Tag Archives: death

Killing my Joie de Vivre (Part III)

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This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader. 

Overview: The past few weeks have been spent planning my escape from Remote Year. As of last Monday, I’ve been officially kicked out of the program. It was hard work but I feel very accomplished. You may start to understand why after reading Part III, the final segment of a three-part series on the recent attacks on my joie de vivre.

 

I decided this would be a three-part series because I wrote the first draft all at once and it was really long. But every time I looked at the doc to refine and publish the last section, I had to turn away. Now I’m far enough removed from the situation that I can reflect and share—and I need to before I do anything else. (So thanks, to all of you to whom I owe emails and essays and articles and edits, for understanding.)

I last left you in Ljubljaja, Slovenia, while on my way to the coworking space, I’d received the news that two of my friends, Rob Gross and Marci Barclay, had been killed.

I pulled my sunglasses down over my eyes, as if it would prevent the transmission of my emotional disturbance to the cheery people sitting around me at the café, tossed some euros on the table and left. I rode a community bike to the coworking space feeling completely numb, like my consciousness was somewhere far away and my body was on autopilot, pulling up just in time to watch Heather* snag the last available bike parking stall. She was oblivious that I was behind her, but in my mind all I could think was “she would.” I released my grip on the bike and it toppled to the sidewalk as I stood there, optionless. I didn’t know what the fee was if someone picked it up and sold it for parts, and in the moment I didn’t care. All I could think about was calling my best friend.

Finally I wheeled it over to the coworking space, set it on the wall downstairs, and approached the first person I saw. Lying on a couch near the door was a Remote Year “employee” who no one had ever seen do anything resembling work.

“Are you leaving soon?” I asked urgently, thinking he may have been perched by the door waiting to go do something

“No,” he said dismissively, as if I’d asked if he wanted lemon in his water.

“There weren’t any bike spots left so I left it downstairs. Can you move it for me? I need to make a phone call right now.”

He looked taken aback that I, essentially his client, had asked him to do something. I told him my friends were dead. I think he thought I was joking or something so I took my sunglasses off, and when he saw how puffy my eyes were he scrambled to his feet and sputtered some condolences. I thanked him and went into the phone room, threw all my stuff in a beanbag tucked into the corner, and called Savannah.

She was the first friend I made in Chesaning, the little farm town in middle-of-nowhere Michigan where my mother grew up. I was picking up sticks in the yard so they wouldn’t get caught in my grandpa’s lawnmower, and her basketball rolled across the street. I tossed it back and she asked me if I wanted to go Roller Blading, and then we were best friends forever. Ten years later, we moved to NYC together. I met Marci two summers ago when the two came to pick me up from the airport. Marci had become Savannah’s best friend in Chesaning ever since she moved back from NYC. As soon as I met her, I understood why. They were both too big for that town, but at least they had each other there.

I moved to Chesaning from Gainesville, Florida when I was 16, my senior year of high school. It was a shitty situation and I was an angry teenager. A lot of people were assholes to me, the new girl. Rob Gross never was. Savannah and I would ride around the corn fields with him and Nick Lee listening to Deftones and escaping our small town lives. I treasured the moments of freedom in that time of endless angst. When I came back to visit, now a big city girl, Rob was just as kind and open-minded as he’d always been.

The last memory I’ll ever have of us all together was when we all went canoeing down the Shiawasee river. It was the perfect Michigan summer day. We put a case of beer and a fifth of Fireball in the canoes and set sail, super classy Michigan style. At that time I’d just spent a year going around the world, and no synthetic tourist attraction could ever replace the bootstrapped charm of our antics that day. We got drunk and laughed our asses off and everyone fell out of the canoes at some point. When we got back to land, we rolled in the grass and looked at the clouds waiting to get picked up. Rob passed out in a chair and some friends tried to see how many things they could stack on him without waking him up.

Me, Rob, Marci, Chris, and Savannah, setting sail on the sparkling Shiawasee River.
On the open water, not a care in the world—especially not about my muddy feet.
Me and Marci, and amber waves of grain.
Me and Rob.
In the ranger. Not driving it, don’t worry.
Me and Savannah.
Sleeping Rob <3

I don’t know what level of professionality my future holds, but if I can’t enjoy some country cabrewing from time to time, I’ll know it’s time to reevaluate. Marci and Rob supported what I’m trying to do in the world, and they brought me back down to earth and reminded me to appreciate the simple things in life.

