A couple days ago I was shuffling through the (ridiculous amount of) music on my phone when I ran across what I had, on numerous occasions over the past several years, called a sort of theme song for my life. At once a declaration of exasperation and hope (towards present pitfalls and future triumphs, respectively), All Time Low’s “Weightless” encapsulated well the way I felt whenever I would fail to achieve the many goals I set for improving my life. The song’s optimistic chorus, which begins “Maybe it’s not my weekend, but it’s gonna be my year” resonated strongly; yet by year three, the optimism was empty; the certainty that the bad would turn around: anything but certain.

Life has been good lately, and so I came quite close to skipping past “Weightless” when it came on, thinking of it as a relic of some bygone and happily-forgotten era of my life, a thing to which I had once related, but (happily) would no longer. But I didn’t skip it. And as I listened, I began to realize my graduation celebration had come a bit prematurely; I wasn’t onto the next track. I had merely made it to the second verse.

All Time Low – “Weightless”
Verse 1:
Manage me, I’m a mess.
Turn a page, I’m a book half unread.
I wanna be laughed at, laughed with just because
I wanna feel weightless.
And that should be enough.
But I’m stuck in this fucking rut, 
Waiting on a secondhand pick-me-up
And I’m over getting older.
If I could just find the time,
Then I would never let another day go by.
I’m over getting old.
And maybe it’s not my weekend
But it’s gonna be my year
And I’m so sick of watching while the minutes pass and I go nowhere.
And this is my reaction to everything I fear
‘Cause I’ve been going crazy.
I don’t wanna waste another minute here.

Anyone familiar with my life for the last several years can appreciate the aptness of all that. My life was the perfect image of stagnation, and time and again I would make excuses for the failure to go anywhere. I really was in a rut. My rut’s name was “Pawling,” and frankly, the profanity fits the frustration I felt towards being in that rut. Even as I wasted time I lamented not having the time. I committed to changing my life tomorrow — and of course, tomorrow never comes. Which is why, of course, no weekend was my weekend, and the year that would have been mine never arrived.

Until this year. Or, more accurately, until last year, when I began to make proactive choices which led to where I am this year. And while there were some parts of the early 2013 I’m not proud of, I feel confident that this is, especially in a comparative sense, “my year.”

So flash forward, and I’m here, a graduate student. But in many ways the naive, immature person who preferred having a catchy pop song to relate to over worrying about the implications thereof, has lingered. He and I are in an outright fight to the death. And I don’t think I realized that until this week, and tonight in particular, as I listened again to the song while reflecting on the night’s class and subsequent bus ride, wherein I — or he — outright dominated the so-called discourse. He is the Adam who does NOT know how to shut. the hell. up.

I wrote, several years back, about the surreal effect I’ve experienced wherein I feel like I’ve lost agency over my own behavior, and I sit, mouth agape, watching myself say or do things that I want to stop, am almost screaming at myself to please stop, and yet despite this being me we’re talking about, who wants me to stop… I don’t. Times like this my eyes wander even as my mouth moves. I can see the rolled eyes. I can see the people whose looks communicate to one another “here he goes again.” I hear the person I just interrupted, again, and I hear the unspoken curses nested in the tight corners of the forced smile they feign to stop themselves from reaching across the table and slapping me.

It occurs to me that it would likely be better if I truly were just completely oblivious — if I had a degree of plausible deniability, and honestly didn’t know that I was behaving in unacceptable ways. Not only could this be used to excuse it — he’s socially inept — but it would save me the added frustration (added, that is, to my own self-criticism) of wondering just how many conversations have been had between peers about how obnoxious I tend to be. It’s one thing to be paranoid that people dislike you or speak ill of you. But this is something else; this is a full-fledged awareness that I do things for which I ought to be disliked or ostracized. That phantom me on the periphery wants to stick around after I leave so that when someone says “I thought he’d never stop talking” he can say “I know, tell me about it!”

Of course one of the issues, the one I have no doubt I subconsciously cling to and use to justify my impropriety, is that on occasion someone will compliment one of my diatribes or tell me I’d more or less spoken their mind. And so while I’m off in the corner of my mind discussing with half the class how much I wouldn’t mind if Adam suddenly lost his tongue, someone’s telling me they can’t get over “how smart you are.”

Verse 2:
Make believe that I impress,
That every word, by design, turns a head.

…yeah, make believe.

Make believe that I’m half as smart or put together as those folks seem to think. Because it’s simply not true. And if you need proof, you need look no further than the faces of the people in the room.

