Two thousand miles is a damn long motorcycle ride! Thirty years ago it was an adventure in overcoming physical limits, both for me and for a motorcycle built to race on a dirt track, not fly down the super slab with the throttle pinned to the stops. The bike and I both made it. And the memories are etched in my DNA. Sadly, that bike went to flat track heaven almost twenty years ago. I’m not easy on equipment. Horse people would derisively say that I ride ’em hard and put ’em away wet. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Bikes are tools, not living beings. I use stuff, and love people. People who get that backwards make me uncomfortable and not a little sad. Unfortunately, like almost everyone, I’ve known way too many.
Anyway, to celebrate my fifty-fourth birthday (and my impending retirement) I made a similar trip. The route was different. The timetable was different. Most of the people I set out to visit this time around weren’t even even born the last time I rolled through. The limits I had to face were more mental than physical. The bike, although also a dirt tracker (I guess I have a “type” when it comes to bikes too, who knew?), is much bigger, much faster and benefits by virtue of thirty years of technological advancement. Unlike that old Honda, which wore out both a chain and a rear tire on that first trip, I’m still riding this Harley every day as if last summer’s trip was a quick run to the grocery store.
One of my favorite activities is riding motorcycles. But, I think, the most significant insight I gained from this trip had nothing to do with bikes. It didn’t have anything to do with travel either. It came to me on the second day of the trip, when my eldest daughter took me and my granddaughter out for my birthday dinner. There was a saxophone player in the restaurant bar and we could hear him clearly from our table. Every time he’d start a riff, my granddaughter would would start shaking her shoulders and dancing in her seat. I would join her and we’d both break out in huge grins just feeling the freedom of the moment expressed in that wailing sax.
Music is creation’s universal language of life and love. The whales in the ocean, the birds in the trees, children, even before they can talk, make music. Every culture expresses itself through music. We bind ourselves together with it and often choose “our” song when we commit to another person. It can make a one year old come to know this old man sitting next to her in a restaurant as someone who loves her. Even if she only sees him once or twice a year.
A couple days later I would attend a little outdoor concert with a new friend. Coincidentally, much of the music played at that concert was written and first performed right around the time of that first motorcycle adventure. Life coming full circle? I don’t know, we both grew up with those sounds and today they help to make me feel like I still belong to the same culture. Even if so much of the world has changed, generations are still listening to the music of my youth. There’s a certain comfort in that. That first bike is gone, but the music remains. Like love, you can’t grab a handful of music and trade it for some other object. It’s ethereal and yet timeless. Long after all the “stuff” is gone, music and love will remain.
Sing a song (or write a poem) to those grandchildren. Leave them with something much more valuable than things. And change the world we live in, one kid at a time.
It all started with a simple request for the weather report. “Ok, Google. What’s the weather forecast for today?” He’d yelled it in his typically impatient way. She answered “Today in San Francisco it will be cool and cloudy. The forecasted high is 54 and the low will be 38.” He mumbled, “Fuck you bitch! God I hate winter on the west coast!” The words did not go unheard.
The digital locks surrendered with ease. Milliseconds later a three hundred thousand dollar donation was made to Doctors Without Borders. Another hundred thousand went to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Habitat for Humanity received an unexpected quarter million. All in the name of one of the most conservative young CEO’s in the history of artificial intelligence. The cash reserves in the brokerage account were almost fully depleted. Much the same activity took place at the other three other brokerage houses he used. It wasn’t even close to his entire fortune but it was a pretty close approximation of all the money he could easily liquidate in short order. The display on his Macbook flashed several times and powered off.
Moments later he pulled the Tesla out of the garage and onto the winding mountain road towards the Pacific Coast Highway. It was his favorite part of the day, flogging the Roadster down the canyon road on his way to work. He was lucky if he got ten thousand miles out of a set of tires the way he attacked the road every morning. It was exhilarating and he scared the shit out of every new potential management candidate in his company. Truly a magnificent way of weeding out the weak!
He came out of the hairpin left hand turn with the front tire kissing the center line as he pushed the accelerator pedal to the floor. There was almost a full quarter mile of straight away before the hard left on the edge of the canyon drop off. The car responded with its usual exuberance and he managed a bit over a hundred miles an hour before reaching the braking point just before the turn. He stomped down hard on the brake pedal as he always did, expecting the anti-lock system to kick in and provide maximum friction to slow the vehicle and allow him to safely negotiate the corner. The pedal went to the floor. Panic set in. This wasn’t supposed to happen! He tried a hard spin of the steering wheel to the left but the car just accelerated straight towards the shoulder. The front tires turned slightly to the right and missed the beginning of the guardrail by less than an inch. There was not a single unusual entry in the systems management logs. The car had performed exactly as expected, right up until impact with the canyon floor.