After two missed calls, Savannah woke up and answered. I forgot it was only 8am in Michigan. Groggily, she greeted me and said she knew the random Skype number calling her repeatedly would be me. She sounded catatonic, like she was all cried out from the previous night. She was somewhere far away from the reality that her best friend in town had died in a car accident—again. When we first met as kids, she was recovering from the loss of her best friend at the time, Erica Burtch. All the years I’ve known her, she’s kept a framed picture of Erica in her room.

The thought of Savannah having to live with having lost yet another close friend, on top of them being gone… it was too much.

She told me she ran into Marci at the bank the afternoon of that fateful day and Marci had invited her to go cruising around. Savannah said she felt something was off, and told her “not today.”

By 4:30 pm, Marci and Rob were dead. They’d swerved over into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with an SUV. They were killed instantly. The girl Savannah used to babysit when we were kids, also named Savannah, was also in the car and was in critical condition in the hospital, having been helped out of the shattered rear window by a nurse who just happened to have witnessed the accident before the car ignited. The driver of the SUV, also named Savannah, and her eight-year-old girl were injured as well.

I sobbed; I didn’t care if anyone heard me. I sobbed for Marci and Rob, and for the narrowly-evaded future that my Savannah had nearly succumbed to.

She told me there were pictures up on Mlive, but she hadn’t brought herself to look at them yet. I wish I hadn’t. The accident had been photographed from 20 different angles. Marci’s Grand Prix looked completely compacted from the tip of the bumper to the back of the front seats. My brain was flooded with the images of what must have happened to the bodies of my friends, once carefree and bursting with life, crunched out of existence between strips of metal.

In this age of click bait, the old simile takes on a new meaning: “Like a car crash, you can’t look away.” I stared at those damn pictures for days, wallowing in the horror. I won’t link it here, you can search them yourself if you want to know what’s now burned into my mind forever. But if you do, think about what value there is, if any, in having this content hosted by a local news site. You can never un-see things.

I told Savannah she had to get out of that town.

There’s a culture there of drinking and driving like nowhere else I’ve ever seen in the world. “Road drinking,” they call it, the prime social activity for the cool kids. There are no cabs there, no public transportation, no startup entrepreneurs to build an app even attempting to fix the problem. It’s especially fun for those under 21 who can’t drink in bars—they spend all night out driving around with a case in the trunk and pulling over in cornfields to pee. I did it too when I was in high school. Everyone acted like it was as normal and safe as going to the movies. With all cornfields there, the irrigation necessitates that all the roads are all lined with ditches, the equivalent of driving on a rail-less bridge. With all those factors combined, it’s no wonder so many people die in car accidents in that region. The law enforcement doesn’t help—they just throw kids in jail and give them DUIs, even though they’re just living according to what they know. The culture has to change, but with all the poverty of the auto industry collapse, cultural programs are the last place resources will be appropriated in mid-Michigan. The change has to come from within, but when you’re just driving home from the bar on the back roads like you have every other weekend of your life, what’s one more weekend—especially when coping with tragedy.

Once off the phone, I went to the balcony to chain-smoke. Ira*, that magnificent creature (memory refresher: one of the Slovenian owners of the coworking space), enveloped me in a giant hug. She looked at me with big eyes and, thinking about it now, it was the first time in a while I’d experienced something that I didn’t know was missing from my normal everyday interactions with the small talk and fake plastic smiles of the Remote Year organizers and most participants: Empathy. I realized there wasn’t anyone in the program I actually wanted to talk with about what had happened, and only two people I was willing to talk with. But Ira saw me. She saw what was going on in my head and she refused to let me sit there and suffer.

“Anything I could say right now would be stupid,” she concluded. “Do you want a beer?” I laughed through my tears and accepted her act of generosity.

Jenny*, my New Yorker friend I’d spent the most time with up until then, kindly sat with me until I felt bad for her having to be around me, and said I was ok and let her get back to her work. Brad* was being a vampire back at the prison dorms, hiding from the daylight as usual. Aman* escaped with me to smoke for a bit, but I didn’t want to bum him or anyone else out. I didn’t know who to need.

I was supposed to teach a writing course in the coworking space that evening and I couldn’t think straight. I felt like everyone was pretending to not watch me, but I was secretly their show for the day, their small-town gossip. A few tried to console me and offered an ear if I wanted to talk, but being in that environment just made it so much worse. I left to get water and ran into Ira again.

