Monday, March 9, 2009

The Last Summer: jumbled thoughts on time and memories of the future

Once upon a time, long ago in the summer of 2003, there was a man. Man is perhaps an inaccurate term, actually, but there was a human being of the male gender drifting in the nebulous space between boy and man. That nebulous space is a long and winding road, made of up of shades of gray, but certainly at the tender age of 17 this person was not quite either.

This was to be the last real Summer of this person's life. Oh, certainly, he's experienced summers after that. But this was the summer between his Junior and Senior years of high school and was a very special time. Summer in high school is different than summer outside of it. This man did not work, for he was young and focused on his studies. Or at least, that was the excuse he gave. He simply had little use for money. He was not rich, by any means. In fact, his family was poor. But he saw no reason to trade his time for money yet, and there was no obligation to do so.

This was the last Summer because after this Summer, he would never have such a period of inactivity again. Childhood is full of periods of inactivity. When you are very small, every day stretches on in and endless chain of disconnected events, like islands. Maybe there is a preferred route, but there is nothing set in stone. A person can nimbly hop from island to island. And if he should slip and fall and get wet? It is the season for getting wet. No worries.

But eventually life loses freedom and gains a sense of time. Days are made of hours, and hours are spent doing things. The child loses the largest chunk of his time to a place called SCHOOL where he goes and devotes hours of his life every day in exchange for knowledge. It's not a terrible deal, though most children don't know that. You sit down, and people tell you things for free. If only the rest of life was so easy.

Life becomes less like a chain of fanciful islands floating in an ocean of possibilities as we age. People come in, invited or not, and build roads over the water. Long highways of constant, fast-tracked gray. And maybe some of our islands get steamrolled or sunk to make way for this multi-lane, well-lit, advertisements-aplenty wonder of cement and steel, but maybe we talk to the guys building it and shift it a little to the left.

Sure, you'll let them pave over playing with mud and jumping through sprinklers, but leave the exuberance of getting new things and the ability to bend your thumbs in ways you know are bad for you. Of looking up on the sky on clear blue days (or dark clear nights) and feeling panic and awe at the hint of infinity. Oh, and summer days holding freezepops in your hands until you hurt because it's always better to drink them than eat them like a popsicle.

I'll give you a lot of things if you'll spare me that one. Please.

But then, magically, as if through a divine intervention, just when you're sick of looking at those roads forever, you'll hit a spot where the road is out. And for three months of the year, it's nothing but islands and water and sun again. And during the best time of the year for it, too! And so a person is free to do what they want again, until they find the road. Or the road comes to them. It is inevitable, in this place. You may fight it, you may stretch each island out until the sun has put itself out in the ocean and the night sky is lit with a billion fireflies, but eventually the sun steps out of the water and time lurches forward and the road reappears.

Summers go like that, again and again, until you finally give them up. Maybe you like going fast. Maybe you're tired of getting wet. Cars are air conditioned and go fast and are dry with seats that are ergonomically designed for your comfort. So inviting. A womb of steel and fabric and music and AC, hurtling oblivious through time.

If I could add a sound effect, it would be the sound of a needle on a record going off the groove. It probably sounds something like the word VROOOT. Three Os, because damn if we didn't just ruin the hell out of it. One big long scratch, right through the B side of an album that might not be your favorite, but you didn't want to lose. My metaphor ran on too long, and it's time to get back to business. No more whimsical treks. We're talking about 2003. Where was I?

2003 was the last Summer. There would be seasons where it was hot, between spring and fall when the days are long and the sun shines a lot. But it's not Summer like we used to rock Summer. Summer kicked you in the shin, jumped a shark and rode out of town and out of your life after you're done with school. Goodbye, Summer. It was nice knowing you.

Oh look at that. I scratched the hell out of the record again. VROOOT! Let's get back on track here.

The Summer of 2003 was about books. I had a friend, who I since long lost contact with, who was telling me all about the amazing world of literature that you find for yourself. Things both arcane and obscene, profound and base, common and rare. I was a product of eleven years of public education, brighter than my upbringing would suggest but recently with an awakened interest in expanding my horizons.

There are moments in your life where when you look back at them, you see a clear dividing line between who you were before and who you were after. And while I know it's not true for everyone (because I don't want a certain someone telling me that we've had this conversation before, and she's immune to moments like those) I imagine many reflective people could point to at least a time or two.

