Note No. 25

November 26, 2009

When I was 14, I set the county record for the 800-meter dash. My track coach had told us all to let the standing champ win it, that all she wanted from us was second and third place. Well, that was enough to piss me off. I paced that first lap, letting her keep the lead until midway through the second and final lap. Then I tapped into a reserve of energy that I had kept just on the surface, pulling into the passing lane and blowing by her as if I were on wheels. Once she realized what had happened, I was already around the curve, making my final approach to the finish line. She tried to overtake me again but it was too late; I had taken her by surprise. Without stopping, I raced past my coach and right up into the stands, taking two steps at a time to jump into my dad’s arms.

It still makes my chest swell to think about it.

Then there was the time I was running for class office in grade school, after we had moved to Georgia. All hundred or so of us had gathered in the library to watch the taped campaign speeches. The lights were out; it was mid-afternoon, after lunch, and I was sitting with my best friend in the back row, cross-legged like everyone else, when I had the sudden urge to pass gas. Thinking it would be a small, innocuous one, I leaned back ever so slightly to release it and the loudest, longest fart you can imagine escaped. The floor vibrated and everyone (I repeat: everyone) in the room turned to look back at me. Teachers even glanced up from where they were seated off to the side, removed from all of us and grading papers.

I wanted to die.

Then there was the time when I was in Miss Baker’s second grade class in Florida and we were at recess. I was on the elbow bars, walking along on my hands, when I fell, hitting my lip on the way down. There was a thud as I landed and I remember seeing the feet of all my classmates as they gathered around me. My head was still down, my face hidden from view, and as I saw a single drop of blood land in the sand, I remember thinking that this was my decision time: I could do what was expected and cry, or I could buck it up and keep a brave face.

I chose the latter.

Why do we carry these moments around with us, decades after they have passed? I think it’s because they qualify as what human behavior expert Morris Massey called Significant Emotional Events. For better or worse, they shape who we are, where we go, why we do what we do, and what is important to us.

I’ve got other ones, ones that are less about me and more about what I saw, like the night a tractor trailer tipped over in front of my dad and sister and I coming home from Atlanta. From my vantage point in the middle back seat, I saw it all unfold: the rig off to our right as it began to fishtail several yards ahead; the beginnings of smoke from its out-of-control tires; the comprehension that it was going to tip; the moment when it landed on its side, miraculously without any cars under it nor without sliding down the embankment to another set of interstate lanes; the brake lights from the sea of cars in front of us; the realization that my father was not going to let us be injured, that he was going to control our car and steer us out of danger; the driver of the rig, completely unharmed as he stood outside the smoking cabin several minutes after the accident.

There was also the time I saw a woman trapped by her airbag. Her mouth was open in a frozen scream and her car was stopped in the middle of an intersection where she had been T-boned by another car. I was riding with my parents and their two friends, and we were doing something boring, like carpet shopping. I will never know if that woman was frozen in her last moment of life, or if it was a moment of shock that eventually passed, when the ambulance came and saved her.

Disturbing as these images may be, I do not want to forget them. They are part of life and they are intended to serve as reminders of the constant cycle of which we are a part. Triumph. Embarrassment. Humor. Courage. Destruction. Good fortune. Tragedy. We are meant to embrace them all in some way, because there is something to be learned from each of them.

Today is Thanksgiving, one of my favorite holidays. We should not need to be reminded to take stock of what we have and to give thanks for it but we do need that; we all do. The other night, I was walking with a friend who will be moving off the island soon. It was sunset and we were both admiring the beauty of the moment, as well as of the island, in general, when she began to lament not having appreciated the island fully in her last few months here. It is only when something is being taken away from us that we remember to value it, she said; otherwise, we just see the piles of rubble on the side of the road.

Living here can have that effect on you; it’s true. But so can anywhere. No matter where you are, there is something you are taking for granted and you are blessed if you can realize what that is and treasure it while you still have it.

We are human. We are just as comfortable in our routines as we resent them and crave to get out of them. We are always looking around to see what else there is, always trying to figure out the next step. It is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s how we figure out what we want in life: trying something, tweaking it, learning from it, moving on, growing, regressing, growing again. Like anything, though, it must be kept in check and so, it is days like today that remind us to stop and be grateful more often. It is not just about what we have, either; it’s the fact that we are even here to say thank you for that.

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