“Hey” she said, pulling me aside, “you know you don’t have to do this class tonight. I can send an email out and nobody will think anything, they’ll understand.”

“I don’t know I haven’t decided yet, maybe I can…”

“Come on, don’t do the American thing. You don’t have to power through your pain. Just talk a walk in the forest, go behind the train tracks and follow the path up to the church. Give yourself a break.” She told me she lost someone too, and that she knew what it felt like. That was empathy. I hugged her, grateful that there was actually one person here, halfway around the world from everyone else, who could make me feel better without making me feel worse.

I did wind up doing the American thing though. I figured if the point of the class was to teach people to write, I could at least give a short preface and sit them down with an assignment if I needed to duck out. As it happened, my love of writing, and of sharing writing with other people, managed to distract me from the events of the day, and I made it through the class with only a few space-outs.

Afterward, I went to the jazz lounge next door and a few of my pupils came and bought me whiskey. The cool Australian chick I’d been wanting to get to know since the first week told me I was a legend for carrying on as planned, that she wouldn’t have been able to. She stayed with me while I got wasted and we listened to a Slovenian bluegrass band and watched little kids dance their hearts out. She didn’t pry or pretend to know me, she just was with me, and that helped.

When we got back to the prison dorm, it was thunder-storming, and I couldn’t wait to collapse into Brad. But when I went up to his dorm, I heard voices and realized he was with someone, his “drunken mistake.” I walked over and interrupted their conversation. I asked if he’d checked his messages, and he hadn’t. She made well-intended but painful small talk with me while he brought himself up to speed. I thought surely he would drop everything to comfort me in my state, but he just got quiet. He let me leave them as they were to go cry into the rain alone, and he left for France the next day.

I wrote this to myself in text edit the next day and found it again a few weeks later:

I am closing the tabs. There’s nothing I or anyone else can do to change what’s happened. Looking at the accident pictures won’t help. Looking at their facebook pages won’t make me closer to the friends I wish I could comfort in person right now. All I can do is continue living my own fragile life for as long as I have it.

I’ll always remember the clouds that day and the way they touched my life.

After all that, I decided I had to get out of town for a little while. I went to Piran with Jenny, and then to the Netherlands and Paris by myself. Once removed from Remote Year, I realized what a weird little microcosm of forced fun and pseudo-friendship it was. It only got weirder when I got back.

Killing my Joie de Vivre (Part II)

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This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader. 

Overview: The past few weeks have been spent in deep contemplation. Things are unraveling abroad, and not just in my head. This is Part II of a three-part series on the recent attacks on my joie de vivre.

I’m back in Ljubljana, Slovenia, sitting in bed in a drab hostel that is a considerable upgrade from The Prison Camp. Due to weather reports predicting an impending, record-setting heat wave, the Remote Year organizers agreed to book rooms in the local hostel for two days, as there were no fans and certainly no A/C in our dorms. Yes that’s right: We were upgraded momentarily. To a hostel. I am writing this now just in case I can’t find the will after I go back this evening.

This is a continuation from Part I, picking up from where I left off with the Remote Year caravan checking into our new homes for the month—a high school boarding school dorm south of the city center.

Living conditions aside, I found Ljubljana to be quite enchanting. It radiates a Balkan chill vibe reminiscent of Barcelona and Berlin, but hotter. When I arrived at our new co-working space for the month on Monday afternoon, I was warmly greeted by an American expat.

“Do you want a tour?” she asked me.

“Sure, if you don’t have anything better to do,” I said, sympathizing about what it must be like to have Remote Year descend, 70 deep, upon her otherwise calm work sanctuary. Amy* smiled and guided me around, pointing out various rooms of use until we got to the very back corner.

“And if you smoke…?” she said gesturing at the door behind her.

“Thank god, yes.” I stepped out onto the concrete porch overlooking the forest hills and an unfinished development project, rebar poking through the cement like hairs under a microscope. A garden occupied one half of the balcony, and there were ashtrays and chairs everywhere. It was perfect.

I lit a cigarette and chatted with Amy from Rhode Island, thankful to have found someone I could converse normally with. Within minutes I was introduced to Gavril*, the dreadlocked guy from the Maker Lab whose piercing blue eyes curiously scanned mine on the way in. Him and his friends were laughing about something on reddit and introduced me to /r/slavsquatting, a subredit dedicated to pictures of Slavic people, squatting. Finally, I met one of the owners of this gem of a co-working space, Ira*, a staglike woman with whom I felt an instant connection. We all got drinks at the jazz bar next door that night, and I listened to their crazy stories about the past weekend’s festival.

