An old friend says hello

By Parker Pickett. Photos by Andy Figueroa. 

No, no no no no, get it right, get it right. It’s only these words, man, just language on a page. And I know you can hear my voice through this. Padded walls of my own thoughts, banging crazy into kinetic desires rampant in the hormonal subversions of demeanor.

How many times did you have to drag your love through mud and concrete and toxic and mutilation only to figure out that it was all a mess, a fraudulent destination, vicious circle of anxiousness and eroding morals?

I stepped out of my Indiana to figure out that all-encompassing rage of sickened freedom, freedom from you and even my own self, ragged and alarmed and weakened by loss of spirit in the impending demise of societal and political and cultural progression. And so I hopped on out of the flatlands of my sweet, sweet Indiana, on out towards that holy land of the San Francisco Bay, right after the new year 2018 January. Out to the place where I witnessed death on the streets firsthand, the place of my heroes and their excursions of consciousness, the land reaching out to the edge of the west, with love. And love, that’s what drives people to the extremes, that’s what gives them the energy and rage and spirit to defy and fight for that which they care for on the most basic human level. Human to human connections. Love, is what we call it. Love.

I was outside this bar called Saloon out in North Beach, packed house, band reveling in their harmonious excitement and that crowd was gulping down their drinks and hollering up a whooping storm of nervous energy and tight and loose and rambunctious. So I stayed outside on that lovely clean night in the alley right outside the door leaning on a wall with the streetlight singing its pure melody of liquid shine onto my peaceful attitude. I felt open, and in my openness there were these two older white men who were jolly and talking about their generations youth, back in the 60s and their hippie days. I play music, and we connected, we got on the discussion of the rock ‘n’ roll of that time and after getting comfortable with each other somehow it gets out that I’m from Indiana. Now the older of the two, he gives a raised eye towards my mention of Indiana, he got that twinkle in him. And he goes into his story.

“I was young and living in L.A. back in the day when I met this girl from Anderson, Indiana,” – coincidentally where I am from – “And I fell in love with her.

“She was down there for about a month and we really hit it off. Well, she ended up heading up back to Indiana and I was defeated about that. So, I did what I had to, and I hitchhiked from L.A. up to Indiana to find her. Suzy Auchman. I was a hippie, no job, it was the time for it, and I loved her. Well, I got up to Anderson after about a week and a half and used the phonebook to call and I met her at her house, she was living with her parents at the time.

“But, turns out she was engaged and about to be married to another man. I was devastated. But, Suzy and her fiancé took me out to dinner, I was welcomed and respected by her family and was allowed to sleep on her parents couch that night because I had nowhere else to stay. So, I slept, I woke up in the morning, I said my goodbye to Suzy and her family, and I made my way back down to L.A. And it hurt, I loved her, and it was worth it. The crazy things that we do for such a thing as love.”

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I could still see the ache in his eyes as he spoke his story. I felt every bit of it. We all three chatted a little more, but it was getting late and there was this girl who I was hanging with out there who was leaving and calling my name. It was time for me to part ways from the aged hippies. The older man and I shook hands and he held on a little longer to my hand and looked me straight in my young eyes and said, “If you, somehow, when you get back to Indiana, if you somehow meet a Suzy Auchman, tell her an old friend says hello.”

I smiled, I agreed, and I ran off into the amorous night, leaving them under that angelic ring sent down from the streetlight above, leaving them to continue rockin’ in the free world.

In the course of motion and emotion spurs much commotion and devotion to the idea of destiny, of some sort of righteous end to all things, all events, all moments of existence. Free-will leads us to the next, but only by the culmination of all the knowledge remembered derived from whatever consequences we each decide to retain, as well as what truths and perceptions we each individually decide to view and accept as truths.

I do not remember the name of that older gentleman, but I will carry his truth of unwavering love. And in doing so, there is hope, the same hope he instilled in my young heart. There is great courage in choosing to love. In the face of this society and culture and politico sphere that seems to becoming heartless and void of humanity, to love is a bold act of courage. And to give love, to give to another human being that which we as an individual hold so holy and dear to us that we keep it inside our hearts our blood, to give that such love to another person is the only truth that cannot be marred by the change of times, cannot be defiled by the most destructive forces spewed from human beings, cannot be taken away and left to be buried and forgotten by those who fear the burning elation from the truth that is human love.

