I Think I Might Move:
Reminiscing trauma’s effects on my mind, body and spirit
I’ve escaped death yet again. Luckily.
I drove to work this morning (Nov. 5 2014) to our office’s new location. A couple traffic snags put me a couple minutes behind schedule, so I felt fortunate to find a spot on the modern cobblestone road that ran parallel to our building, right in the central business district of downtown Lynchburg, Virginia.
I opened the door to my most favorite automobile to date: my robin’s egg blue 1980 Volvo wagon. It’s the most economically-sound purchase I’ve made in my entire life. And as my friends in Argentina would say: “It leaks style.”
(Also coolant, sometimes.)
I popped open the door, but reached over to the passenger to grab my bag before getting out. An oncoming vehicle was a little too far toward the opposite lane, causing a large white utility van on my side of the road to swerve and ram straight into my open door (the one with the sticky handle), mangling it to the point where the inner plastic tray burst off as the entire assembly was wrenched open to a near 180-degrees.
Thinking about it in retrospect, my arm could have still been extended when the collision occurred. And there’s no telling what kind of mess would’ve been created if I had been leaning out to exit.
Maybe something similar to the conspicuous messes that stop trains, like the one that stopped when it struck my friend only three days from then, three miles away. He was not so fortunate.
* * *
Every one of my personal “breakthroughs” has happened as a result of a traumatic experience. The first I can remember wasn’t quite near-death, but it still shocked me from my perception of solipsistic invincibility. I was in elementary school, horsing around with some friends at our lower New York town’s public lake. I launched off my friends shoulders and landed face-first in the shallow sandy bottom. My face was kind of a mess. It kept me from swimming for a while. I still have the scars to prove it.
That was the year I became an avid reader.
Mid-way through my freshman year of high school, we moved to another town, and my siblings and I started attending new schools after having been in the same district with the same friends since kindergarten. Weeks after moving in, I hopped off the after-school sports bus wearing a bright yellow parka and a red Yankees cap. This was, almost to the day, 15 years ago today.
My father asked me to get the mail across the street. When I turned to cross back to over to our house, I looked right to see if any cars were coming. One was in the distance.
I began pulling back as I looked left (my foot was on the white line of a busy no-shoulder, 35-mph road) and saw an elderly woman’s eyes grow big, her mouth open wide, her chin pull back. The passenger-side headlight struck the inside of my right knee. I was spinning while mail fluttered to the road. I lay on the pavement, looking at my flashy new basketball sneakers beneath her Oldsmobile.
My Argentine father, reverting to his native castellano, crouched above me, face squinched with concern, and asked, “¿Qué pasó?”
He turned to have more choice words with the elderly driver. I doubt she understood the details, but the tone was clear enough.
A week later, I’m pulling my mothers Ovation 12-string guitar out from under her bed. The action was (and still is) about an inch high. While waiting for my knee to heel from surgery (and gaining a fair amount of weight), I taught myself how to play songs I liked. I started digging through my dad’s old Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd cassettes. Tried alcohol. Tried pot. Played in the youth group worship band.
* * *
Also not a near death experience, but certainly a kind of trauma of its own.
During my freshman year of college, I became really close friends to a beautiful blonde who, like me, was from New York.
I pursued her for months by spending every day trying to be the best bestfriend I could imagine. We had a trialsome emotional conversation near the end of that first semester where we discussed our pasts. Cried. Consoled.
We were lying on a classroom floor at the Christian university we both attended, arms wrapped around one another. It was where I kissed her for the first time, for real, in an academic building I’d been cleaning five nights per week for $5 per hour.
All those long walks across campus to drop her off at her dorm, the overly thoughtful flowers and endless compliments finally paid off.
We started holding hands and stealing passionate kisses in elevators. One time, someone trying to catch the closing doors spotted us. He smiled and said he’d wait for the next one.
Through our persistent email and hand-written correspondence, she mentioned that she thought I had a knack for writing, or at least that I seemed to enjoy it. It had never really crossed my mind before, but that didn’t stop me from shifting my major from math to journalism, when originally I’d wanted to study psychology.
I began volunteering at the university newspaper. My then girlfriend (and now wife) was the first person who I thought really liked me for me, it seemed, and it was truly inspirational. Or, rather she liked me for who I thought I was supposed to be, who I projected myself to be: the good Christian boy who wanted to become a missionary journalist (whatever that meant), and raise children abroad.
The summer before we were married, I was t-boned by a taxi on a rain-slick road. The stop sign was obscured by dense, low hanging tree leaves. I hit the breaks, and my light little sedan skidded through the intersection, and the impact — which struck just behind the driver seat — fishtailed me into a telephone pole, destroying the car. I went home and drank a bottle of Clos Du Bois Merlot by myself, as fast as I could. My then fiancee was up in New York getting prepared for our wedding.
I was fine, minus the vomiting.