This was one of those times. The Last Summer. Looking back on it, it was a strange time. I discovered Buddhism, which I didn't whole-heartedly embrace but I did adapt to my own usage. I discovered Descartes, whose work has been one of the fundamental teachings of my life. I discovered Asian literature, which doesn't really bear much resemblance to my own writing, but is perhaps my biggest influence in a way I can't explain.

In my last summer, I discovered something special. You see, I knew that this was the last time I would ever have the Islands to myself. I read the papers. Coming up was the big, badass new version of the Superhighway. It was going to stretch on for miles and miles, as far as I could drive. No exits, no rest stops, just a straight stretch of pavement that'd take me from the onramp to the pillow of my coffin. And just my luck, I didn't even have to get up. It was coming to me, plopping me in a car, and sending me on my way.

Modern convenience.

That last Summer was the first time I felt the inklings of what it meant to exercise potential. I would not say I was a particularly motivated child, but in that long summer, where I sequestered myself away in books and words and worlds that I had never quite experienced before, I felt something greater than myself. An understanding of the world at large, perhaps. A brush of a hint of a connectedness between all things. Whatever you want to call it, I could feel something, a lurking shadow that was just out of focus.

I said sequestered before, and by sequestered I mean it. For three months, I lived a life of my own. I would wake up each day in the afternoon, and begin to read. I would read for hours, sometimes well towards dawn. And near dawn, I would meditate. Meditation is something that never took for me, not in the way I was trying to practice it. It was during those sessions that I experienced something much more in line with the Western tradition of meditation.

I devoured and processed for three months. I would walk at night through the park near where I lived at the time and look at trees and the sky and the moon. It is still the closest I have ever been with nature. I would always retreat back in before the sun rose, to sit in a beam of light that appeared with the sun and process the day. Then, finally, I would sleep.

One of the greatest warriors of Japanese folklore is Miyamoto Musashi. He was a real man, a master swordsman and painter and poet. The legend, however, states that as a young man he was little more than a brute, until a monk locked him away in a library for years to study before he emerged as the man of legend that he was to be. In that time, through books and meditation, he encountered a world greater than himself, forged his mind into something purer than meat and electrons.

I didn't know of this story at the time, but when I read it, I knew exactly what it referred to. It is the total embracing of introspection. The closing oneself so far internally that it explodes outward. The self is so well-known that it becomes like glass, and a person is both vulnerable and without weakness, seeing everything equally.

Many of the things I hold to be true and dear to me came into being during that Summer. I carried them with me as they began to sprout and grow, as ideas became stronger and slowly became the bedrock upon which I set who I was.

Those fundamentals have been ignored, tested, injured, corrupted. I've rebuilt, reassessed, reconsidered. But in the end, I cast myself upon a rock bigger and deeper than I ever knew. And I'm just now beginning to realize some of the depth of the foundation I rest upon.

Today was a grey day, the sky was featureless. I imagine it was not too far from what Limbo or Purgatory, should such places exist, would look like. But when I looked up at the sky I felt something pierce at me like a knife and it cut through the years of baggage and garbage that I've heaped upon myself since that Summer, and despite it not really coming to mind in a long time, I felt as though I had made some sort of connection with who I was back then. With a strange, lingering sense of potential hanging over me. Something both limitless and fleeting.

You know what happened, after that summer? Like everyone else, I got on the road. But I'll tell you a little secret. Every once in a while, on a day like today, I'll stop my car on the side and get out. The shoulder is narrow, the line between it and the road treacherously thin. But you can get up against the railing and look out into water so clear it's as forever as the sky. And below, even now, are the islands.

Someday, I think, I might go down there. Maybe there aren't any exits, but I can stop this car. It's just water down there. Water and stars and sun and possibilities. I'll get out of the car, and look over the rail, and maybe there'll be a wind that blows the smell of freedom from down below. And I'll just hop over the railing, just like that.

Sure, it's not as fast. Sure, I might not be going the right way. But down there is something amazing. A place where time moves slower and faster and only as fast as you'll allow it. Where days become magical and the world becomes something to be felt and worked with, not something to be overcome and conquered.

I don't expect it to be like the old days. You can never go home again. But maybe, just maybe, when I'm down there splashing around and making a fool of myself and loving every second of it, I can honor the memory of what was, create the memories out of now, and look towards the future.

It goes on forever, as far as the eye can see. Like the ocean. Like the sky. Like the mind.

1 comment:

Shadows said...

I'm slack-jawed in awe. You're a memoir guy. Point put. Heh.