Suddenly I didn’t feel so alone out here anymore.

Mornings in the Prison Camp were rough. I would be awoken a dozen or so times by obliviously loud hallway conversations and slamming doors that resonated through the third floor’s paper-thin walls. I’d wait for everyone to disperse, then slowly attempt my morning routine of bathing, internetting, and practicing the flute—sans coffee, until the caffeine withdrawal would pull me out to the nearest café and onward to the co-working space. Our bathrooms, one for every “pod” of six Remotes, featured two showers with saloon style doors, an architectural decision for which I can’t fathom the utility. The first time I walked in barefoot, I stepped in a puddle of water from a flooded bidet.

The co-working space wound up being my saving grace that first week in Ljubljana. During the days, I’d slip out for smoke breaks with Aman and my new Slovenian friends; in the evenings, Gavril would show me around town; at night back at the Prison Camp, Brad (my vampire friend) and I would lament our conditions and talk about books.

On the 4th of July, there was an annual party co-hosted by one of the owners of the co-working space: the 4th of Juljubljana, where the locals gathered deep in the woods to happily mock the tradition of American excess. Brad and I rode over together with some of the Brazilians from the group, reassuring our driver that he was going the right way as we rode farther and farther from the city center. It was a cool party, even by my New York City standards. Most of the Remotes stuck together in clumps, half on MDMA they’d smuggled back from Berlin, cooing loving sentiments at each other in the grass.

Brad, Aman and I floated around together, passing the DJ booth where the words, UNITY, FREEDOM, VALUES, and TOGETHERNESS, splashed across an American flag. At one point, we wandered toward the bar in a stealth effort to escape one of Brad’s regrettable one-night stands who was hovering near us, when we ran into Heather, the disco queen of the bus and one of the more prominent voices that would wake me up in the mornings. She was slurrily bragging about her $1.50 boxed wine and trying to force it on one of the Brazilians, who looked nervous about this transaction. Make no mistake, we are a two-hour dive from Italy. There is no need for boxed wine anywhere, let alone in Slovenia. When she switched her attention to Brad, I poured the Brazilian some white from the bottle I’d brought, and we started talking about accents.

“Sometimes my accent changes when I’m around foreigners,” I told him. “Some people from Remote Year thought I wasn’t American when they first met me.”

“Yeah, well,” Heather interjected, gesturing at me with her box, “that’s because you’re like, your own thing.” She giggled and waved a hand over my essence. “You’re like an alien or something.”

“You lack any sense of structure, character, and the Aristotelian unities.” -Wednesday Addams

Soon, word spread around the party that there had been a brawl; apparently one of the Remotes had gotten his ass kicked by a Slovenian while trying to buy drugs, bringing the Remote Year injury count up to five in four weeks. Not wanting any part of that or the transpiring gossip, Brad and I stealthily exited the thumping techno area to wander alone in some of the most beautiful nature we’d ever encountered. We compulsively ran into a glistening field where the moon was setting. I spread out a blanket and we smoked a spliff, talking about dreams and watching the sky change from navy to azure above the looming treeline. Eventually we cabbed it back to the Prison Camp and lingered outside for a while, not wanting to replace our visions of natural beauty with the glib scenery inside.

As stupid as it was, Heather’s comment resonated in my mind the next few days, poking at the remnants of depression from my high school days. I smoked a spliff with Aman and told him I felt alienated.

“Why do you feel that way?” he asked.

“Well, for starters, one of them literally called me an alien.” We burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. I worked hard the next few days to convince myself it wasn’t so bad. After all, I’d been more and more successful at avoiding crazed group activities and was bonding with my handful of secret weirdo friends and the Slovenians. Things were getting confusingly intense between Brad and me though. As nights passed and we grew closer, there were late night movies in his bed and back massages. One night he took me out for sushi and told me I was one of the only aspects of this trip keeping him sane. Each hug goodnight got a little bit longer than the last as we escaped momentarily from the strangeness of our circumstances into something that felt safe.

On my way to the co-working space the day I’d agreed to teach a writing class to 35 Remotes and Slovenians, I stopped for coffee and opened the facebook on my phone. I froze, mid-bite of my toast, when I saw the first thing on my newsfeed from one of my friends from my hometown in Chesaning, Michigan.

