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Camping...

Often I am taken back to the one and only backpacking trip I organized.

My friend May and I had this idea, and, naturally, as soon as we had it, we decided that we must realize it. The idea was simple: take a few of our closest friends for a three-day backpacking trip to King’s Canyon National Park. So, we started calling and talking, and it soon became clear that some of our closest friends were dubious of our plans, having never done anything like this before. We revised our call list and started reaching out further, to old friends from high school, to people who were only loosely called acquaintances. Eventually, we pieced together our team: an old buddy from high school whom we hadn’t seen or talked to in several years, a city-dwelling SoCal friend from LA whose idea of being out in nature was grilling burgers in the back yard, an outdoorsy, socially-awkward gothic pyromaniac in a complicated friendship with my sister Liza, the said sister, May’s good friend Lei, athletic and energetic and willing to give us the benefit of the doubt for a couple of days, May and I.

In our group, there was not a single person who knew all of the other people.

May and I tried to think of everything that we might need on the trip. Before our departure, I helicoptered around each participant, making sure they had their sleeping bags, tooth brushes, warm socks, water canteens, and floss. We also had to avoid any aromatic soap or lotion, because there were bears in those parts of the Sierra Nevadas, and bears like smelly things. By the time we packed in the cars and headed towards the mountains, it seemed we were set.

The first night, after throwing all of our sleeping gear into the one large tent and sitting around the fire, soaking in the last bit of warmth before the deep and cold high-elevation night descended upon us, we discovered what was missing. In all of the hustle, I had forgotten my own sleeping bag. Following the groans and all inevitable remarks, we had to come up with a solution. The only thing we came up with, besides abandoning the trip altogether, was for me to sleep together with Liza in her bag. We could only fit into the bag if we both lay sideways, so Liza climbed in first, I squeezed myself next to her and then we had to zip the bag up. For this, we had to take in a deep breath and not exhale until it was zipped. On the count of three, we would inhale sharply, Liza would command, “Zip!” and I would try to pull up on the zipper. We figured out that actually, we take up less space with our lungs empty, so then we would exhale and Zip! It was very funny, shouting Zip! in the dark. We also had a few other commands worked out, like “Flip!” and “Rotate!”

The fact that eventually our whole group was giggling and snorting didn’t help our dire situation. Surprisingly, eventually we managed to encapsulate ourselves and actually fall asleep.

The first full day of backpacking was mostly uneventful. We stopped by the Visitors Center and picked up several large, brown barrels where we were to store all of our food items to protect them from the bears. This was mandatory for everyone entering the park for back-country camping. Despite the minor anxiety over the scratches and teeth marks on the barrels, morale was overall high and the adventurers were mostly normal. Towards night, we broke camp on a gorgeous outcropping overlooking the rugged valley of the park, with steeps peaks snow-capped in the distance, and a gurgling creek terminating in a spectacular waterfall 20 feet from our tent. We joked around about not sleep walking on this cliff, and attempted to settle for the night.

Well, more Zipit! silliness ensued, followed by complaints that we set the tent up on quite a steep incline, as a result of which, at every movement, the people uphill slid towards the people downhill. The tent wasn’t that big in the first place, and with seven of us already packed in like sardines, people started slipping on top of each other. At one point in the night Liza and I woke up after another failed iteration of “flip!”, and found the other five campers piled on top of us, all bunched up together in the lowest part of the tent, snoring and sighing in their sleep. Shoving sleeping people in the dark up the hill of our tent floor was another adventure altogether.

Later that night, when everyone was back to wheezing peacefully, a piercing “Die, vermin, die!!!!!” jolted us awake. The pyromaniac goth, with his uncharacteristic expression of emotion, jumped out of his sleeping bag and rushed outside. The sleepy sister, who crawled out a bit later to inquire, found him sitting on the edge of the cliff, a lighter in one hand and a tick in the other. Apparently, the tick had nuzzled into his back during the night, and now it was time for sweet revenge.

The following morning, as we packed up and headed further along the trail hugging the cliffs, I could sense a sort of unraveling happening. May and Lei were perfectly happy and oblivious, while our friend from high school and our friend from LA were showing the first symptoms of civilization withdrawal. They were anxious about toilet paper and surprised that the only thing on our agenda for the day was to walk some more and enjoy mother nature. After his explosion during the night, the goth friend was back to his sullen self, but more withdrawn than usual, Liza was suffering from deep mis-communications and drama that was mostly in her head, and I was concerned about the bears.

Another eventful night and the next day brought an end to our exotic adventure. I think we were all more than a little relieved. Looking back, though, memories tint the trip many different colors. I took away the breathtaking grandeur of Kings Canyon and the wonder of how people we seemingly know can be transformed in unfamiliar settings. May remembers the silliness. Liza remembers the turmoil and brands the experience as the worst backpacking trip of her life. Jason remembers the interesting guy from my high school and how his legs hurt after hiking for five hours straight with a backpack. I don’t know what the guy from high school remembers, because we never saw him again. The pyromaniac we saw many times, and Liza kept in touch with him over the many years that elapsed. But what he thought about the trip will go down to the grave with him, because he isn’t much of a talker.

flower

Recently my sister asked me a question about my relationship with the man in my life (let’s call him Greg). She was wondering about whether I think Greg is the “One and Only” for me, seeing as I have already been married to someone else, and have had a few previous loves in my life. How could I know that he was the one, and if I didn’t have that reassurance, was I not troubled by it?