I began my scholarship position as a section editor and columnist for the university newspaper three months later, often staying up all night in manic page layout/writing/Elliott Smith listening sessions. Started writing short stories and poetry more consistently.
Drank with my friends a lot. Sometimes with my new wife who had just endured my getting too sick on our wedding night for us to sleep together.
Then there was the time I was riding my father-in-law’s bike on my way home from an under-the-table landscaping job in Upstate New York. I was thrown off the expensive machine, but luckily OK.
That accident happened the same summer we moved back from Argentina and I was working at restaurants, applying for “real” jobs, and trying save up enough money to bring my family down to the new city I’d moved to.
I spent the first few months alone, and for the first time in my life I was not busy with keeping up with the business of appearing to be a Bible-believing Christian. In that period of stillness, I was forced to confront my worldview. I finally began to admit to myself that I never actually held dear the things I was taught — the things I was expected to believe (or to burn).
I tried to continue pretending, as I had learn to do for my entire conscious life, until the following year, on the summer of my 25th birthday, when I came out to my Christian college friends and pregnant wife as a non-believer, which confused everyone since I had just spent two years abroad serving as a missionary high school teacher in Buenos Aires.
(What they didn’t know, however, was that I also worked for an alternative culture and arts magazine downtown, which often meant many late nights at Fashion Week events, rooftop parrillas, beers, whiscola, Fernet Branca, amazing people, art galleries, distinctly different-tasting Camel cigarettes, and long bus rides home. Writing for a couples hours every day after work, and in between teaching prep sessions. Shooting back downtown to do it all over again. My wife at home with our newborn, later our one-year-old.)
When I finally expressed to my college friends and wife what I’d been fearing all along, I began drinking even more heavily, partially as a way to cope with the transition, but partially because it felt really appropriate to live like nothing mattered while walking through the divine breakup.
I was employed at the time as a marketing copywriter and editor at my conservative Christian alma mater. I started writing and performing music in my evening hours, and even set up some events. Whiskey was constant. Nights were late. I told my friends that drinking was my release from my feeling like I had to lie every day just to make a living. I had to continue to pretend to be what I was not while attempting grab hold of what I was becoming.
I eventually left that position, and drifted between a few industries for a few years (and applied for repeat student loan deferments).
That is, until summer 2013, when a deer jumped out in front of my motorcycle. Her entry was maybe 3 ft. in front of my tire. I drilled into her midsection and skidded supine down the road. It felt reminiscent of getting hit by the car in high school: Laying on my back in the road with a full backpack. Mangled belongings scattered about. An official telling me that I was lucky to be alive. Plans changing. Heart pumping. Breathing. Living. Awake.
That week, I began my current trajectory as a sometimes freelance writer and a newly-minted photographer/videographer with a business partner and an LLC. I’ve since kicked the booze, the tobacco, gluten and dairy (usually) — and 70 lbs. of bodyweight.
I replaced my destructive habits with clean(ish) eating, yoga, meditation and positive focus.
During and throughout all of these experiences and shifts — even up through this morning’s near miss and my current slingshot trip to Atlanta (I’m writing from the passenger seat)— is my wife, unchanged, watching me fold between personalities and professions, all the while only wanting me to prioritize her over the myriad of lifelines I’ve been chasing, running after ragged.
For some reason, I never figured out how to do this. I refuse to let go of things I enjoy, things that I feel add to my life, even when my environment dictates otherwise. When my joy dictates otherwise. I still can’t bring myself to accompany her and the kids to church.
I have, at least as it appears to those around me, an easy time saying “yes” to potentially one-time engagements — whether career-oriented or something to do with my creative community — instead of spending quiet evenings at home after we’ve put our three girls to sleep.
When these existence-shaking experiences occur, I rarely notice what has happened until long after the fact, and the changes have begun to feel normal. I think I’ve been through this cycle enough times to be able to recognize now what it is and when it’s happening: These experiences that are so intense and cathartic that you come out on the other side changed, yet somehow more you.
I’ve come to look at aspects of my life as literary elements.
Conflict: Within the difference of just a second or two, a man coming to grips with his troubled relationships realizes he could have been seriously maimed [or worse, way worse] by a hit-and-run driver.
Setting: A character on a journey to a never-before experienced land, the beatnik feel of traveling through the night with friends and the bindle-stiff nature of looking for work in a far away city.
I’m right now riding in a car to Atlanta. I took the first shift with the rental, and the third (and final) driver is currently at the wheel. We have only minutes before arriving at our buddy’s house. I don’t know what’s going to happen while I’m here, much less in the future, with my career and my community and my home life. Not a clue. My best available option, it seems, is to stay consistent. Remain positive. Eat, sleep and exercise well.
Stay aware and ready for whatever’s up ahead. Listen. Live. Breathe.
# # #
This piece is dedicated to my late friend Jon Gregoire, who died tragically on November 8, 2014. Might we all live with joy, love and kindness that’s even a fraction as bright as Jon’s.