I don’t drink often. Neither do most of my friends.
But a few weeks ago, one of my favorite couples dropped by the house with a six-pack and a bottle of lemon liqueur. “Coooooooool!” I sang out, welcoming them inside and then closing the front door. “Should we order a pizza?” I polled the group quickly, just brimming with excitement at the idea of doing so. I may not have shared this with you all before, but a small and dearly held dream of mine has been to order a pizza and have it delivered to my home. In my adult life, that’s never happened. Well, I think it happened once, but I wasn’t there to witness it: the knocking on the door, the subsequent opening of the door, and then the sudden presence of a pizza delivery man.. magically standing there, stretching his arms out towards you, and offering to hand over a surprisingly warm cardboard box containing something delicious that was made just for you. And three other people.
“Yeah!” My girl friend voted with a smile. “Let’s do a veggie pizza!”
So we ordered the pizza and, while we waited for it to arrive, I pulled Apples to Apples out of an old storage ottoman that was stuffed with various games. We sat down, cross-legged, on the rug in the hangout room, the German Shepherd parading about happily and enjoying the attention my girl friend’s husband was giving him. Charlie, my roommate and best friend, was sitting in what we refer to as “the cup”: a papasan chair. I was happily watching my small group of friends interact with each other and swishing the limoncello-liqueur-and-orange-juice mixture around in my cup.
“Now remember,” I announced as I dealt seven cards out to each player, “when the pizza guy gets here, I get to open the door and receive the pizza. No one else. I will not be cheated out of this experience.” No one bothered to fight me on the matter.
As the night progressed and most of us drank, jokes and laughter ensued. The game was quickly forgotten as we all lost ourselves in conversation. While my girl friend chatted with Charlie about local art, her husband turned to face me and posed a question.
“I think I’ve asked you this before,” he began, his speech a little slurred, “but tell me again — what does that word mean?” He pointed to my right forearm, which has the word Kaizen tattooed onto it in thick, black letters.
“Kaizen,” I pronounced the word out loud, “is a Japanese word. It was tossed around in the business world at first — it was philosophical in nature and denoted something to the effect of ‘continual growth or advancement.’ To me, when I first saw it, read it, and said it out loud, the word sounded like courage — like it just embodied courage — and I had it tattooed on myself so it could serve as a reminder for me to continue learning, experiencing, and growing as a human being.. and it’s also a reminder to be courageous at times when I don’t feel up to it; equal to the task, ready for the challenge, whatever.”
He nodded his head slowly, up and down a few times, like he was registering and processing each word I’d spoken one-by-one and then weighing the response as a whole.
“Okay.. now! One MORE question,” he breathed. I could smell the alcohol from my seat on the floor, five feet away. “What did you feel like.. when you were sitting there.. getting that tattoo? What thoughts were on your mind?”
No one had ever asked me that. Having a low tolerance for alcohol, my own mind felt a little.. swirly.. so I had to really stop and think for a few seconds before I could answer him.
“Well,” I started, “I was filing for a divorce that week.. just a few days later. Getting that tattoo honestly felt like putting your armor on, just before heading into war.” I paused. “Yeah. It was like I was mentally bracing myself for the next ‘big thing’.. which was me preparing myself for the next part of life when I was going to be all on my own.”
I looked up. He looked like he was about to cry.
He passed out about 10 minutes later; his wife and Charlie carried him to the car. I carried her purse.
A few weeks ago, I was training new hires at a local branch (I work as a trainer in the financial world). One of my favorite members walked in (I’ll mention here that I hadn’t seen him in MONTHS).
“Where have YOU been!” I exclaimed. He smiled at my greeting. I let my eyes shift themselves downward and noticed that he seemed to be gingerly cradling his left arm. “Oh my goodness.. what happened to you?” I whispered softly.
“I wrecked on my bike,” he answered, raising his eyebrows impressively. He proceeded to share how it had happened. “I was taking a curve a few months ago, going about 35 miles an hour, when I lost traction on a few pebbles in the road.” He shook his head in disbelief and lowered his gaze, looking down at his own arm. “So now I’ve got a rod in this arm, a metal plate going across my collar bone, and three broken ribs.”
I shook my head. Some pebbles. Unbelievable.
“What kind of bike were you riding?”
“A Yamaha,” he responded.
“Nice. I ride a Suzuki.” At least I used to ride a Suzuki, I thought to myself, shivering.
He nodded, knowingly.
As my new hire finished up with his transaction, I ventured to ask him what I couldn’t help but wonder.
“Think you’ll ever get back on a bike again?”
“Ohhhh.. yes.” He said it with such conviction. With no hesitation. Like I hadn’t even asked a valid question.