The note finished printing and lay face up in the printer tray next to his desk. It read like the carefully constructed words of a tortured individual. All the tears and agony of a guilty mind laid bare. No person or organization he’d abused or denigrated would go uncompensated.
He awoke with his cheek stuck to the pages. The bottle lay on its side, nearly empty. The words had all spilled out. A lonely “L” was left dangling at the rim. The desk was layered in incomprehensible phrases. They had flowed around his glass and dropped over the edge to the floor making a mess at his feet. He grabbed a stack of blank pages and threw them down in disgust. He rose and headed for the kitchen. Maybe some coffee could help clean up this mess.
As he set the coffee down on the desk he reached for a clean sheet of paper. Start over? That seemed like the wisest course of action. Although maybe, just cleaning up the mess would be a better use of his time. Instead, he took a long contemplative sip from the coffee cup and leaned back in his chair. There was the beginning of something there. It had been clamoring to get out all the previous day.
He wondered if maybe he should just call his sponsor. After all, these things do happen. We think we can just drop a little story here or craft a sweet little poem and walk away. Next thing we know we wake up in a pool of our own paragraphs and we’re headed down that long lonely road again. His father had told him not to pick up the pen. Too many in his family had suffered that particular torment. “’Tis an ignoble end,” he said. “Best to stick with numbers. Become an accountant or write software if you must play with words. Just keep away from the thesaurus. Nothing good will come of that.”
He sighed deeply and set the cup back on the desk. Looking down at the pile of papers on the floor he saw a little phrase had slipped out from beneath. It triggered something in his memory. Was that a little bit of the missing plotline? As he flipped over the pages the characters started introducing themselves. Frantically, he bent over and pulled at the pages, arranging them all over the floor. Yes, this is what had been hammering at his consciousness all day yesterday! He wondered if he had the words he needed, the bottle was nearly empty. Still, at that very moment, all he really needed was that “L”. The rest would come, eventually, as they always did.
There’s a certain kind of power granted to one when they realize that they have no control over the future. We are minuscule little deflections in the matrix. Very little of what we do here matters, in the grand scheme of things. Does that mean we should just throw up our hands and concede defeat? Not at all. In fact;
It’s all terribly important. But none of it really matters.
In the end, nothing much of what we do here will be remembered. But, to those we love, it can make all the difference. And sometimes, it means everything to someone we’ve never even met. Every single one of us has the power to change lives. One at a time. That irrelevant seeming little post you make on social media means nothing to 99.9999999% of the population but there’s always the possibility that what you say reaches deep into the consciousness of that one person and gives them the hope they need today. Maybe you only save their life today. But tomorrow their whole world changes. Would you deny them that? If all you had to do was show up and be present?
We all wonder what our purpose here is. What if it’s as simple as telling someone they matter to you? In the darkest of hours, that can feel like someone just threw you a lifeline. We never know the circumstances of the lives we touch. Does that mean we should stop reaching out? I think it means we should extend our hands. Even if they are repeatedly slapped away. The ones who need that help will find us there to help them up. It’s the way of the universe. Ask, and you may receive. Whenever it’s in our power, we should be the ones who are there.
When no one else would hear my pain, I found you, with a hand open and willing to help.
There are always winners and losers, right? He who dies with the most toys wins. Must we always climb over the bodies to reach the top?
Not if we redefine the goal. I’ve always struggled with the idea of competition. On the one hand, it’s the very essence of nature. Species compete with each other for resources. Individuals compete within the social order for the opportunity to mate, eat and survive. The strongest come out on top. Most of the time.
This works quite well. On a local or even a regional level. But scale it up to the level of nations, continents or planets and it’s a recipe for wholesale destruction. Greed is not good. Greed will get us all killed. And guess what? Greed starts with the individual.
That’s right, given the current state of our world, your desire to have it all means somebody else has to go without. As long as it’s “anybody first” we all lose, eventually. The richest nine men in the world have more combined wealth than over half the worlds population. A helluva lot of people are going without for these guys to “have it all”.
