Friday, October 31, 2014

What Scares Us

As faithful readers have likely identified by now, I like holidays. I enjoy the ritual assembly of family that happens on Thanksgiving and Christmas, the resolution that comes with New Year’s, the signature fireworks of the Fourth of July.

And then there’s Halloween.

In my childhood, it was about costumes and candy. My mother fashioned some pretty impressive get ups for me through a combination of store-brought props and an ingenuity at crafts that she didn’t show often but was truly a hidden talent, leading to costumes that included Skeletor, Darkwing Duck, and The Phantom of the Opera. Rather than venturing door to door for candy, we traditionally took part in the more convenient, less weather-dependent store-to-store trick-or-treating at the Sangertown Square shopping mall.

In my late high school years, the holiday became more or less equal parts about candy and mischief. After a several year gap without dressing up, I realized the free candy to be had, and friends and I dressed up in minimalist costumes (I put the hood up on my jacket and wore sunglasses to become the Unambomber). While our mischief was relatively managed, I can’t deny that I sprayed some shaving cream and smashed some pumpkins in those less responsible years.

In adult life, aside from the obligatory party or two, I’ve used Halloween as an opportune time to indulge in scares, mostly in the form of watching a few new horror movies and revisiting an old favorite or two; sometimes I’ll throw in a horror novel as one of my October reads.

But in between teenager and adult I recall the first Halloween I spent at college. As I’ve written about before, it took me a while freshman year to find my bearings socially.

For the first couple months, I fell in with a group of girls with whom I had little in common besides living in the same dorm and happening to have found myself in the same stairwell the same night when we all met and first got to talking.

By Halloween, as the cliche goes, the bloom was off the rose. As the day approached, a couple of the girls talked about having a movie night on the 31st, and persisted in adding that it would be a really fun “girls night.” I laughed (I thought) along, in reference to how I was one of the girls. By Halloween eve, it was clear I wasn’t invited.

I felt betrayed, for sure, but all the more potently so for having been dismissed for a holiday. Like a jilted lover the night before prom, I felt righteous indignation for having been left to myself in a town still new to me with nothing to do on Halloween.

More than indignation, I felt alone.

I walked around campus aimlessly that night, feeling sorry for myself, hoping to stumble into some new fun, but just the same sulky enough to repel any good times that really might have awaited. In the end, I wound up back in my dorm room at a decent hour, where I finished my homework and went to bed without incident.

And perhaps because of the lack of any event or drama, I look back on that Halloween as the one that most truly realized my fears--not of vampires or zombies, but of what scared me the most, even as a relatively introverted young man. I was terrified of ending up alone. For holidays. For the long haul. Even just for one stupid Halloween night.

And perhaps it’s those moments that scare us that expose the directions in which we must evolve, whether it’s dealing with ghosts or spiders or heights. For my part, while I’m still troubled by the idea of a life without friends and family, I have also very much learned to love myself. To find the joy in a long road trip alone with my music and thoughts; to relish the occasional weekend of uninterrupted productivity. Even the joy in those pensive moonlit walks, holding conversations with no one but myself.

I’ve also come to embrace the importance of chocolate. That Snickers and Reese’s may not solve problems, but they can make most nights better. And if I’ve gone a Halloween without either, then something is seriously wrong.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

On the Ledge

29 years old, driving back to Baltimore after Memorial Day weekend in Rochester, I stopped in Geneseo to watch the sunset.

I was on the fence about stopping at my alma mater. Sure, there are few places I’d rather get a slice of pizza than Mama Mia’s, few places I’d rather get a stiff drink than Kelly’s, few better places for me to wander and ruminate than all of those campus pathways and surrounding neighborhoods. But, pulling off the highway, driving into town, and then backtracking is at least a half hour detour in driving time alone.

But it was sunset time. And as far and wide as I may travel, there are few spots I’d rather watch the sun go down than from than the ledge, out by the gazebo, outside the College Union at Geneseo. There’s a view from that spot, overlooking an expanse of campus, and well past that into the surrounding fields and farmland. It’s a beautiful place.

I didn’t always see it that way.