Lost for words and sick to my stomach. Just lost two amazing people. R.I.P Robert Gross III & Marci Barclay, you will truly be missed.

My appetite evaporated instantly and my whole body felt numb. I clicked through to their pages and saw the outpouring of memorial sentiments. It wasn’t a prank. My mind flashed to the last time I saw Marci and Rob the summer after my first trip around the world: dancing to Iggy Azalea on the dining room table in Marci’s apartment, floating down the river in canoes with a bottle of Fireball and a case of beer, laughing for hours, drunkenly flopping down in the grass after our friends’ wedding where Rob planted a kiss on my unsuspecting lips and we laughed about it because it made no sense but was still fun.

Now they were gone forever, their young lives extinguished in a split second. I would never see my friends again, I felt farther from home than ever. And, I had three hours to get it together or bail on teaching this class.

Tomorrow you will die

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Today I went to a seminar on happiness at the Kadampa Buddhist meditation center in Chelsea. I don’t know that I am a Buddhist, or that I am any religion. But out of the global sampler platter of spiritual practices I have encountered in my 27 years on Earth, I find that Buddhist philosophies make the most sense and offer the most practical advice. I’ve met a lot of monks in a lot of weird places, and they have shown me things through the most subtle gestures, sometimes without even speaking. My curiosities about Buddhism have never pressured me to adopt a delusional belief structure, attempted to rob me, or demanded I adopt the mandates of a patriarchal authority figure, or else. Every time I approach Buddhist practices with questions, its teachers simply encourage me to look inside myself to find the ways by which I can alter my perspective to maintain inner balance.

In this sensation-seeking body in general but especially in this roller coaster of a concrete jungle, I’ll take all the balance I can get.

In 2012 I sat in the main lecture hall at the Being Human conference in San Francisco. When a presenter walked on stage to commence a group meditation, I looked around incredulously and, unwilling to participate in this ritualistic exercise, took out my phone to tweet. Clear my mind? Was that even possible? Consuming mass amounts of information via the internet was my meditation then. Now, possibly out of frustration with the state of information on the internet and the increasingly invasive modes by which it is transmitted, I have found a new appreciation for mental stillness.

Back to the present day in this meditation class, a woman came in late, sat down next to me, proceeded to check her email on her phone and scrawl into a notebook with the loudest pen ever. As I struggled to maintain my concentration atop my annoyance, I felt a karmic poke in the ribs.

So the lecturer, Kadam Morten, proceeded to talk about finding happiness. Where is it? American society would like to have us believe that it is somewhere out there. You can touch it, taste it, feel it, buy it, fuck it, smother yourself in it—oh but not yet. You’re not quite there yet. But, if you keep working and spending and wanting, then maybe you’ll find it. No. According to Morten, happiness is inside of each of us, we only have to learn how to access it so we can find our way back there any time. This involves dumping all the worries and cluttered thoughts and to-do lists from our minds and just being with ourselves internally.

During a guided meditation, he instructed us to think of something that made us happy. At first I panicked because I realized that my happy places and people and moments also made me sad because I am now so far away from them. But then I managed to get back to a place in Michigan, sitting on the end of a pier looking out at a perfectly still lake next to my best friend, our heads resting on each other’s as we sat in silence. And I remember thinking in that moment that I wanted to save it like a file on my computer, to access at will always and forever.

And then he beckoned us to prepare to meditate on death, in the most light and jovial manner I have ever heard anyone approach the topic.

“The impulse to check in with external stimuli has never been stronger,” he said, referencing the entirety of what capitalism immerses us in. “Now is the time to check in with death, and be present in our lives.”

While it is oft considered morbid to think about death and especially to talk about it, Morten made a pretty compelling case for why we should think about it excessively: the fact that we will die is really the only certainty we have in life. ‘Death and taxes…’ whatever—we could all die before it’s time to do taxes. To live life in denial of our mortality is to live disconnected from reality, whereas to embrace death is to live in the moment, he said.

So imagine that tomorrow you will die. What would you do with your day? Would you spend it arguing with someone you loved? Would you spend it watching TV? Reading celebrity gossip? Being a drone?

Nah. You’d do something radical. You’d make a step toward creating the legacy you’re capable of leaving behind. You’d connect with people you love. That’s what I intend to do tomorrow.

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Thanks to Talia Eisenberg for inviting me to explore this peaceful pocket of NYC.