It is 113° in Redding, California, and the Carr Fire continues to burn, destroying boats at the marina and buildings to the west, and filling the sky with ash and smoke. Those who haven’t been forced to evacuate stay inside to keep from breathing it in.
Blood-red skies and flickering horizons bring perspective, especially if it’s your family holed up in a motel hoping their home is still their home at the end of it all.
As all fires worth knowing about tend to do, this one leapt out of control quickly. As far as I know there haven’t been any casualties at this time, but there are no guarantees.
A week ago, I dreamed that I died. It wasn’t a dream of monsters chasing me, but it felt as real as those nightmares often do. I was in the liminal space between death and life; time had stopped, the time had come, and I was about to find out what really happens when you die. I only knew it was a dream when I woke up, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“Have you ever almost died?” It’s a question that surfaces on social media and road trips, and like others I have stories I dust off for just such occasions. Those of us who haven’t gotten nearly as close as we think we have laugh about our near-misses, but it’s only a temporary reprieve. I am a future dead girl.
Those who were once living wrote about beautiful and terrible places in their sacred books, but whether they have gone to those places, I don’t know.
We will all die, but we don’t like to talk about it, except in the wispiest of language. Maybe that’s why we love stories of resurrection so much. In fact, I’ll be telling one myself soon, with my fancy editing tools, and with my body. The camera will find me lying on a table, still and gray, then it will move close to my face, and, just as we planned, I will open my eyes.
The first time a friend of mine went skydiving, I was 17 years old and relieved I was too young to join her. But I put it on my bucket list. I wasn’t sure if I would ever have the courage to initiate such an adventure, but I knew there would come a time when people I knew would look to the sky and ask me to come along, when there would be an opportunity to say yes or no. And I would say yes, I was sure I would, one day.
I was also 17 when the sky drew my attention in a different way. I found NASA’s website on eclipses, the world maps with the splashes of red and blue that can turn anyone into a dreamer. No one knows for sure what her life will bring even tomorrow, but I knew what the sun and the moon would be doing in 10 years’ time, and I was determined to be there to see it. Long before anyone called it the Great American Solar Eclipse, I was joining my first group in the early days of Facebook and committing the far-off date of August 21, 2017, to memory.
And then I settled in to wait. Wait for time to pass, wait for courage, wait for other dreams to emerge, to incubate, to come true, to die.
There is romance in the narrative of dreams fulfilled. Until fulfillment was almost upon me, however, I didn’t realize how much I wanted them to be fulfilled in certain ways. It wasn’t enough to be in the right place at the right time, or to do an activity that hundreds or thousands of people do every day. I needed to bear witness to everything, everything happening around me and within me, every nuance of light and shadow, of falling and flying, of fear and joy and sadness. It’s a fearful pressure, an enormous responsibility, a catch-22 that inspires me to be more fully present while at the same time the fear of missing something can make me too anxious and preoccupied to be fully present. To trust that by “just being” I will gain everything I need to know and remember is a dance I have not fully learned.
Skydiving involves less than a minute of freefall, and then it’s a canopy ride. The total eclipse is bookended by hours of waxing and waning, but only two-and-a-half minutes of the high drama of darkness.
When a decade’s worth of anticipation is all over in a matter of seconds or minutes, will you remember what it looked like, what it felt like, or will you just remember the anticipation and the aftermath?
I saw the total eclipse in August, and I went skydiving in September.
My drive to work is nothing special. It starts with a nondescript road, grey and industrial and mostly quiet except for the semi trucks that sometimes congregate at the stoplight. Only, if I remember to look down when crossing the river, down and to the right, I smile.
It’s my recurring phenomenon across the suburbs, across urban and residential areas, across the very heart of the city.
Certain intersections are dear to my heart, certain crosswalks and parks and even train stations. I once made meticulous plans to be at those intersections, to be at those crosswalks and parks and train stations, and when I find myself there again by accident, it feels like a secret and a surprise.
I should venture out of the city a little more. I should seek out longer stretches of dirt and fresher air and closer proximity to the mountains. Denver is big, but it’s not that big. It’s beautiful, but it’s not that beautiful.
But I love it. I love this way of discovering my town. I love making my own loops and dipping into tiny parks and looking in vain for a sign with my last name on it. I love involving public transit when I can, fiddling with my armful of gear in the mornings and keeping downwind from other people in the afternoons.
More than anything, though, I love the stories that write themselves when I run — memories upon memories, tied to place: This is where I saw the deer, on that side of the snow-covered bridge in Cherry Creek State Park. This is where I almost cried listening to The Liturgists Podcast, these two laps around City Park on that hot March day. And the most common story: This is where I went the wrong way and got lost.
But I was always finding things too.
Some I found simply by going to certain places at certain times and paying attention. It’s the feel of the wind at night, warm and wild against my face, hours before the storm hits and the snow blankets everything. It’s the sight of the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen on the morning of my first marathon, a beauty undiminished even though everything else went wrong that day. It’s a series of quacks and rustlings and big skies and horizons. It’s life at its zenith, in me and out there.