Freshman year, I had a hard time making friends. I embraced so many awful clich├ęs, as I took to writing sad poetry, smoking cigarettes, and walking alone at late hours of the night. It wasn’t unusual at all to wind up at the ledge under moonlight, long after I should have gone to sleep. I’d stand up there and look down upon the pavement, maybe 12 feet down.

I never considered jumping in any real, conscious way. But I mused around the topic. Started writing a story about a character who took a swan dive from a similar perch and awoke in an alternate universe only to discover in the end that that alternate universe was hell--because he hadn’t dove through any magical portal, but rather had killed himself.

And while I never quite reached the point of suicidal thoughts, and while I did make more friends, and start to feel more generally content with my time at Geneseo, that ledge remained the place to go when I was least happy.

Then it changed.

At the end of sophomore year, I hit it off with a girl. It was complicated. We worked together and she had serious boyfriend back home. We talked all around these points and our feelings for one another in the final weeks of school, until we ended up sitting side by side on that very same ledge watching the sky turn to magenta. Our elbows touched.

The girl and I wouldn’t get involved in any meaningful way for another seven or eight months. But that very simple, innocent moment was enough to transform the location from a place that embodied loneliness and emptiness to a place of love and peace.

And oddly, unexpectedly, and perhaps even uncharacteristically enough, the space retained that meaning for me.

Two years later, after that relationship had ended, and a couple days after I had graduated, on the last night I lived in Geneseo, I returned to the ledge with my Discman in hand, listening to a freshly burned mix CD full melancholy, reflective songs. It was a surreal moment. Every last one of my friends had already left for summer, and it was only beginning to register that this place--from my favorite pizzeria, to the newspaper office, to the classrooms, to that very ledge--that, over the course of four years, had become a home, was about to become more memory than reality for me. A place to look at in pictures. A place to visit, but not to live within.

I sat down on the ledge alone in the late afternoon, when the sky was still blue. I stared out into the distance and listened to that CD twice through, watching colors fade, the twilight thicken, and the dark settle in. And I walked home alone.

Eight years later, I watched the sunset from that same spot, iPhone earbuds in, wishing I had more of the songs from that old mix CD on hand, but mixing college favorites with a few newer melodies. I remembered a time when it seemed unimaginable to leave that place. I realized that for all of my visits to friends in Rochester and the surrounding area, this was the first time I’d been to Geneseo--much less the ledge--in years.

Fast forward five months. And I’m back in Geneseo, this time not alone. Two of my best friends from college--Kevin and Emily--got married in Rochester. A small portion of our old crew came together at the church and at the reception, and the next day, we returned to campus, four of us returned to campus. We grabbed lunch on Main Street. We wandered past the academic buildings. We headed for the College Union.

And when we got to the ledge I stopped. Phone in hand, I stretched my arm long and asked everyone to huddle close together. And I took a picture of us. All nearly a decade older, maybe a smidge wiser than we were as college kids. But still together. Still smiling.

And though I didn’t say it then, I knew full well that we stood on sacred ground. And whether I stood alone or with those I held dearest, that spot would always be one in which I grew. One of my favorite spots to look out from. One of my favorite places to look within myself. A jumping off point in every sense of the word.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Homework Club

Throughout my time in Baltimore, one of the best things I did was to work as a tutor for the Remington Homework Club. It was a once a week commitment over the academic year, ostensibly helping kids with their homework, more realistically doing my best to keep them from fighting one another or calling each other too nasty of names, and, on a good night, playing a little basketball with them.

When people ask how I got started with this group, I tend to give them the generic answer--that I was looking for a volunteer opportunity and Googled around until I found this one.

That version of the story isn’t untrue, but neither is it complete.

The truth is, I reached a low point.

I pulled up to a red light and rubbed my eyes, 2:30 on a Sunday morning. I had been careful not to drink too much at the Christmas party, but I’d been up early that Saturday. I was tired and a little buzzed and low on fuel, and driving the only car in sight, on some neighborhood back road after I made a wrong turn en route to the highway.

And I was heartbroken.