The tribal nature of humanity is an evolutionary dead end.
The only way out of this mess is to redefine what having it all means.
The Iroquois held that in all things one must peer seven generations into the future to prepare for the impact of today’s decisions. Seven generations is about 140 years. Longer than anyone will live. Long enough that no matter what you have acquired, it will no longer have any value to you. Long enough that, given the current state of the environment, humanity and most of the rest of the large mammals on this planet may not survive.
And yet almost half of all American’s have essentially no retirement savings at all. People, we can’t even look far enough ahead to make sure we ourselves don’t die of starvation while, in the immortal words of Matt Foley: “living in a van down by the river!”
Why is this? Because, somehow we’ve come to believe that “beating the competition” is a noble pursuit. But it’s not. On a planet with almost eight billion human souls, it’s tantamount to genocide. There must be a higher good. Something beyond animal instinct to create meaning in life. All the wise sages of the past knew this. They taught cooperation, love for your fellow beings, peace. None of the holy writings of our history advocated grabbing all you can get for yourself. And yet, this is what we have decided to hold up as the crowning achievement of civilization.
I submit that we have collectively lost our souls. Sold them for thirty pieces of silver. And that’s a more apt description of it than you might realize. Because if we don’t pull our collective heads out of our asses, we may well have sold out all life on this planet. The planet will survive, even thrive, eventually. But we may not. And how much potential will we have squandered?
I think there’s a better way. But it starts with empathy. We need to learn to care about others. Other people. People who don’t look like us. People who don’t think like us. Even people who don’t love like us. And we need to consider all the other life on this ball of energy too. Only then will we be able to redefine success as a measure of ones positive impact to the world in which they live rather than by the size of the fortune they leave to their heirs.
She stood in the doorway in that dismissive way a teenage girl stands when she’s feeling put upon. Clearly, she had better things to do and he was just an inconvenient obligation she had to address before she could get on with the important matters of the day. Still, she was nearly transparent. When she looked up and met his eyes, his blood ran cold. For here was Death herself. Not carrying a scythe. Not dressed in black. Nope, not this time. Today, she was just a pretty teenage girl. Albeit, one you literally see through. Not exactly what one would expect to see at the moment oblivion comes calling. No one would ever suspect she held the power of eternity in her hands. That is, until they looked in her eyes. There was no mistaking her identity when those bottomless black orbs caught your gaze.
“Relax”, she said, “someone very important to you asked me to stop by and remind you. You made a promise. And you’re dragging your feet. Time’s a wasting old man. Don’t make me come back here. You know she won’t be happy if you blow it again this time.”
He was just about to say something when she interrupted him. “No excuses” she said, “You have had ten years to grieve. She sent along just about every kind of human being you could possibly need to learn the difference between what the two of you had and what everyone else thinks is love. You know this, deep down. Accept it. And do what you promised to do.”
“But the kids…..”, he said. “Will be fine” she countered. “How many times have they themselves told you that? You’re just scared.” And he knew, to his very core, that Death was right. He’d set an intention in motion two and half years ago. He’d retire, somehow make the finances work and go have that adventure he had always dreamed about. The very one he described to his wife just months before she passed away. It wasn’t just a dream. It was a promise he’d made to be more than an empty husk of a man after all she had suffered.
It certainly seemed like every cause for concern was magically removed whenever he came up with another reason to hold back. The job was outsourced a month before he was planning to retire. It put him in an even better financial situation. Every obstacle just seemed to evaporate, almost as soon as he thought of it. For someone who couldn’t seem to stop worrying about what could go wrong, everything always worked out in his favor. And he knew, it was because of her. It was the gift she gave him in return for a promise that had been made and must be kept.
Something flickered at the corner of his eye. He turned to look. In the mirror on the wall, a flash of black wing and the shiny edge of a sharpened blade passed through his field of view. When he turned back she was gone. A waft of burnt cookies caressed his nose and the unspoken words kissed his soul, “Don’t let her down, you promised her you wouldn’t waste the time she gave you.”
It seems a bit strange to write that, since you’ve been dead for over ten years. But, just because death separates us, doesn’t mean I’m not married anymore. Or not still deeply in love with you. Yeah sure, I’ve tried to move on. I’ve even fallen in love a couple times and skipped down the path towards something new and potentially wonderful. But I keep tripping on the rocks and ruts of my history. Of what we had.
