Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things. ~ Robert Brault
For Shelley — In Memoriam
Years ago, at the end of the near decade I lived in New York City, I took the train west, listening to Van Morrison’s album “Enlightenment” and watching the blue lights of the George Washington Bridge fade behind me as I left. I said goodbye to life in the city and headed toward Chicago.
Within hours, we got stuck after a bad snowstorm in Ohio.
I saw the conductor walking alongside the tracks, his breath clouding the cool air. After 12 hours, they served us box lunches of Kentucky Fried Chicken they’d bought in that small town since the electrical on the train was down. The dining car was out of commission as a result. Amtrak finally got the tracks cleared and we headed into the windy city, exhausted and half-frozen, but no worse for the wear. I had to navigate the platform with all my suitcases, coat, pillow, purse. I got off that train and ran like hell to catch the Southwest Chief ten minutes later. I thought surely I would miss the connection, but a kind stranger helped me with my bags, and I got on just a moment or two prior to departure.
As I settled into a seat, we took an old bridge over the river and headed south through Illinois, into Missouri toward Kansas. I eventually went to the dining car and ordered eggs, sausage, biscuits and hash browns — starved for anything other than vending machine candy and soda. I sat with folks from the middle of the country and we chatted amiably over our over-easy eggs and watery coffee. I remember the flat vacancy of the mid-west, the treeless stretches of prairie that went on for miles. I longed to see the west coast — which I would in a few days — and wondered how anyone could settle in such desolation. To me, living in a place without trees felt dead.
Eventually, the train headed into New Mexico, where we passed through the mountains, tracks nestled along the edge of the cliffs. Little casitas and shacks dotted the landscape. Pigs and goats chewed on hay in front of ramshackle farm houses. Everyone had multiple rundown vehicles rusting in their yards. I loved the color of the sky — the particular way that light dappled that land. It was as though everything glowed when the sun hit it. Poverty was pervasive. People were eking out an existence, unnoticed, invisible in lots of ways. Still, the water-colored horizon sang to me as we pulled through the state. The high desert spoke my language. It reminded me of my grandmother’s love for the Navajo and Zuni, their dolls, rugs, blankets, pots.
We stopped briefly in Flagstaff, Arizona during the middle of the night. La Posada (now an elegant hotel) held offices for the railroad in those days. I remember waking up just as the train picked up speed and we headed toward California and our last stop in Los Angeles. We crossed the Painted Desert during the black of night. The Petrified Forest, Four Corners, Canyon du Chelly were cloaked in darkness. When I woke up, we were traveling alongside the LA river — its cement encasement containing a trickle of water. The high rises of downtown Los Angeles shimmered in the distance. My uncle — who’s been dead since 2001 — picked me up in a silver Cadillac. I stayed with him, and my aunt, Giselle, in Glendale. Their yard was filled with flowering bushes bordering a lush green lawn. The smog stung my lungs. I could sense the ocean, just twenty miles away.
On that trip, I went down to San Diego to tour the campus of the University of San Diego — having applied to their graduate program in music. (I didn’t get in, but I wouldn’t know that for another couple of months.) I visited the campus and stayed with an old friend and her five-year-old son in Pacific Beach — slept on the floor of her living room. The Gulf war started the night I arrived. Oil fields were on fire as the troops marched across the desert. I remember only snippets: dead birds and burned corpses. I stayed away from the coverage, intent on not being a part of the slaughter.
I ate deep fried burritos and sat by the Pacific — watching the tide come in. I loved the smell of seaweed and salt, the feel of gray sand under my bare feet. I didn’t know how the years ahead would play out. That the Gulf war was just a preamble. That my friend’s five-year-old would commit suicide before his twenty-second birthday. That I wouldn’t study music or social work; instead, I would begin to write. I didn’t know the pervasive sadness — the black well of depression — that would swallow me during that coming decade. I didn’t know that I would flounder over another friend’s suicide, that I would feel so stymied about love, so disappointed, that I wouldn’t truly allow it into my life until after I turned 40.
I was 30 when I left New York. I thought I knew where I was headed. I thought the road before me was clear — unencumbered. I was wrong.
The road through life turned out to be full of twists and turns. I ended up back in LA six years later, at USC for graduate school. I wrote stories and did office work to pay the rent. I listened to a police helicopter hover over the grad student housing unit I lived in, preying mantis ready to devour its young. I ate too much and cried too much. I daydreamed of teaching and of publishing a book. I put one foot in front of the other. Nothing comforted me, but I kept going. I kept up my Buddhist practice. I kept writing.
And the thing is, now — twenty years later — all those small moments are what shine back at me when I think of how I have lived my life. I sorted it out. I got on with it.
I don’t know what made me think about all this today. A colleague of mine died last week. She was 46. Turns out that she may have had congestive heart failure and not known it. She went to the doctor complaining of trouble breathing. 36 hours later, she was dead. Her autopsy revealed fluid around her heart. She lived in Belize and taught her classes online. She drank like a fish and smoked like there was no tomorrow. I didn’t know her well, but her sudden death got me thinking again about the subtle importance of our choices. Our small choices. I admire that she lived the life she wanted, baking in the sun, playing in the ocean, living with the doors of her life wide open.
I wonder if some part of her knew she’d die young.
© 2012 Shavawn M. Berry All rights reserved
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