The Arsonist, or The Escapist pt. 2

I hit my 23rd birthday in less than two months, and that’s a little startling because, in the story of my life, Chapter 22 may as well be entitled “In Which Nothing Happens.” There’s not much that can be done to change the events of that chapter, but as an author I realize I’m not completely without agency. If I work at it, I can make something of the rest of this year. I can scratch out the title and replace it with “The Calm Before the Storm.”
But if that’s going to happen, I need to work on my rain dance.
~ July 3rd, 2012

It’s raining today.

Yesterday, it was literally raining, as it tends to be at Grove City College when it isn’t snowing. I know it was raining yesterday in Grove City because I was there, and am still, though my heart has moved on. There were legitimate reasons to come here, but they’re mostly exhausted, and soon I’ll be leaving this campus, perhaps for the final time.

For me, this campus has always lent itself to melancholy after dusk. I’ve spent many nights strolling circuitously under cover of cloud and hood, sometimes listening to music, always listening to my mind. It’s hard to say which one is louder on most days. The last few, the latter wins hands-down.

Last time I was at Grove City I was accosted time and again with the question “what are you doing?” to which I had no answer. This time I had an answer, but the question changed: “what are you doing here?”

I have an answer to that too, but it has grown cloudier as the days have passed. In retrospect I ought to have come down a day or two earlier, and left this morning. Because my goal was to seek guidance from professors, and now I’m in the midst of two days during which no professors are here. Promise of a few social hours this evening hardly explains two wasted days. Try as I may to redeem that time, there’s no doubt it could have been better spent back home.

Yet herein I find a marked difference between past and present me: where I once spent my solitude wishing I were in the past, still here, remaking the decisions I regret, I now spend it wishing I were moving forward faster, leaving mistakes and this place behind to worry about themselves, eager for opportunities to make (or avoid) new ones.

Months ago I looked at my life and lamented how nothing was happening, wondering if something would, wondering if I could change. And change it did, change I have. Stagnation has become trajectory; my concern no longer inertia but velocity – moving the right way as quickly as possible. The ennui took not weeks but hours to appear; every minute lost seems a tragedy, one I now fight to avoid.

I ended Chapter 22 with a bang: I got a job, found a purpose, started losing weight, and reclaimed dark and dusty corners of my spiritual and vocational life. Chapter 23 is going so well. Everything I wanted to be doing, I am — and the ambition to do more is still alive and well, smoldering in place of the ashes I was afraid that ambition would become.

But smoldering isn’t good enough. Smoldering is heat suppressed, energy concealed, potential latent. I’ve always been a pyromaniac at heart, and I think it’s high time for combustion.

Time, as it were, to set fire to the rain.

Malaise

It’s rather incredible how quickly one can be overcome with sickness. I woke up Tuesday morning feeling vital, optimistic for a week of plans and progress. By nightfall I was shivering, sniffling, and trying desperately to sleep. Wednesday I spent roughly eighteen hours sleeping off a fever. Since the fever broke I’ve finished off two boxes of tissues and am setting record pace through a third.

And frankly, decimation of paper products is about all I have to show for four days’ time. Though my facilities, for the most part, returned not long after leaving, I went on as if they’d bid Adieu. Doing nothing is, of course, a favored pastime of mine.

The trouble with pastimes is they’re not pasttimes; they’re merely how you pass time. Or, in my case, how time passes you. And pass it has: three weeks, to the very day, since leaving the wonderful hospitality of Upton and returning, triumphantly, to Pawling. Save a slightly-expanded vocabulary and three or four rabbit trails, I can’t really say I’m much closer to answering The Questions than I was in Boston.

Which Questions?

Well…

What are you going to study? Where are you looking? Are there programs like that? How common are they? What do you want to do with the degree? Well sure, but be more specific? What’s the point? What’s your purpose?

State your purpose.

Frankly, I’m glad I got sick. No, not because I’m a masochist (though that’s debatable), but because whenever I get sick, I fall in love with being healthy. I dream of being able to do simple things — drink cold water, taste my food, walk without aching — and rejoice when those facilities return.