My expression must have looked like “really?”, because he continued to explain.
“I rode for 26 years without an accident, man. TWENTY SIX YEARS. Went on my very first ride when I was 7 and spent years racing dirt bikes.. doing flips in the air.. ALL of that stuff. I love it. I always have.” He paused and smiled, more to himself than me. “I’ll never stop riding,” he concluded.
I breathed out heavily; how brave is THIS guy?
I’ve been thinking about these two, separate events; describing my state of mind while getting the Kaizen tattoo to a friend, and discovering the dedicated love one of my favorite members has for motorcycle riding. The two conversations present a common theme: enduring pain bravely, and being brave enough to return to what (or who) you love that caused you to experience that pain in the first place. In returning, you may return to the same person or object, or it might be a different version of what you had before. For my member, it’s obviously going to be a different bike (because he totaled the last one).. it’ll probably still be a Yamaha (#brandloyalty), but maybe he’ll choose a newer model. In terms of people and love.. for most of us, it’s a different person altogether. In most cases, we return to loving; not to a specific person (we may have a certain type of person that we’re attracted to, but it’s unlikely that we’ll go back to loving the same person we broke up with). While some of us are better off single, being brave after a breakup can mean having the courage to love again (as well as accepting the vulnerability that comes with loving again), because it’s so easy to shirk away from loving again when you’ve experienced pain because of love. It’s normal to back away from or flat-out avoid things that have hurt you in the past.
One of my friends stated recently that she couldn’t stand dogs. “WHAT ON EARTH IS WRONG WITH YOU?” I demanded. “I got attacked by one when I was a kid, and it kind of traumatized me,” she responded. Understandable. Shit that happens to you when you’re a kid really makes an impression.
My mother wouldn’t pick up a croissant for 15 years after “the incident.” And what was the incident, you’re wondering? Many moons ago, she was pregnant and hanging around on a cruise ship. She ate some croissants, became sea sick, and leaned over the railing to vomit croissants into the ocean. Gross, huh? I’m sure it was very unpleasant. She couldn’t even stand the smell of a croissant until a few years ago.
See? Things that hurt us or cause us some kind of pain (be they big OR small) leave lasting impressions. Sometimes, we’re able to work past our pain, and other times, we’re either not able to or choose not to. For some of us, pain can feel like a protective barrier. It acts like some kind of special deterrent that prevents us from experiencing greater pain. But the truth is, it could just as easily be a senseless roadblock that robs us of experiencing some of the most beautiful things ever.
For me, even though it was a mutually agreed upon decision, divorcing Chris was a colossal life change — riddled with pain, anxiety, and a horrible, unwavering sense of misgiving — and I’m pretty sure that marriage and divorce are monumental experiences for anyone to pass through. I told myself, as we signed papers that unforgettable Tuesday afternoon, split the bank account the following week, and surveyed, separated and sold all of our possessions during the months that followed (including the fatass German Shepherd, who’s permanently stuck with me), that I would never subject myself to that kind of vulnerability again; that I wouldn’t allow my life to become so intertwined with someone else’s, and that I wouldn’t allow myself to become so vested in and dependent upon someone else, that it would – once again – rattle me to the core and upturn my world if they chose to leave me or died. It happened to me once, I made it through the whole ordeal, and I won’t let it happen again. I don’t want to be vulnerable like that.
Chris and I were partners for 5 years, and as highly committed and motivated partners, it felt like we could take on the whole world together and win.. like we could achieve anything we really wanted. We accomplished a hell of a lot together, and I’m so proud of us.. of both of us. After 5 years of inseparability, I lost him over the course of just a few months. When the shock wore off and it finally became official that we were separated, it felt like I had just been reduced to an army of one; destined to face and fight everything sad, scary, and oppressive in the world on my own. It was intimidating. I felt lonely. I hated feeling so weak. I hated that I had allowed my dependency on someone else to rob me of my own strength. I had done that to myself; it certainly wasn’t his fault that I had become so co-dependent. I wasn’t emotionally okay on my own — not at first — and admitting that to myself was difficult. And because of the pain and the dip in confidence that came rushing in after our breakup, and because of how long it took me to become a whole person again, I told myself that I would never trust, take comfort in, rely on, or fall in love with anyone else ever again. That it wasn’t worth the risk. That remaining single was the safest route. I still think that it is.
