter in and out of each of these scenes with ease and possibility. No locked doors, just tall, open bay view windows, and a warm breeze to lull you in and out of the past and present, forward and back, back and forward. Any direction you chose, any moment you wish to re-experience again.

This lament over the passage of time is the same reason why I both weep a little each New Year’s Eve, recounting all of the events, new people and travel that took place over the course of these past 365 days; and in the same breath, the very same reason why just moments later, I beam my face into the moonlight of the dark January 1st sky at 12 AM, bright, optimistic, satisfied, hopeful. The people of the 1800s are dead now. They don’t get to have this moment, not here on Earth at least. The people who will one day be born in 2100 are just future zygotes, not here on Earth right now either. But you and me, we’re here right now. On the verge of something great, unprecedented and un-experienced. I stand hilltop, watching New Year’s early morning fireworks, just for one moment, wanting to cup the year securely and lovingly in my two hands, gently whispering to it: “It’s ok. Let go. You’re in a new year. You take with you all you learned last year, and years’ past. You’re lucky enough to see the aurora of a new year, a fresh calendar. It’s all there, right in front of you, untouched, like early dawn snow free of any human footprints. Yes, something wonderful is going to happen this year. Something hard will happen. Something unexpected will happen. But, perhaps, if you’re lucky enough, you’ll be here again in 365 days wondering where all this time has gone, each turning of the monthly calendar a mere contrail into the vast, bottomless vat known as the passage of time. So enjoy this moment of newness.” I un-cup my hands and spread them high over my head, a “namaste” to the night sky on the first of the year. Free, outstretched, fingers loose, winter air flowing in between each finger, I clamor for the power to hold onto every ephemeral moment.

It reminds me of family vacations at Rehoboth Beach as a kid. When I needed some solitude, perhaps after too much teasing from my older brother, or after I had enough of my sister’s wails as seagull after seagull snatched her Cheetos from her beach towel, I would plop myself on the shoreline, digging my feet into the cool, mushy sand. As waves pushed and pulled around me, my feet sunk deeper into the wet sand. Eventually, once satisfied with the proper dosage of introverted loneness, I’d step out of my footprint and watch the next wave take away a bit of it, footprint still mostly visible. And then another wave would come forth and retreat, taking away a pinky toe imprint along with it. And another wave followed, erasing another toe, and another, and so on, until that footprint was no more, washed away. Dissolved. Recycled by the ever constant flow of ocean wave. I’d then walk back to my sister’s towel, seagulls having moved on to some other child’s unattended snack, my brother now gone, having left the ocean for the pool, sick of the sand. Most of this afternoon was now gone. Soon, we’d seeing the last hours of our vacation, and head northbound up 95 back to PA, codifying each day’s activities, the highs and lows, so that one day we can look back on Family Vacation 1995 and actually have something to say.

And so the continuum of time proceeds, right off the reel.
Back to remembering and forgetting, lamenting, and praising our time on this planet.

I guess the good thing about getting older is you get to keep experiencing time, making new memories, printing out more pictures for your frames and refrigerator magnets. And maybe, just maybe, if all I’ve been taught about what happens when you die is true, I’ll realize that we never even had the proverbial hourglass of time. Or perhaps we did, but once all the grains reached the bottom, the hourglass automatically flipped itself to begin the release of sand grains all over again. It will keep on going infinitely, whether stored in my cognition, or flat out in front of me like a red carpet.

Time’s gone by. 26.5 years for me, in fact. The passage of time will never stop. But like contrails in the sky, I’ll keep on flying this girl high on an airplane into the unknown freedom of a blue sky, gripping every minute in gratitude, lament, joy, life transcendent, documenting my flight, and yours too, for some other kid to look up into the sky and trace the contrails with her or his fingers. Together, we’ll dizzy up the sky with our vapor trails until we’ve lost track of time. Until we learned to live outside of it, freed of the obsession of time. Out of time, in one sense, and in another, having all the time we’ll ever need.

                                                             

                                                                             

The saddest thing about life is you don’t remember half of it.
You don’t even remember half of half of it.
Capture memories, because if you forget them, it’s as though they didn’t happen;
it’s as though you hadn’t lived the parts you don’t remember.

~ Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Donald Miller- A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

*http://contrailscience.com/why-do-some-planes-leave-long-trails-but-others-dont/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contrail