To love is worth it, all of it. Remember that, take that idea headlong into each day, into each battle of the spirit, into each intimate moment with this life. So says the laughing doofus, dreaming out in-between those Indiana fields, riding out and embracing pain and giving pain a kiss on the cheek to show acceptance of such hurt and ache, yet that is not the end of all joy and hope! Following a song of a sweet deluge of light, bending orange gradient towards that westward idea manifesting itself in each step taken and a hand, soft and supple, extended out to caress destiny sinking into the warm embrace of that horizon line way out yonder, over fields and mountains and cliffs overlooking ocean waves bashing incessant into this body, and in that moment there is a choice, there is forgiveness, there is such a truth as love.


Parker Pickett is a passionate writer and musician living in Indianapolis, Indiana.


Andy Figueroa is a traveling film photographer based out of Orlando. He seeks to photograph moments of life and light coexisting to create raw experiences in film.


 

This is mental health

By Blayne Waterloo

It’s exhausting.

Being a human is exhausting. Being a wife, a daughter, an employee, a conscientious person! The whole thing just makes you feel so heavy. Being. It’s a lot.

Before I knew that the chemicals in my brain weren’t like those of others, that’s all I knew. Life was just … a lot.

I was a 5-year-old whose eyes were locked on my window all night, watching the sky change colors, thinking, “When the window is light blue, I have to get up again.”

I was an 11-year-old kid putting dishes away who’d just sink to the floor in a heap, crying. My mom would ask what was wrong, and all I could say was, “I’m just tired.”

I was a 12-year-old who’d think, wouldn’t it be nice for my mom if we got in a car accident and I died but she’d be OK?

At school when I was 13, I passed a note to my best friend, saying, “I don’t see myself living a long life.” She called after school just as I’d taken a kitchen knife out of its block and began cutting the tips of my fingers. Her parents took me to youth group a few days later and insisted my life was worth living, that I had it all wrong.

I didn’t realize that was my first suicide note. I didn’t realize I’d write another one.

I didn’t know that I needed help, and that no one knew how to help me.

Each day felt heavy. Like when you’ve got peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth, and you have to pry your lips apart to unstick it, and your jaw hurts from pulling. It’s that split second before they smack back open, when it’s a little tough to breathe and you’re thinking, “Well, shit. What am I gonna do?”

And I didn’t know why. All I knew was that my mom would tell me I was “sensitive” in a way that suggested it was wrong to be that way. All I knew was that when I was 14 and I told my parents what had happened the year before, they told me that if they didn’t want to die, I shouldn’t either.

When I was 23, I was an editor at a newspaper near my hometown. The hours were inconsistent. I was always on call. It felt like I never worked enough to make my boss happy. And the traffic was horrendous.

I took 10 nighttime pain relievers a night to fall asleep and didn’t tell my now-husband.

When I became overwhelmed, I’d taken to crying at my desk then walking to the bathroom with my hair in my face, where I’d hit myself and tell my red-faced reflection in the mirror that no one else out there is crying and that I need to get my shit together, because I’m pathetic.

A highly saturated version of art of a hallway with a figure going into a room

This is how undiagnosed mentally ill people cope. This is how people who don’t know where to find help manage their mental illness.

I took a sick day nearly every other week until my boss took me aside and encouraged me to take advantage of the company’s employee assistance program. There, I was diagnosed with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder.

Each day felt heavy. Like when you’ve got peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth, and you have to pry your lips apart to unstick it, and your jaw hurts from pulling. It’s that split second before they smack back open, when it’s a little tough to breathe and you’re thinking, “Well, shit. What am I gonna do?”

But I still had no idea what to do with it. I couldn’t afford regular therapy. So after my five sessions of EAP were up, I went to my family doctor, the one who delivered me at birth, and told him I needed medication based on these sessions.

He prescribed me a low dose of an anxiety medication. It helped during the day, but I still couldn’t sleep. When I asked him for a higher dose, he paused and asked, “Is it worse when you’re menstruating?”

I haven’t seen him since.

I went to a behavioral health care organization, talked to doctors who understood mental health. They adjusted my prescription again.

I went to group therapy. It was the first time I talked about what I was feeling and wasn’t met with anything but nodding and sympathetic eyes. It was the first time I was told, “You’re not alone, and there’s nothing wrong with you.”