That got me thinking. It is true that I feel a certain sadness about losing the blind, naive conviction that the man I am with is the only one for me.  I am slightly jealous of the high school sweethearts celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. A few lucky individuals still maintain an absolute belief that the person they are with is uniquely engineered for them and they – for their other half. Alas, it’s hard to maintain such a belief after having thought it four, five times. There is that slight sense of loss, yes, but also – an overwhelming sense of blessedness.

For a woman who could always count the number of close female friends on one hand, each romantic relationship has been precious and vitally important. To love and to be loved, to know a person intimately (though not necessarily sexually), to become vulnerable and to see the person you cherish open up, blossom and reveal his inmost essence – what a critical part of my life that has been. Each man that I have loved has given me much that I still carry with me. Each relationship formed me – turbulent, agonizing and exhilarating as it was.

As I write I cannot help but think of the ugly words we use to describe people who have had multiple partners. What a paradox this is: God has placed in our hearts the passionate love that He himself embodies, burning as fire, selfless, profound. And yet we are to pick one partner for the rest of our life and shun all the rest. So much rejection. So many broken hearts. As if each person has only enough love for one other.

I sometimes envy the courtesans that Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes in his novels. These are not the malnourished, beaten down young women forced into sexual servitude. These are the matrons who have stepped outside of society’s rigid constraints. They live in their own homes on the outskirts of the city. The living rooms are lush with greenery and exotic birds, the breeze blows gently through the linen curtains, the tea is always hot and date cakes await the weary visitor. The women are fiercely independent, and yet they will comfort and love, arduously, diligently, anyone who comes through the door. Unlike the street prostitute, they do not charge a fee. Love cannot be sold or bought, and theirs never runs out. The source seems  eternal. When I read about these women, idealized through Marquez’s magical prose, I often think of someone else who loved indiscriminately all the shunned people of the Earth…

And yet, monogamy runs deep in our culture, and in my veins. So much is gained through the conscious, willful abandon of freedom. Humility and strength both come when you acknowledge that you are desperately dependent on that one other person, and he – on you. Yoked to your permanent mate, you plod through the seasons of your lives together, learning ever more, fronting new challenges, making new discoveries. And the good news is – you don’t have to start each day from scratch; you have a history of your struggles and triumphs to look back on together.

A good friend of ours once told Greg and me a story. He and his girlfriend of several years were experimenting with polyamory – the practice of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. They are a pretty liberated, enlightened couple who felt that deep, committed relationships should not be limited to a single partner. And so one day, with the full support of the girlfriend, our friend went to spend an intimate night with another man who was in love with him. He returned home the following morning and started telling the girlfriend about his interesting, educational (as he put it) experience. As he was talking, he noticed that his girlfriend’s expression changed, and shortly she was shaking uncontrollably. He stopped his story and they quickly decided that polyamory was not going to work for them. I often think of this story as a telling example of how something that seems so beautiful in theory can prove impossible in practice.

But where does all of this leave me and my one and only? I don’t remember what I told my sister that day, but what I might tell her now is that I am not troubled. As I grow, my capacity and flexibility to love grows. I do not love Greg less because I have loved others before him. In fact, with my love for him comes a more vast love that I feel towards the whole world. And this is something that I learned from him: to love generously.

I used to live in a room full of mirrors
Where all I could see was me.
But then my love came and saved me,
She set my poor heart free.

– Jimi Hendrix

There is no way to write about this without feeling that I can never do him justice. A few years ago my sister and I decided to get in touch with our old friend on his 25th birthday. We only had his momma’s phone number, where he lived when we lived back in St.Louis and all went to high school together.

His momma scared me even then, but I got myself together and dialed the familiar number.
– Hello?
– Hi, may I speak to Jamaal please?
– He don’t live here anymore. He moved down to South Carolina to live with his granma.
– This is an old friend of his, Anya, I’m just trying to find him – wanted to wish him a happy birthday…
– Oh yeah, I remember you. Well Miss Anya, his number over there is:…….
– Thank you.
– Take care now.

My sister and I hung up and dialed the new number. Now it was her turn to talk.

– Yes?
– Um…hello. May I speak to Jamaal please?
– He ain’t here. He wenover to his cousin’s. Who is this?
– This is an old friend of his…could I have that phone number?
– Well…alright. It’s……..
– Thanks.

We dialed the next number, the phone rang and I could hear my heart beating in the receiver. Jamaal picked up.

– Hello.
– Hey man, happy birthday!
– Heeeeey…duuude. Anya….and Liza too?…..wow.

Like I said, could never do him justice. Could never describe those dreds, that hunched-over posture of someone who’s been beaten by life, it seemed, for much too long. The sway of his ape-like arms and his wide gait as he crashed through the air around him, leaving a powerful impression of terror, pity, and awe.

His soul was a brilliant fire which breaks out of the form and lurches towards the sky when doused by fuel. He was that tragic hero, that bright, falling star that burns as it enters the atmosphere….Certainly not meant for these days, he seemed to come from the 1970’s, when all of American culture was rocked by convulsion and rebirth.

Jamaal lived Jimi Hendrix, talked in quotes from the Doors and the Dead, breathed in menthol cigarettes and out self-fulfilling prophecies. There was never a person who saw through others clearer: his verdict was always dead on. In the end it was as if life bubbled out of his and scorched him from the inside. He would not be sedated and rebelled, but the everyday tedium proved too powerful. Like a giant, callous steam roller it annihilated the energy that once was.

* * *

Strange that I am here at work, surrounded by pictures of my children, Houston summer heat, the International Space Station and office supplies, a million light years away from those times and that life. Our friend Jamaal turned 30 this year. We didn’t call him. Didn’t try to find where his lair is (that’s what he called the many places where he was always “staying”). Maybe we should, just to say hi. Or rather, to say heeeey, duuude.

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