I found within myself the usual things people find when they spend months training their bodies in strength and stamina, all the exhilarating and painful and confident and exhausting and stubborn things. I found a clarity that surprised me, an ease in decision-making while on the trail. I learned what I was capable of, and I learned when it was worth it … and when it wasn’t.
Not everything about running has been glorious or even good, but for many of the months I’ve lived in Colorado, it’s been one of the truest parts of my life. Even in the staggering and the struggling, the long middles and the early mornings, it was the X that marked the spot. So I look down and to the right, and I smile.
I’m not much of a concert person, even less a music festival person.
The soundtracks and stages of my youth were limited, and it was a long time before I fell head-over-heels in love with music. But fall I did, and for no one more deeply than Mumford & Sons.
Start a conversation about their craft and technique, and I wouldn’t be able to do much more than agree with every good word. But bring up their lyrics and ponder what their music means to people? I would be so full of thoughts. It comes down to their incredible ability to express the deep longings of the human soul, I would say, and for that reason they have sunk into my whole being and I have carried their music with me for years.
Their new album came out a few months ago, and I made it my (somewhat belated) mission over the first few weeks of August to learn and fall in love with it. Even with the banjo gone, it wasn’t difficult to make room for these new offerings.
But when I saw the band in concert two weeks ago, it was what was in long-term memory that made the deepest impression.
I had been standing in the same place for four hours, in a mass that only grew denser as the sun sank behind the stage. I was excited, even though my back ached and I was tired.
“It’s an out-of-body experience,” said the only one in my group who had seen them in concert before. I knew it to be true.
The space between indie-rocker Jenny Lewis and the much-anticipated final act was a collective inhale. Darkness settled on this mountain town. We all leaned forward as another background song faded out, hoping that this new silence would give way to what we had been longing for.
Finally, it did.
The thousands of us, we cheered. And then we began to sing.
Maybe other concerts are like this too, I don’t know, but to be packed among so many, all singing soul-deep songs, felt more like a religious experience than simply being in the presence of a talented band. A private concert wouldn’t have had nearly the same effect – not just because we could all sing along, but because of why we had learned those songs in the first place.
As much as I like their new album, I haven’t spent enough time with it for it to become part of my story. I haven’t learned the chords on the ukulele. They haven’t accompanied me on nearly as many car rides or late nights. They haven’t inspired me to take melodies and write my own lyrics. And this is even without counting the Christian undertones especially present in those first two albums.
The realization that I was actually there, actually in the same space as these singers of truth with other lovers of truth, was pure joy. Every song was worth the drive and the price and the wait, but only the ones woven deeply into my soul – only the ones in my long-term memory – led to the truest of out-of-body experiences: ones that made me forget my aching back and cast off my self-consciousness. To not only know who you are in a moment, but to actually and fully be that person – it is a gift.
When Mumford & Sons comes back to Colorado, or somewhere else in reaching distance, I will be there.
These songs and others like them access the deepest parts of my soul in ways that music slapped with the label Christian can’t. Hope and redemption stories can be guiding lights, but only when they are truthful … and the truth is often a mess of doubts and pain, anger and fear. When these stories come in that raw package, they don’t look anything like those happily-ever-after tales we heard as children, and still hear now.
We are all a mass of loose ends and contradictions and lingering questions. The unfinished stories are the ones I pull closest to my heart, because I too am an unfinished story.
Last night, I went to the cinema with my dad and sister to see the 50th-anniversary episode of the British television show Doctor Who.
I’d only seen about a dozen episodes in total, and was going mostly for my sister, who wore her Doctor Who T-shirt and carried her sonic screwdriver and cheered at all the right times.
Even as the homages and references and plot points jumped over my head and skated every which way around me, I couldn’t help but feel the momentousness of it all.
We all have stories and characters we love. We move in close to them, pressing in as we would around a fire, hands and faces turned toward the warmth.
Yes, we can get lost in stories and escape in make-believe and find our hands and faces charred in the end.
Story can go wrong, and we can argue endlessly about whether it’s the story’s fault or your fault.
But then, then there are the times when story goes right, when story is as it’s meant to be.
Story as it’s meant to be draws us into its world … and then back out into our own worlds. In some little way or some big way or some unknown way, it connects us with what it means to be human.
We like these stories and characters because somehow, we can connect with them. He said something funny, and I laughed. That look in her eyes almost made me cry too. That story crushed me or resonated with me or reminded me of something important.
But then scripts and performances, editors and formulas, platforms and special effects, audiences and critics, it’s-not-like-the-book and it’s-barely-based-on-a-true-story, politics and hidden agendas … how easy it is to lose the magic of story.
But it’s still there, if we will only be open to it.
We all have moments wrapped in beauty, in the doing and in the thinking and in the living. And we all have moments wrapped in pain.
I drove home with my dad from that Doctor Who special without saying much of anything. Mumford & Sons filled the car and all outside was dark and same. And I was thinking of how characters and stories mean so much to every one of us, and art was alive inside me, and I felt so very full.
Moments like that, where the music and the mind come together to make something rich, even if it stays inside and unspoken, remind me of the other stories on screens and in books. Those started inside someone too, and now here they are.
Story connects us with what it means to be human. It happens when my unspoken meets your spoken, and I am changed.