Perhaps it’s my social ineptitude — or my seeming inability (is it merely refusal?) to take the reins and make myself less impudent — that has led me to live such an introverted life. As much as I love being around and talking with people, I have tendencies which invariably drive people away. Once more with paranoia, it’d be unreasonable for most people to constantly wonder whether they’d said or done something to make someone avoid them. But me? I can point to specific, empirical evidence in the form of a dozen shattered friendships I broke by clinging to too tightly.

I have trouble letting things go — not for good, but just in general. I like being sure. I like knowing what happened, what’s happening, what is supposed to happen next. I don’t jump from one rock to the next; I slowly shift my weight from one foot to the other, lifting only when I’m sure I’m on stable ground. I don’t do well with uncertainty. But my neediness in that regard means I rarely leave the ground.

Verse 2, continued:
I wanna feel reckless,
Wanna live it up just because.
I wanna feel weightless,
‘Cause that would be enough. 

I’ve said it to folks but I don’t think most people understand the extent to which the trip I took with some new friends a few weeks ago was extraordinarily beyond my typical comfort zone. I did not know where we were going. I didn’t even really know who was going. I didn’t know where we’d stay, or what we were going to do. Yet despite so many years of assuring myself that leaving the ground would most likely result in pain upon landing, I jumped anyway.

This could be all I’ve waited for.
This could be everything!
I don’t wanna dream anymore.

I’ll be honest. Blogs like this one? I’m not sure which Adam writes them. Is it the one who’s excited about making progress, overcoming shortcomings, pulling the zipper across my lips? Or is this in some convoluted way the utmost of narcissism, a meta-faux pas? Does it engender empathy, or merely exacerbate the problems?

All I can really do is be optimistic and take solace in whatever value sheer honesty may be said to have. If it turns out that someone I’ve been driving away is encouraged to know that I’m aware of my unsavory idiosyncrasies, cool. They might rightly point out that recognizing a problem and actually solving it are hardly the same thing. And to that I can simply say I’ve made a lot of progress recently — a lot more, in fact, than most of the previous three or four years combined can boast. I’m still making a lot of mistakes.

And hey.

Maybe it’s not my weekend.

But it’s gonna be my year. 

Another August 27th

I’m really happy.

I think there are other things I might have said, or tried to say, to obfuscate that point, but after twenty minutes of boring myself with some grandiose way of trying to make it something bigger, here we are: I’m smiling, and I’ve gotten to smile a lot today, and the rest is inconsequential; I had a happy birthday.

When I looked in the mirror this morning I saw a person whom I liked, and was looking forward to being.

And for me? That’s a big deal. That’s new. That’s exciting.

But it didn’t come from within. It was foisted on me by powers without. For two weeks I’ve been baptized in a sense of purpose and belonging, receiving two gifts which transcend anything I might have been consciously, intentionally given.

Gift One is acceptance into this program and, specifically, the fellowship supporting my first year. I know I’m supposed to be a master at articulation but words fail to encapsulate how it feels to walk into a room of brilliant people and to know that, in spite of the inferiority and uncertainty and anxiety, I am here because someone specifically decided that what I think and say will be a benefit to this community, and not simply because I wanted to be here. People who had never met me chose to invest, directly, financially, in the person I have the potential to be.

The second gift is a little less obvious, but in many ways more valuable: new friendship. I cannot overstate how incredible it feels to have people in your life who, after meeting you, could easily have avoided ever seeing you again, but have instead elected to make you a part of their lives and allowed you to make them a part of yours. And that’s not to slight any of the wonderful friends and family who reached out today to wish me well, whose continued participation in my life is its own ever-renewing reward. But to come into a place with no one by your side, and two weeks later have formed a group mutually comfortable enough to consider spending a weekend away together…

…did I mention I was smiling?

I was asked, today, if I was “doing anything for [my] birthday.” Some wild party. Some grand adventure. A little irresponsible spending. A special ritual. The implication, unspoken, that a birthday is made by something which can be pinpointed as exceptional, that it must (or, to avoid being pitiful, ought to) transcend the normal course of things.

Yet for my birthday, I did not transcend the normal.

I did homework for six hours. I went to a meeting. I went to class. I ate a homemade, brown-bagged dinner while rushing through a last-minute assignment. And I guess if I put it like that, it sounds like I didn’t “do anything.”

But in the spaces between, I did a job. I learned something new. I met new people. I deepened my relationships with others.

Whatever happens in the next days or weeks which may be justified on the basis of “it’s for my birthday,” the fact remains that my birthday is over.

I’m still feeling happy.