Sickness never lets you forget that you’re sick. It’s on every plate, in every cup, between every step, on every tissue, pervading every cough, echoing after every sneeze. It never ceases to surprise you with the vastness of its hold on you. And you think, “if I get through this, i’m going to make sure it never happens again.” Vitamins. Exercise. Scarves.

Look, it’s a cold.

And it took a cold, a sickness, a period of being unable to do anything productive, for me to realize that I’ve been sick and unproductive for much longer than the purview of any bacteria or virus. I realized I’ve taken the capacity for productivity, for living fully and rewardingly, quite for granted since being back. Something I was afraid might happen, but swore not to allow.

Something that getting sick helped me to catch before catching something truly lethal.

I wish I’d gotten to go to homecoming. There are some really awesome people that I’ve sucked at staying in touch with over the last year or two, and for all I know, this weekend was the last chance to rebuild those bonds before they broke.

So it goes.

But I’m looking forward to the week ahead: a chance to make good on the promises I made to myself and others, to charge from this infirmity’s gates with a focus and drive that had been fading. The Questions are coming, and I’m just thankful to have one more week to answer them.

~

A former me may have ended the blog there. He may even have tried to end on some series of short, pithy declarations. He would not, however, have continued writing here. He wouldn’t have said that this sounds way too much like another empty promise built on the back of providential epiphany. And he wouldn’t have committed to making this part one of three.

But I will. This was to let you know I’ve been sick, that I know I’ve been sick. Physically, sure, but the malaise I refer to in the title is more rudimentary, of the spirit. This weekend, I’ll address that sickness more specifically. And then, more usefully, I’ll establish the plan for a cure.

Greatness

I watched the closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympic Games live.

Like the athletes pouring onto the massive floor which had so recently been a track and field, I felt a moment of true solidarity. I pictured families around the world, gathered like I was around a glowing screen, rejoicing in the spectacle and celebration while feeling that tinge of sadness, of loss, that couples the end of any great collaborative endeavor. Mingled with the thrill of the after-party is the realization that the end has arrived, the knowledge that, unless we fight it, the next four years will be mundane echoes of the magic that two weeks brought us, a spirit embodied by a now-extinguished flame.

Unless.

The caveat. The exception. The chance, however unlikely, that the seemingly inevitable will be conquered like so many world records, that the words scrawled across the walls of the stadium live on, that a generation has seen these Games and truly, irrevocably, been inspired.

I am not one of the youth of the world called upon by Jacques Rogge to meet in Rio four years from now. Nor, indeed, are many of the athletes who filled out the Union Jack tonight with the knowledge that this ceremony closed not only the 30th Olympiad but their athletic careers. These leave, hopefully, with the comfort that comes with knowing they have left a legacy they can be proud of. Some still feel the sting of lost gold, the longing in their feet for a podium their presence never graced, but true Olympic spirit dictates that if they gave their all, they gave enough. For a moment in time even the least of them were the greatest in the world.

A Nike campaign over the last couple weeks exhorted viewers to “find your greatness,” a fitting impetus for people like me who have spent many years neglecting that search.

No more.

I don’t know what consolation it brings to the hard-fought, still-fallen athletes of the London Games to know that even in their darkest hour they succeeded in being inspirational. But for what it’s worth, you did.

I’m in an odd transitional part of my life, huge uncertainty looming on the horizon. The Olympics have provided a sense of continuity between my past and present selves, serving not only as the one thing that was the same at home as it is here, but also as the motivating force behind the changes already being made. Eating differently. Exercising more…that is, at all. Taking responsibility where I’ve shirked it. Embracing who I am and who I want to be, and actively figuring out the steps I need to take to unify the two.

Like many of the athletes I’ve learned to admire, I have a long road to recovery ahead of me. I may not have broken my fingers, torn my Achilles, or sustained gunshots to my legs, but the debilitating force of a lifetime of unhealthy choices is no less a barrier to achieving physical regularity (nevermind prowess). Nor, indeed, does a year of slothful unproductivity lack ramifications on mind and soul.

Over the past two weeks I’ve seen longstanding records pressed, bent, and broken. I’ve seen men and women not merely make history but redefine its expectations.

