Helicopters hover by like dragon flies. Palm trees shroud the LA skyline. A brigade of ice cream carts jingle through the park. One of the carts I notice has four bells dangling from it. Unnecessary. At one point three of them are circling where I sit making me feel like I’m trapped in a wind chime tunnel. The bells! The bells! The jingling grows to a fever pitch then begins to recede. Kids frolic in the playground to my left. Shrieks of joy. Free little beings unfettered by the demands of the world. A little girl dances in a cloud of bubbles that her father is blowing from a plastic wand. Easels face the pond with half-finished canvases of captured life.
We lie on our backs looking into the trees. Shards of sun light slip through making my eyes water. We observe the palm trees around us with their dried out palm leaves against their necks.
“It looks like they’re wearing tutus,” she notes. She begins to peddle her legs as if she’s riding an invisible bicycle. Core exercises? No. “It feels like you’re walking on clouds,” she says. I try peddling but have a hard time getting it. Maybe my imagination needs training wheels. “Will we get to see space when we die?” I wonder this all the time.
“I hope so,” I say. “I want a tour of space. I want to see the insides of a super nova.”
To our right a parade of people begin marching our way, armed with clipboards and bushels of sage.
“What’s going on?”
“I have no idea,” I respond.
They all form a circle right next to us. Sage bonfire smoke fills our noses.
“Yuck.” I’m gagging. I see an older gentleman with a Santa Claus beard wearing rainbow bright suspenders. Is this a Unitarian Church gathering, we wonder, but then a woman starts talking about injunctions. Before too long she’s interrupted by a man who gets up on his soap box to talk about Chicano power. Once he feels validated he steps off his soap box.
“When I was in high school I was asked to be a part of the Chicano club.”
“Yeah. Instead I joined the Filipino club.” I laugh because she’s Hispanic.
The parade of people decide to take a vote on a name for themselves. It’s a melting pot of people. A woman with a clipboard raises her voice, “Those in favor of ‘United We Stand. Together We Stay’?” A collection of hands go up. “Those in favor of ‘Neighborhood Community Coalition’?” Others raise their hands. They’re talking about themselves being the uprising of Echo Park and yet they have to take a vote again because they can’t agree on what to call themselves. Rainbow suspenders shakes his head. He’s disgruntled about something yet remains silent.
I sigh. “Is that what it takes to make the world a better place; to argue about injunctions and burn sage bushels?”
“I wonder how they all met,” she says. “Maybe they all lived in the same apartment complex.” At a certain point we give up trying to figure it out.
Looking skyward again, we wonder out loud what heaven will be like; if there will be an ocean and night and stars.
“Maybe heaven will be whatever we want it to be.”
Teleport back to my prepubescent years. I’m at church. The smell of Folgers coffee and powdered creamer permeates the foyer. Someone with coffee breath tells me about heaven as if he’s been there, as if he know. In heaven we’ll sing praise to God for eternity. There’s a goofy smile on his face as he pictures it and begins to melt. I’m terrified. That sounds like a nightmare. I have so many questions. What if I get tired of singing or I get hoarse and can’t sing anymore? Or what if I want to go for a walk, or go play in the woods?
“I think there will be a new earth. That’s what it says in Revelation. A new heaven and new earth.” I read so to my grandmother on her deathbed.
There I was in the hospital sitting next to my grandmother’s hospital bed; her wig off kilter. Mom had to keep readjusting her wig because it would either fall off or slide down over her eyes to become a Zorro mask. Haazaah!
I sat next to grandma, holding her hand, helpless to say anything as she kept patting my hand and trying to speak English. It sounded more like caveman. Mom had handed me a Bible and said she might like it if I read to her. She had had a stroke which left her mute and her whole left side limp. I turned to the second to last chapter of Revelation that talked about heaven, where she would be going soon. I read slowly, carefully.
“I think there will be an ocean.” I open up my bible app to prove it. “A new earth…the first earth had passed away and there was no longer any sea—wait what the hell? That can’t be right. I think John was high.” My eyes scan rapidly. “He carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain and showed me the Holy city.” Mountains. No sea. Translation: No ocean. I’m remembering the goofy face of the person telling me about heaven; singing for eternity. I picture angels pacing through the multitudes, ready to whip any who stops singing, bellowing at us to keep singing, louder, with more joy. “It had a great high wall with twelve gates—ain’t nobody getting’ outta that city! We’re going to be imprisoned for eternity?!”
“You read that to your grandmother?!” She’s in disbelief. “Let me tell you about the dry prison you’re about to go to.”
I pause to think. She was doing well. They thought she was going to pull through. Then I told her about the dry prison, the endless singing, no ocean, twelve city gates, walls too high to climb. She could barely move. She couldn’t speak and tell me to stop. Was that why she kept patting my hand and trying to speak? Was she trying to tap out?
I gasp, “I killed my grandmother!” I thought about hell. “Why does hell gets lakes of sulfur but heaven only a river of life?” I mean it beats a lake of sulfer but still. I’m jealous. “Will there be a democratic system in heaven? Can we vote for God to bring back the ocean?”