I brought my mom to group therapy. At the end of the session, she said to everyone, “I commend you.”

I’d moved on to another newspaper by that time, working with a tight-knit group of men where I was supposed to be “cool.” Where I wasn’t making enough money to pay my school loans or my car payment or my rent, but I was working 45 hours a week or more. And I still wasn’t sleeping.

My husband and I had to move because rent was increasing again, but we couldn’t find a place between our two newspaper jobs within our budget and in livable shape. We fought about money. We stressed about our present and our future.

Life was … a lot. I drank. A lot.

One day after I’d gotten drunk and was texting my husband about the house we were going to sign a lease for because time was running out and we didn’t have much choice, I started crying. I went to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror. I was tired. I felt weighed down. Life was not supposed to feel this way. Every moment wasn’t supposed to be so difficult. I was just bad at it. And I was making everyone else’s life difficult by being here. I’d be doing them a favor if I wasn’t here anymore. I wrote a note apologizing.

My husband found me on our bedroom floor, overdosed. After a nurse hooked me up to flush the meds out of my system, another asked if I regretted attempting to die by suicide.

I didn’t.

This is how mentally ill people who haven’t found their solution after 25 years cope. This is what rock bottom for a mentally ill person looks like. It doesn’t happen out of nowhere. It’s a gradual progression of missteps and disbelief and trial and error and error and error.

You’re not cured when you leave a behavioral hospital. Especially not after eight days in close quarters with 20 other patients and no doors on the bathrooms. You’re given tools to cope, just like you were at group therapy. Just like you were in EAP.

But you’re given the time to look at yourself. Sober. With a clear schedule. With a journal. With group and individual therapy. You’re given a proper evaluation to determine which meds are right for you right now. You take the time to hone your skills and understand yourself.

Three years out of the hospital. Twenty-eight years of work.

And then you go back to your life. Still heavy. Still a lot. Still a mouth full of peanut butter.

But I took the time to listen to the language other people in my situation, both at a public and private level, were using, and sought out mental health communities. We were all saying the same thing, regardless of how we were saying it.

Being. Is. A lot. For everyone. You just have to be kind to yourself, and keep moving. Take stock of what in your life is good for your mental health and what isn’t. Change what you can. Change how you cope with what you can’t change.

I’m not a journalist anymore. I don’t live in that house anymore. I don’t drink like that anymore. I don’t talk to myself like that anymore. Three years out of the hospital. Twenty-eight years of work.

Mental illness is isolating because it’s work that you have to do on yourself, for yourself. You have to want to change to feel better. You have to find doctors who work for you. You have to go to therapy, and take your medication, and take control. And if you don’t value your own life, how are you supposed to see that?

I wasn’t given the proper tools growing up to recognize myself as being mentally ill. And neither were the people in my life. So I was stuck in a cycle of confusion, self-medication, and self-hate.

That’s why I’m open about being depressed and having anxiety. Because I’m not alone. And neither are you. My heart genuinely aches to think there’s anyone out there who doesn’t see themselves in others because others aren’t sharing, and suffers because of it. You’re not alone, and there’s nothing wrong with you.


If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of depression and/or anxiety, speak up! Reach out. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a great resource, even if you don’t want to talk. It even has a chat feature.


Blayne Waterloo is a web designer living in Harrisburg, Pa., with her husband, two dogs, depression, anxiety and a love of horror movies. 


Art from the public domain, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Open Access initiative (Creative Commons Zero).


 

Never the same, but always another

Words and pictures by Laurel Myers

There’s a verse in an old Apache Relay song that I often think of: “Home is not places, it is love.” Standing on a beach in New Zealand last month – waves crashing wildly under an endless sea of stars, distant city lights glowing softly – I was on the opposite­­­ side of the world from everything familiar, from anything that you might classically call “home.” Yet I felt peace, ease and belonging. For the first time in a long time, I felt at home in my surroundings – and in my own skin.

I’ve never had a very strong sense of place. The longest I’ve ever lived in one spot was as a child, when I lived for five years each in Michigan, Wyoming, and Montana. When people ask, I say I am from Montana – the place I spent my most formative years and a landscape I love dearly – but in truth, my soul has always felt split down the middle, parsed into fragments, unsure of where it belongs.