And of all the things I could “do” to embrace being twenty-four, I’m pretty comfortable with “doing” that.




Regarding July 24th, 2013

I am blessed.

I’ve been blessed all along, of course. But only today, sitting in the yellow glow of a corner lamp, holding a catalog of action figures and statues I’d never consider buying, and looking at the numerous boxes of books, games, music, and films which I’d packed over the course of the evening, did I truly understand just how incredibly well-off I am, and how happy the last few days have made me, and how earnestly I am looking forward to the coming days, weeks, and months.

There are huge, obvious blessings. Grad school acceptance. Funding. Not having to gamble on a new roommate. Not having to worry about furnishing the apartment. Getting to study what I love and being paid to do so. Having an adviser who is already more embracing of my research interests than I’d ever hoped.

I get to be part of two weddings within less than ten days, of friends who’ve meant so much to me for years, and even more in just the last twelve months.

My auto insurance is going to be lower than I expected it to be…by almost 40%.

And those are just the big things. The tea in my mug, the comic on my bed, the gas in my car’s tank, the breakfast I can make in the morning…

I think at some point there will be an obligatory “goodbye, Pawling” blog and a “hello, Columbus” blog and a “Oh my goodness I’m not gonna be 23 anymore” blog. But right now I just feel obligated to let folks know I’m happy. After so many months of turning people off with my vitriol and and cynicism, I’m okay with taking one random blog to be cloying. One random blog to say I ran across my Hillary Duff Metamorphosis CD and laughed, and thought of how many others would have laughed too. One random blog to say I still have those gallstones in a jar beside the Anberlin music that carried me through my surgery and bonded me with someone who has since gotten married and had children, but never stopped being awesome. One random blog to say it’s been too long since I watched The Lion King or A Walk to Remember.

Today I finished a video game, wrote a rant, went for a drive with my brother, paid off a tux rental, read friends’ blogs, packed a portion of my life away, unpacked some memories, wrote a more positive rant, drank a lot of coffee and a little tea, joined a website, and read a few comics. It wasn’t necessarily an important day. But it was a good one. I could use more like it.

I think, though, that if I really stop and consider things, I’ll find that the exceptional thing about today wasn’t that I was more blessed than usual.

It’s that today, I noticed.

Winning is Everything

Several years ago, some friends of mine were involved with running the school’s annual Relay For Life, which raises money for the American Cancer Society through pledges and donations. I looked forward to the event each year, though not for any particularly altruistic reasons; I just enjoyed the feel of the gymnasium, the camaraderie of the wee hours of the morning when most people were sleeping and we were still going strong in our circles. I enjoyed the sunrise I would otherwise never see. In the back of my mind I figured I also enjoyed feeling like I’d done something unselfish, but that wasn’t entirely true.

This particular year, my friends were also selling t-shirts, and one design caught my eye. In large letters, the thing most people see first, it said “WINNING ISN’T EVERYTHING.” But above and below were more words, and the complete phrase on the shirt was actually “Whoever says “winning isn’t everything” obviously isn’t fighting cancer.”

At the time, cancer had touched my life but vaguely. I’d seen it, but not in a way which had ever caused me to stop and think about it. I just thought it was a clever shirt, and I ordered one, and later on I wore it and felt clever, but that was the extent of things.

When I came home from college, our church was in the process of beginning a thing called “Life Groups,” which was a new way of doing something so old that it is part of my earliest memories of home life: small church-driven Bible studies in folks’ homes, which facilitated both a deeper area understanding and a more personal, lasting relationship-building outlet for members and their families.

For the better part of a year, I attended a Life Group at the home of a family friend. It was a fairly small group, rarely exceeding eight members, but it was cozy and affirming and a great way to spend an evening each week. I’ve always been terrible with names and faces, and it took me a while to make sure I hadn’t accidentally mixed people up, but one person whose name I immediately remembered, whose charisma and quiet intelligence struck me from the first time he contributed to our discussion, was Chris Ryff.

It wasn’t long after having met Chris that I found out what everyone else in the room (and most people in the church, who hadn’t just returned from school) already knew: Chris was suffering from a particularly nasty form of cancer, and was already in the final battles of that particular war. It shocked me a little to hear, because although (as I said) he was quiet, there was a daunting life force behind his eyes. Yet I was told this man was dying.

I don’t think think I believed it then. I still don’t really believe it now. Chris’ pain — physical, emotional, psychological — would have crippled most people, but in all the time I’ve known him I never saw a hint of that. In time, it would manifest itself in a sort of unspoken sadness, but never anger, never resentment, never pity.