But after conversing with my favorite member and hearing his tale of wreck and recovery, I was forced to consider this: he’d been an avid rider for 26 years. On one unfortunate occasion, he experienced a devastating blow when his bike slid off the road and sent him flying through the air; his body crash landed against a tree, he was immediately knocked unconscious, and he woke up what felt like hours later inside of a hospital. Tragic. He hadn’t seen it coming, of course, and a few months out from the incident, he’s still healing, but when I asked him if he was going to abandon the idea of riding again, he vehemently answered no. He loves it too much. It makes him so happy. It’s thrilling; it’s familiar. He’s taking a chance every time he gets back on the bike, sure, but the trade-off is that he’s thoroughly ENJOYING his life without holding back, and that he’s living a life of adventure. So the bike let him down one time; that’s one time in 26 years. And?
I really admired his courage and his commitment. Just hearing about his wipe-out and imagining what it must have felt like had me ready to list my bike on Craigslist that evening, and I haven’t even wrecked once. My whole body cringes at the mere idea of wrecking. Of course it’s possible that I’ll wreck on my bike someday.. that’s just reality. But I like his take on the matter: If you stop taking chances and cease doing what you love because you’re afraid of getting hurt, you’re going to live a very boring and unfulfilling life. I can definitely understand the appeal of playing it safe, but some things are worth the risk. Not all things. Some things. You have to examine yourself and determine what those things are for you.
Like nibbling on a croissant after 15 years of not nibbling on one. They’re actually really delicious, if you can get past the memory of what happened to you once when you ate one. And for the record, it was the rocking and rolling sea.. not the croissant.
And like petting a dog that’s really, really friendly and would only love you and never bite you like that mean old dog did when you were a kid.
And like continuing to frequent the outer-space themed coffee shop that you love, even though crazy, awful shit happens downtown sometimes and you read all about it in the media and then you can’t sleep at night because you’re feeling sorry for the victims and you’re worrying about your own safety.
And maybe one of the things that is worth the risk is love.
I’m not ready to love-love someone again. Not yet. Under these present circumstances and with my current mindset, I hesitate to make any kind of new commitment. I’ve already got so many commitments to keep and to see through to the end.
For instance, I’m already looking forward to six months from now when my all-time favorite pair of drab, gray Vans will be thoroughly worn out and unwearable. They’ve already got two holes in the soles; I’m just not ready to part with them yet. I’ve spilled coffee on them, I’ve dripped paint onto them, I’ve worn them while I’ve traveled to some of the most special places and while I’ve hung out with some of the coolest people, and my dog has drooled all over them.. so they’re very special to me. I wouldn’t trade them for a brand new pair, and I’ll still hold onto them when I can’t wear them anymore. Maybe I’ll even put them on display — stick them on a shelf in the house somewhere and install a spotlight over them.
I can also easily imagine 5-7 years from now when my German Shepherd might begin to die, and by imagining what that’s going to be like, it feels like I’m already dealing with that tragedy.
Then I picture 20-30 years from now when my grandparents may be gone forever, and in the present, I worry about something happening to my mother, or my truck driver father, or any one of my closest friends, co-workers or family members every single day. I want everyone to be healthy and happy forever; I don’t want anyone to suffer or go away. But that’s an impossibility, and I’m gravely aware that it is. In response to that impossibility, I’d like to get all of the pain, mourning and sadness over with right now.. way ahead of time.. but it’s destined to be staggered. Sadness and tragedy will hit randomly, here and there, in small patches and thick clusters over the entire, long course of my life. Ultimately, nothing can be rushed, changed, or avoided. So why add onto the weight of all of these already existing potential and inevitable heartbreaks by falling in love with some new person? Why would I voluntarily venture back out onto a dimly lit street when I know I’ve heard and been hit by gunfire there before? It’s risky business, falling in love.
Then there’s academic commitment. I’ve got a month left to decide whether or not I want to commit to pursuing my bachelor’s degree this year.. because the second I sign up for my first junior year class, that’s it. I will thereby enter into a long-term relationship with textbooks and professors, and will also resume fostering a maddening preoccupation with my GPA. I’m not going to start something I can’t finish, so the act of starting is what’s daunting right now. Commitment is heavy. You have to keep it, and even when you don’t feel like doing so, you’re expected to bear the burden of honoring your commitment. To do that, you have to muster up energy and excitement for it. It needs to be something you seriously believe in. You’ll have to exercise your will by overriding all kinds of excuses and you will have to discipline yourself. Whatever it is you’re committing yourself to, you have to really want it, more than anything else. It has to be worth it for you to justify spending your time, your money, your creativity and your mental reserves on it.. and only some things are worth it. Like school, family, and significant others.. but for now, I’m good with this slowly dying dog and these raggedy old skate shoes.
All armored up and safely riding solo (sorry Craigslist, my bike ISN’T for sale),