Remember Me

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Marcy Airfield, Keene, NY.

“There are so many people we could become, and we leave such a trail of bodies through our teens and twenties that it’s hard to tell which one is us. How many versions do we abandon over the years?”
― Dan Chaon, Among the Missing

You exist in the minds of others. You exist in twisted and bronzed and sun-bleached forms. Because memory’s a sieve, leaking feelings and details until only pebbles large enough to run between thumb and forefinger remain.

I remember you.

This happens often now that you’re wintering in your hometown. People will do double-takes as they look at you from ten feet away, eyes squinted, head turned just enough that they could spin away in an instant.

I remember you. You went to Brighton, right?

They are not always confident when they tack on that last part. They are teachers and parents and students. You wonder what they think about you. I’m not here for good! you want to shout across the t-shirts racks, as if it is somehow shameful to end up in the same place you were raised. As if the only way you could claim dignity was by leaving.

I remember you. You went to Brighton, right? What are you doing these days?

You never have a good answer to that. Because you both know what you are doing–you are restocking the Techwick t-shirts that are suitable for most outdoor sports, but will they wrinkle shoved in a suitcase for a three-week trip to South Africa? No fucking clue. You don’t say that, though. You tell them about Lake George. You use the term “outdoor education,” which sounds palatable in suburban America because it includes the word “education.” You make it clear that you are not in this town forever, and that someone else will eventually be arranging the Techwick.

I remember you. You went to Brighton, right? What are you doing these days? God, I’m so sorry, but your name is totally slipping my mind.

You wear a nametag but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that names are really unimportant, that they encapsulate blood and sinew, feelings and thoughts, and that’s what really matters. What really matters is that you are a bunch of indescribable moments and buzzing atoms and that people will remember you the same way they remember that one particular rainbow over that one particular Walmart parking lot.

I remember you. You went to Brighton, right? What are you doing these days? God, I’m so sorry, but your name is totally slipping my mind. You broke eight minutes for your 2k time, though. I remember that.

You talk with the former boys crew coach, and some distant, buried part of you swells when he mentions your 2k time. Because you were the best. The best by far. You remember lining up in the small asphalt lot by the bank of the Genesee–girls and boys teams–in order of fastest to slowest. Boys were on either side of you and that moment remains treasured in memory because gender didn’t matter; you were still one of the motherfucking fastest.

Sometimes you forget that you were an athlete. That you won medals. That you raced with the University of Rochester team in the summer because you could hold your own. That you would come home with skin dangling from your palms and Spandex plastered to your shivering body from the rain.

That was a different you, and the strangest thing about living in this city is confronting shadow versions of yourself, the you that’s only alive in memory.

What no one ever tells you is that it’s OK to leave people behind. That not everyone deserves a place in your ripening future. That it’s OK to be the nameless rainbow above the Walmart parking lot, a singular moment captured without depth, without acknowledging that two minutes later the light had shifted and the rainbow was gone.

I remember you.

 

First Steps

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On the summit of Wittenberg.

I camped by myself for the first time when I was 23. It was in Phoenicia, NY, nestled in the Catskill Mountains, the closest one can get to New York City and still feel connected to threads of wildness. My plan was this: leave work early, drive three hours, camp, summit three mountains, and then drive back to the Poconos exhausted but content. I had no expectations, no greater hope. I just wanted to be outside, and this is what I had come up with.

I learned a lot in college, including if you want to get outside you don’t need anything fancy. Leaders in my school’s outdoors club always told us that all we needed for food was a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. That would last us the entire weekend. Of course that didn’t stop people from getting fancy with their tinfoil meals cooked over a fire, or backpacking with an entire bag of Franzia strapped to their pack. But the essence was clear:  the outdoors is accessible with minimal gear requirements if you’re willing to forgo creature comforts.

Over the years, I’d collected my own stash of stuff–down sleeping bag, insulated sleeping pad, hiking boots–but besides the new acquisitions, I’d pillaged my dad’s inventory and made do with what I already had, including an EMS backpack I’d purchased in middle school that was quite literally falling apart.

So off I went. On my own. To the mountains. For the very first time.

The weekend went smoothly. Better than smoothly. As I was checking in to the campground, two women overheard that I was by myself and invited me to their campfire that evening. And I went, even though I intended not to. They introduced me to their partners, and we spent the night drinking, eating, and exchanging stories by the fire. Two of them had met in the Marines and had married after three months of knowing each other. One was a chef who worked at a five-star restaurant. They told me about their lives in Virginia (interesting). They asked me if I was scared of bears in these parts (no). They were suitably impressed with my itinerary for the next day (nearly 20 miles, and no, they didn’t want to join).

I cannot find a beginning to this wild, meandering, sunlit life of mine. I cannot trace it back to its origins. How I got here. Who specifically inspired me. There is no clear path, and sometimes I think my life would’ve evolved into this organic, pulsing knot no matter what steps I took. But that weekend in the Catskills is a clear pivotal moment, one of countless beginnings.

Being a beginner is a special kind of joy. I recently started playing around with watercolors, picking up the supplies at a craft store on a whim, and it’s been fun albeit challenging. I don’t know what different brushes do, or techniques for using the paints. And it’s hard not to compare my work with others. But I’m trying.

This past year I have been a beginner more than ever before. I’ve lived in five different places, had five different jobs, and have met more people than I can count. And I wonder if my life feels fuller partially because there is so much newness. That the discomfort of beginning becomes the glow of success, and I constantly reap the rewards of struggling, learning, and growing.

A recent goal for myself is to be a beginner more often. To try and do and fail as often as I can. To accept being uncomfortable or scared and to push ahead anyway. Often the first steps are the hardest. The rest is just free fall.

(Want to read about other people I met on my Catskill adventure? Check out a previous blog post here.)

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My campsite in Phoenicia. (My beloved EMS backpack is on the right. RIP.)