I hope there will be an ocean in the After Life. God must see how often we all go to the beach, how much we love visiting tropical islands. I just hope if there is that He’ll do something about all that sand. Cause seriously sand in the crack is the worst.
Since I was young I had a burning desire to change the world, to be remembered, to leave my mark before the body that housed my soul was sealed in a coffin and put in the ground to eventually be forgotten. One day this would happen. One day I would pass and all that would remain of me on earth would be someone’s memory of me. In time those people who knew me would wither with age and pass, taking with them my final remains, the memories of me they housed in their head. The thought of this always disturbed me and produced anxiety. I was always searching for a loophole, for immortality. At first I thought of music but CD’s can be microwaved, computers can crash. Then I thought of writing but books can be burned or go out of print, or no one could care about what you have to say. Of all the books I’ve read I can only count on one hand the ones that have changed my life.
I have finally found my loophole. I have finally discovered a way to change the world, to be remembered though I will be forgotten. Though my remains, that being my body and all the memories of me housed in the heads of the humans I met along my journey through life, will be gone, I can leave behind something that will last for centuries. That something I have discovered is love.
Several months ago I was visiting a friend of mine in Dallas, Texas. One afternoon while she and her husband were at work I decided to go for a run. The air was heavy with humidity. The sky was bright and the clouds were as white as marshmallows. All I could hear was the sound of my feet under me. I followed an unfamiliar trail. My destination was uncertain. I just needed to run, to untangle my grey matter. Unexpectedly I happened upon a graveyard at the end of the trail. When I was young I remember visiting many graveyards with my father. We would wander among the stone finger nails protruding from the grass and read their epitaphs. I’d always try to find the oldest headstones. I’d think about what I wanted mine to say. At the time I couldn’t comprehend the fact that one day I would be gone and someone would be reading my epitaph.
In the graveyard in Texas I enjoyed the peace it offered. I crouched down beside a grave of a child who had only lived to 5 years old. My eyes misted as I thought of her parents. I sent a pray into the sapphire sky like a Chinese lantern, hoping the carbon dioxide of my pray would eventually find them where ever they were and brush their faces and bring comfort.
Moving along I gave my respects to my fellow passengers in life that I had never met but somehow felt connected to.
Some people believe the dead are still among us. To me it felt like they were far away from here, probably in a more peaceful place. I know for me I wouldn’t want to stick around here after I was dead to see all the terrible things that happen on this planet until the world ended. I just couldn’t do.
I righted the fallen flowers and trinkets that had been knocked over by the wind. It was more out of respect for their loved ones who were still here housing memories of them. They treasured these memories and I’m sure the smallest things would make those memories come alive like wind spinning the blades of a windmill. The love they received from that person had changed the entire course of their life.
She said to me, “The way you love me, how you look at me and smile at me, how you’ve invited me into your life, into your peace, has changed me.” I was speechless because suddenly I realized the incredible power every human being is endowed with. We all have the power to change the world for better or for worse.
In my imagination I saw still water. I saw the world, every human being connected to each other like some sort of gargantuan nervous system. The love I gave was like a stone in the still waters which caused ripples to expand. These ripples would touch her family; her friends, her co-workers, her community and every stranger with whom she would into contact. And her love would be like a stone in their still waters, which would in turn cause the ripples to touch their family, their friends, their co-workers, their community and every stranger with whom they’d come into contact. And on and on this would go, crossing state lines, vast oceans, and foreign borders.
The phone call ended. I sat for a while in the fox hole of rumination. I knew what I wanted more than anything. I wanted to leave a legacy of love, to send it into the sky like a Chinese lantern. Love can change the world; can change people in a way that cannot be measured by any man made metrics. Love changes us for the better, never for the worse because love never fails.
Enough years go by and you get used to being alone; by alone I mean single. The question every year around Christmas “so are you seeing anyone?” is as predictable as my mother’s family caterwauling Christmas carols by the piano in the living room at my Uncle Ben’s house. After a while though the questions subsides, you start to get the feeling that everyone is holding their breath waiting for you to come out of the closet.
Back when I lived in Massachusetts my friend Ryan and I used to go up to Maine every year for Thanksgiving. We’d always make a stop at his mom’s place. Usually we’d be coming from his step-dad’s house where we had already had Thanksgiving dinner. We’d gingerly enter his mom’s place, or where ever she was having Thanksgiving, holding our stomach’s like pregnant women expecting to go into labor at any moment. Ryan and I lived together for 4 years. At one point his mom asked him if he we were partners, and I don’t mean like The Lone Ranger and Tonto or Batman and Robin. It was Massachusetts after all. He was flabbergasted and promptly hung up on her. We thought that next Thanksgiving we should arrive wearing pink turtle necks and starched khakis and announce our engagement just to screw with everyone.
When you’re single everyone’s always got someone they think you should meet, especially your mother. Being single for so several years made me feel like I had ED…I guess in dating terms it’d be called DD, dating dysfunction. I just couldn’t get it up in the dating world. A few times my mother emailed me carpet samples of single girls, the daughters of her lady friends. “She’s single,” she’d coo as if this would entice me. Often they were woofers. Even my father who used to tisk my mother for playing match maker tried to set me up with one of the students from the German class he taught at Olympic College. She had a great personality, played the violin, and she liked to dance…and had a slight limp. She’s a gimp? I asked.