I came into this year’s Olympics expecting sports. Instead, I found stories.

Stories of love.
Stories of sacrifice.
Stories of triumph.
Stories of perseverance.
Stories of heartbreak.
Stories of redemption.
Stories of hope.
Stories of greatness.

These stories have been inspiring, but they all have one thing in common: they are the stories of other people.

The games are over, and a new day dawns tomorrow.

It’s time to write my own story.
It’s time to find my greatness.

Citius, Altius, Fortius

A few weeks ago I undertook the massive endeavor of cleaning out my closet, a task somewhere around six years in the making. In one box, among the myriad nondescript birthday cards and school papers, I found a collection of newspaper clippings from 2004, several of which had pictures of a young girl, clad in sparkling red spandex, face strained in the tight and self-oblivious concentration only an Olympic athlete will ever understand completely. Her name: Carly Patterson. Not long after the photograph was taken, she was wearing a gold medal around her neck. I had a picture of that, too.

As I put the clippings aside, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of an eager adolescent me, starstruck and probably nursing a crush, carefully cutting through the special edition of the Poughkeepsie Journal to extract what I no doubt thought I would cherish forever. Two years later, the clippings had already disappeared into the dark clutches of my closet, and Carly Patterson quietly retired from gymnastics.

The summer games came back around, as they are wont to do, in 2008, and I cheered with the world for other athletes, for the fresh young faces which would grin at me from the cereal aisles of grocery stores for the next few months. I yelled at my television when Michael Phelps reached for the edge of the pool…first again, and again, and again. I fumed like a drunk fan at a Yankee/Red Sox game at every seemingly biased call against our gymnasts. I watched soccer for the first time — women’s soccer, no less — and gasped in amazement as Cristiane bicycled one of several impressive shots over dismayed Nigerian heads. And as it all wrapped up, I bought a collection of John Williams-conducted music to keep the spirit alive a little longer.

And so tonight, sitting with my family, cheering Lochte toward a new world record, praying for Orozco’s heel not to betray him, gritting my teeth as an Australian took less than fifty meters to change the course of the 400 relay, I recognized a truth about myself: I love the Olympics.

Specifically, I love the summer games. Now, figure skating still takes my breath away, but perhaps all the gloves and gear and goggles detract from what it is about the Games I love: the sheer beauty and power of the human form pushing and testing and breaking the limitations that four years’ time have dared to pretend unbreakable.

There’s something gorgeously ethereal about it all too, something that even the awful tape delays and advertising barrages and gaudy commercialism can’t strip away: a sense of unity through time and space. Despite the bruises and scars of war which have, at times, temporarily marred the Olympic Spirit, it remains at heart a proverbial armistice, a celebration not merely of national pride but of humanity, of the global community at large.

It is a reminder of a heritage going back not just the 120 years or so of the IOC but through millennia to the roots of the Western world, to people who wouldn’t have understood the word “athlete” because for them the games were simply an exercise in the skills they used annually to defend their city-states and their honor. The first Olympians were citizens first and foremost, of places like Athens and Sparta, sure, but above all they were Greeks.

Today competitors hail from roughly two-hundred different nations, diverse in many ways but one: they are human. It is the common denominator, the equalizing factor which renders the Games viable and therefore worthy of our attention. It is what takes away the sting of loss and replaces it, almost instantly, with an unexpected pride in the victor, whoever he or she is, because through our shared humanity we recognize the magnitude of the achievement and take joy in having witnessed it.

It is not running fastest, but faster.
It is not soaring highest, but higher.
It is not being strongest, but stronger.

“The most important thing in the Olympic games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.” So says the Olympic Creed: “The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

The pundits will focus on medal counts, on favorites and underdogs, on the challenges and the heartbreaks, and let them have those things. For the rest of us, there is the indomitable spirit of participation, the inspiration of a woman being all she can, of a man leaving nothing to chance, of a team embracing, of a nation triumphing, of a world rejoicing. There is a reminder to better ourselves, to test our limits, to pursue greatness, to achieve excellence. Faster, Higher, Stronger. Citius, Altius, Fortius.