That fall I engaged in all-too-short romance with a woman I thought I might love who summarily dismissed me after a few weeks of dating. In the weeks to follow, Delia and I had remained friendly, exchanging the occasional text message, remaining in the same social circles. It all culminated in that Christmas party when the two of us stood on our own and I mustered the gall to ask if she’d had any second thoughts about us seeing one another. I made it pretty clear that I had.

She hugged me and told me she loved me.

Like a brother.

I made a clumsy exit and headed outside to my rust bucket Honda Accord to drive home.

And I thought about how much everything sucked. How I’d had a miserable time when I went home for Thanksgiving the month before and I was headed back there in a couple days. How my budding romance had frozen over with the first autumn frost. How I was faced with the choice of still seeing Delia all the time, or giving up our mutual friends--the entirety of my Baltimore social circle at the time.

I thought of how I was fed up with most people in my life, and most of all myself.

I called my best friend and got his voicemail. The two of us talked just about every day at that point, and for months, he had listened patiently to me prattle on about Delia—about the courtship, about the dates, about the aftermath. On this call, I told his voicemail that I might need a couple days. Not to be alarmed if I didn’t answer his calls.

The truth is, I reached a low point.

Sitting at that red light, a new thought crossed my mind. That as badly I felt everything was going, I had a job. I had my health. I had a best friend whom I could call, and dozens of other people I could have called on if I were in bad enough need. I had family to return home to and to stay with.

And so, at my low point I realized that, objectively speaking, I was still pretty fortunate.

I thought of how I always intended to do more.

Intended to do better.

Intended to give back.

For a few years running, I had volunteered at a soup kitchen Thanksgiving mornings. Waking up early, stocking shelves, taking out the garbage--it was a good day’s work at a good, symbolic time of showing thanks and an interest humankind. Just the same, it was isolated to a once a year endeavor doing work in a place and on an occasion such that, were I not there, someone else almost certainly would have stood up in my place.

It wasn’t enough.

So that weekend I Googled volunteer opportunities in Baltimore. Opportunities to have a positive impact, and perhaps equally important to me at the time, to redirect all of the hurt and negative energy I felt to something worthwhile.

That January, I started with the Homework Club. I worked with a pair of boys, seated cross-legged on the dirty gymnasium floor, upstairs from the church community room. I spent more time trying to keep the boys from grappling with each other, or at one point me, than I did actively tutoring. I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

But I made it through.

And I kept going, straight through the spring and starting again the next fall. And I came back the next year. More sure of myself when I stopped kids from running in restricted areas and when I refocused them on homework. Better prepared to laugh and play along when they made up their own rules to a game of chess.

On many levels this endeavor worked for me. Long after I got over Delia, volunteering provided a welcome diversion from whatever office, school, or personal stressors were taking over at a given period of time. I met some new friends and some cool kids.

Just the same, there came a point when I wondered if, for all the time and effort invested, I was actually making a difference in any meaningful way.

As if answering a question I hadn’t spoken, that very night one of the boys I was working with looked up at me and said, “I wish we had Homework Club every night.”

And though I briefly tried to explain that most volunteers wouldn’t be available for every night, and that the kids would probably get sick of it if they met much more than once a week, and that the church was used for other purposes—despite all of that, the core of what this kid said got through to me.

That Homework Club offers these kids a safe place to play basketball and football and board games after dark. That the tutors are the best kinds of role models--not just setting good examples week in and week out, but choosing to show up for these girls and boys. That some of the kids actually do get homework done in this setting, and find help from their peers and this set of adults that they might not find at home.

Funnily enough, after that first time I heard a boy say he wished Homework Club met more frequently, I heard more kids say virtually the same thing. I don’t hold illusions about having changed the lives of every kid who came to the church Monday nights, or that many of these kids will remember me ten years from now. But I can also see that that sense of appreciation, and that those relationships we formed, as tenuous as they may have been, were still fundamentally important.

Aside from a couple of semesters when my grad school classes conflicted with Homework Club, I worked with the group for six years. A month removed from Baltimore, this particular community and this work is a part of what I miss most. Just the same, I’ll take the lessons from the experience with me. To put others first. To serve. What to do with all of my negativity.

The truth is, I reached a low point.

The truth is, I made the most of the journey back up.