“She’s not a gimp,” he defended. “It’s barely even noticeable.” Is this what’s left in the sea? I thought. My life as a tweener. Well at least she’d be easy to catch…
Most of the time the loneliness is manageable. It’s only a dull pain, unless it’s 2am and I’ve had a few adult beverages then all of a sudden I become a man baby with colic. It’s only once in a while when it feels like that lead apron the dentist puts on you. Usually when it hits it’s like a sucker punch. It happened on a return flight to Massachusetts in early January, a day or two after New Year’s Eve. I had been visiting my family for the holidays, always a lonely time. I’m usually half present, watching everything unfold like a Broadway show. Someone who meant well once said to me “Maybe Jesus has called you to a life of singleness?” In my mind I turned him into a human pretzel, dipped him in chocolate and fed him to a fat kid. I know I should be content. It’s just a season. Statistically it’s going to happen to most of us. Still once in a while it feels like a grandiose game of music chairs.
The plane lifted from the ground. Through the window Seattle began to shrink to the size of a Lego set. I settled into my seat for the long ride, trying to minimize the noise of the cabin with my in ear headphones. If only I could minimize the noise in my head. On a 6 hour flight there’s plenty of time to be harassed by the ghost of Christmas past, present and future. Sometimes it’s nice to have time to reflect. Other times it’s a journey to the dark side of the moon. Pleasant thoughts turn sour. My anxiety puts the vice grip on my chest. It becomes difficult to catch enough air with my lungs. This leaves the muscles in neck feeling strained.
The plane hung in the sky as if we were in limbo, its progress barely noticeable. Many times I’ve felt like this plane.
The chill of New England winter nibbled my skin as I made my way through the vacuum tube stretching from the airplane to the belly of the airport. It was somewhere past 10pm. Beyond security various people were waiting for their loved ones. I watched as one man picked up his kid and hug his wife; the three of them sandwiched together. I watched him kiss his wife as I walked by. They were lost in the microcosm they had created. Another person waited for someone with a bouquet of flowers. No one was waiting for me. I walked through the nearly vacant airport listening to the solitary sound of my shoes on the tile floor. I was three thousand miles away from a place I once called home. In limbo. My progress barely noticeable. I wondered what was wrong with me as I stood outside the terminal waiting for the bus; terrified. The possibility of being alone for the rest of my life sank in. The lead blanket wrapped around my shoulders. I sat on the bus looking at the cookies and cream colored snow, feeling like I was making a long descent to the bottom of the ocean. A realization came to me. Like every human being I wanted to find true love but I was too much of a coward to let anyone past the firewall.
Somewhere in the more recent present…
We sped along the 405. Los Angeles is the closest place in American that resembles the Autobahn. Half ton metal machines operated by chronically inpatient people, weave in and out of traffic at reckless speeds. Bumpers kissing bumpers. Honking, birdies, aggression.
“Why is it that there are certain people you become extremely attached to?” I asked. There are a handful of people I truly care about to where if something happened to them I’d be devastated.
“I don’t know,” she said while flying down the off ramp and blazing through a yield sign with cars darting by.
“When my grandfather passed I cried only because I didn’t really know him and I resented that he didn’t want to know me.” I doubt that was the case; that he didn’t want to know me. It’s just how I felt. Every Christmas we used to call my grandparents. We’d all say a few words and pass the phone around like it was a game of hot potato. Now they’re both goners and I realized that they were family yet strangers. Even though they passed away last year in my mind it feels like they died many years before. Perhaps it’s self-preservation. A firewall. A way for me to keep a safe distance from pain.
“If anything happened to you I’d probably die,” she told. I gripped the door handle and hoped that today wouldn’t be that day. I felt the same. It’s strange how we as human beings become attached to each other.
Even around friends or family I’ll feel the lead apron set upon me. I’ll feel myself pulling away, receding inside myself like a turtle into its shell. A lot of times to the outside observer it’s not even noticeable. In the men’s group I attend every Thursday we call this Isolation. Men are masters at this. It’s how we’re programmed. From the time we’re little boys we’re told boys don’t cry. Man is an island. Man is a rock.
Following the death of Ruby, my next door neighbor’s dog her other dog, Miles, tumbled into a depression. A dog that once used to bark at me every time I walked up the steps to my apartment now looked at me with a droopy face and sad milky eyes. I patted him on the head and told him it would be alright. When I pulled away Miles began to cry and forced his way through the metal bars of the fence separating us and ended up getting his hips stuck. I had to superman pry the bars apart to free him. He rested his head against my thigh.
“I know,” I said “Like is tough when you’re all alone isn’t it?” One of my landlords, Mark, laughed incredulously, “No it isn’t, are you kidding me? Life is so much easier on your own.” True in some way. When you live by yourself you don’t have to worry about someone messing up how you like things. What I’ve realized though is life is much richer with company. We were designed to know and be known. Even if some of us end up spinsters I know one thing: we weren’t meant to be alone and we’re never alone unless we hide our true selves from those who love and care about us.