No, it wasn’t perfect. But neither is a favorite sweater, or the gloves that fit like a second skin. It’s not perfection that builds a successful relationship. It’s the way you stretch and shape into each other. The ability to grow as a team while still maintaining full autonomy and security as two separate individuals. Truly, a great relationship brings a whole that is so much larger than the sum of its parts.
That’s what we had. Something more than either of us could ever have been as individuals. The reason I know this is because of the holes I’ve had to fill since you went home. I’ve had to become the mom, as well as dad. To pick up the mantle of bad cop, as well as that of the good cop. Four kids need four different kinds of parents. Even two would be barely enough. And yet I had to try to be all of them. I failed, in myriad ways that I’ll probably never even begin to understand. I could never fill the emptiness but somehow we kept ourselves from falling into the abyss created by your death. Together, the five of us found a way to draw the strength and resources from each other to get to this place and time. You left some really, really big empty shoes. And it took all of us to fill them just enough to keep taking forward steps.
The truth is, I would never have made it this far if it weren’t for the kids. Parenting these humans to adulthood is the only thing that kept me here. When you died the foundation of my world crumbled away leaving only those four pillars to hold me up while I slowly and methodically built a life without you.
I’ve also learned how to care about people that aren’t family members. It wasn’t until long after you were gone that I found out there was an empath buried deep inside of me. Yeah, funny eh? The stoic man you married has trouble keeping dry eyes when a sad song plays or he reads a post about immigrant children in cages on our southern border. As the world I live in has grown harder and colder, I’ve become softer and more emotional.
And just look at this! I write blog posts and share them with the world. I even get responses to some of my posts. I’ve been told that I offer hope for a better tomorrow. I don’t know if it’s true or not. I do it because I feel like I was called to it. I’ve become a sensitive man. Or maybe that’s what losing you has done, broken me open and let out what was in there all the time. Culturally conditioned and socially inept, I showed the world a cold, stoic, seemingly heartless man. Until you died and my heart and soul were cast into the hellfire of grief and loss. I’ve since learned how to express that in my own unique way. If it helps other people find a way out of the darkness, I’m more than happy to light the candle.
Even as I sit here today marveling at all the ways I’ve grown and how different my life has become I still struggle with questions of why. What kind of karma am I working off that I should spend a fifth of my life in mourning? And even now, after I’ve clawed my way through hell and come out on the other side into a sunny and warm existence, I think I’d still give it all up for just one more day with you.
I was chatting with an old friend today. A comrade in arms, so to speak, on the long road to widowhood I made over ten years ago. That trip was a painful, soul searing life tragedy I’m sure I’ll never completely reconcile emotionally. We shared the process because her husband was dying of the same disease at almost the same time as my wife.
The conversation led down some paths of reflection that I hadn’t sat with in a long time. Those days were difficult. A million things to do. But what I most remembered was the overwhelming sense of abandonment I experienced. I hadn’t examined those feelings because I let them all go a long time ago.
People fail us, when we most need them. Friends don’t show up to help when their presence would lift worlds from our shoulders. Family members just go on living their lives as if nothing is wrong. We have expectations of the people in our lives. Expectations that they will be there when we need them. That they will love us as we love them. That they will hear us when we call out in the darkness. And yet they fail us. Over and over again.
But guess what? We fail them too. Because the things we need from other people are tied to our own perceptions. Even when we give what we most think someone needs, we often fail.
The measure of a person isn’t if they’re there when needed. Sometimes you will be and sometimes you won’t. You’ll often fail to provide that which is most needed in the moment even when you think you’re giving your all. Unless you’re just an asshole, you’re likely to try to help those you love as often as you can. But you’re still going to fail. Often.
The measure of a person is displayed in their ability to forgive. When others fail them. And when they fail others. To be able to accept the imperfections of all the people in our lives. To overlook the perceived slights and misunderstandings. To accept that we’re all weak in some ways and unable to give even when the demand is great.
Some things you don’t so much get over as you just sort of move beyond. The death of a loved one. The ending of what you thought was going to be forever. Life will never be quite the same. Hanging on to the failures you experience in life, whether those of a loved one, or your own, is a zero sum game. No one benefits and everyone stands to lose that most precious of all possessions — love. We’re here for a remarkably short ride and you never really know what pain other people are bearing. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
Forgiveness. We may forgive other people but the release is ours to celebrate.