There was a break between Life Group sessions and last year, when sessions resumed, Chris was notably absent. At the church picnic I almost asked him where he’d been, wanted to tell him we’d missed him, but for reasons I cannot remember I procrastinated that conversation, got distracted, and it never happened. I never saw Chris at Life Group again, and my own attendance floundered and then failed, so I don’t know if he ever went back. I don’t think even now I can properly grapple with that thought, that a year ago Chris left “life group.” Perhaps had it been called something different…

What I do know is that life got harder, and that Chris’s was the sort of cancer where they throw things at the wall to see what sticks; the sort where all the proven methods have failed and they try the experimental ones, hoping for a breakthrough that will advance their understanding of the disease and save your life in the process. Despite its extraordinary potential to advance the medical field, such treatment is actually quite expensive to undergo, and the financial burden became more immediately apparent. Our church, Chris’s friends, and many who knew him rallied to raise the money that would make trying to save Chris’s life not come at the expense of Chris having a future livelihood.

We attended a benefit banquet near the tail end of that fundraising push, where lifelong friends, coworkers, bosses, and relatives spoke to Chris’s character and confirmed what anyone who met him immediately, wordlessly understood: he was an exception. And through this all he had carried the inexplicable burden of dying for no good reason with a humility and grace which few of us manifest in the face of far lesser trials. With wife and child by his side, he thanked everyone, and in that moment, even though he was standing there and even though we were all praying that he might be the breakthrough patient, there was still an uncanny sense that we had just attended a funeral. As joyous a funeral as one could have — after all, most of the folks in the room believed in heaven, and Chris was about as saintly as one could hope to be, quite clearly having put his fate in Christ’s hands long ago. But a funeral nonetheless.

After that, to my great regret, I have not seen Chris very much. He frequently was said to be undergoing treatment in a variety of places, and through the grapevine all I heard was that his condition was deteriorating. When I heard, while living in Massachusetts, that two other members of our congregation had recently lost their battles with cancer, my thoughts turned to Chris, and I wondered whether his story would be different.

For the last several weeks I’ve seen updates from Chris on Facebook, keeping us updated with his treatment, when he’d be in which hospital, for how long, when people might visit. He wanted people there with him. He routinely expressed this, and I can only hope that people went. For several weeks, I saw it, but there was always some hollow excuse not to go. The hollowest, the one which sticks in my mind now, was that I didn’t really know Chris; that our paths hadn’t crossed for terribly long, and I wasn’t the sort of person he hoped to see.

I realize now that that’s a chicken and egg scenario of the worst kind, because while I tried to judge my tendency to visit on the strength of my relationship, the strength of my relationship would have been increased with a visit; the only reason I wasn’t the right kind of visitor was because I wasn’t a visitor.

Yesterday, my mother told me that she hoped we, as a family, might visit him this weekend, before he went home in care of hospice. I didn’t really know how to internalize that, because despite the frequent hospital updates I still, in my head, believed that Chris was going to pull through. Hospice is such an innocuous word, it doesn’t really convey what it is, and if you don’t (as I didn’t) really think about it, you don’t have to deal with what it means.

And yet, last night, there it was: hospice.
Chris will be going home this weekend.

This morning, my mother knocked on my door to inform me that Chris had died.
Chris is home.

My mind reeled a bit, and as I pondered the various ways I wanted to react, it occurred to me that they were all a form of denial, coping mechanisms, a desire to channel the unthinkable into something I could control, something I had power over. But wearing a t-shirt, donating to a charity, heck, writing a blog about it — none of those things actually do anything. They do not explain cancer. They do not change Chris’s fate. They do not make it easier to rationalize how the outwardly smiling young man I saw a few weeks ago in passing, whose Facebook posts I read and “liked,” and went on with my life after “liking,” was hanging by a thread internally. They do not help me understand how I will never see that man again.

Those things don’t help, but we do them, I do them anyway. Today I am writing because writing is what I do, writing is how I cope. I am wearing my Relay for Life shirt today because it reminds me of a truth I never properly grasped, except in a flimsy and abstract way, but have been proclaiming with my clothing for years. I don’t feel clever. I feel empty. But I also feel a glimmer of something else: resolve. Because today I feel, I know, something I didn’t when I woke up. I know how it feels to lose.

That when it comes to cancer…

Winning is everything.

Chris, you have been loved by many, and now, after years of pain I cannot comprehend, your suffering is over. And your long-suffering, your dignity, your strength, and the compassion I saw every time I looked in your eyes, live on, to be remembered, to be celebrated, to inspire.

requiescat in pace