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When I was 16, I left Montana for college in Missouri. More than one thousand miles from the life that I knew, I sat holed up in my dorm room as a lonely freshman, feeling sick of the snowless cold, missing mountains, perusing scholarship applications. Call it fate or luck or inevitability, but I found myself reading about a two-week backcountry skiing course in the Tetons with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). I dismissed it quickly as impractical and hopelessly cold, but the idea stuck in the back of my mind and in January, I found myself driving to the NOLS base in Driggs, Idaho. I spent one night in a hotel by myself, watched the thermometer drop to negative 20, and wondered what I had gotten myself into.

This is what happens when you open yourself to strangers.

Ten days of winter camping with 14 strangers turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life and a lesson in the power of blind trust despite fear. I expected to battle the cold alone, but instead I found friends who taught me silly songs about trees and who shared gooey brownies over propane flames. Discomfort was drowned in camaraderie. For the first time since I had left high school, I felt belonging, community, home.

Backcountry

Although change had been a constant in my life, I had seldom chosen it: I protested moving and although I had taken music trips in high school, they were all calculated risks. So far, my experiences at a university far from the familiar had only left me hollow. But there in the Tetons a switch flipped in my brain: “This is what happens when you take a chance.” “This is what happens when you open yourself to strangers.”

After that first terrifying step into the unknown, I have spent every summer taking a different chance, in a different place, doing a different job – bat research in Colorado, seal research in Massachusetts, shadowing at a veterinary clinic in Michigan, vaccinating chickens in Madagascar, couchsurfing in Europe, sleeping in the back of my car and camping in national forests in the American West, building out a van with my best friend and bumming through British Columbia, working in New Zealand. With fewer material possessions to worry about, I was forced to focus on the people and experiences that were in front of me. Through this, I discovered that I am at my best when I have the least.

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In my life I have seldom “fit in.” My goals have never been traditional. After earning a degree in music, I applied to veterinary school. I stepped out of the veterinary program to add a public health degree and yet, what I find myself most passionate about these days is storytelling, science communication, empathy. I have always felt pulled in many directions: Equally longing for city streets, country roads and mountain passes. I suppose it’s unsurprising that I feel most comfortable with other wanderers and vagabonds. People who live out of their car so they can do the things they love or see more of the beautiful places that exist in the world. People who live simply and value experiences over things. People who value people.

“Home is not places, it is love.”

Friends

In the summer of 2018, I was gazing up a rock face in Tuolumne Meadows on the northern side of Yosemite in California. Belaying a climber, I watched a long green rope snake from my harness out of view, up and to the left, curving over a large block of granite, and vanishing. I felt the gentle tug of the rope in my hands as I belayed, reminding me that I was connected to my partner.

But I was also alone to enjoy the view. A gentle breeze caressed my face and I smiled out at the valley of lakes stretching beneath me and at the knowledge that more beauty awaited me at the top. A quiet moment in the sun on a rock cathedral can feel like the warm embrace of a dear friend.

Home doesn’t always have to be a place you’ve been before. Love doesn’t always have to come from people.

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Three months ago, I landed on an island on the opposite side of the world and drove five hours by myself to a little mountain town in New Zealand. I felt utterly alone. I was far from all I loved and knew and wanted.

But it always starts like that. All of the best experiences I have ever had, all of the best friendships I have forged, have involved stepping away from what I know and choosing to accept the uncomfortable. It has taken me a long time, but I’ve realized that home can be anywhere that I feel love and feel loved – with family or friends, but also in nature, hanging out with a stranger’s dog, or even (and perhaps most importantly) by myself.

Home doesn’t always have to be a place you’ve been before. Love doesn’t always have to come from people.

I still get nervous before big trips.

I know that I will inevitably return a different person. My perception of my surroundings and the way I interact with them will be altered. I will no longer be the same person. Home is fleeting, but that’s what makes it so beautiful. And as long as we remain open, there will always be another opportunity to find it. Never the same, but always another.

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So, my home is on the New Zealand coast, waves crashing under a sky filled with more stars than I ever thought possible, looking up at the sky and sharing awe with another human being.

It is pulling into a new town and cooking dinner on camp stoves in a beach pavilion with people I didn’t know existed that morning and who share their foraged mussels and spaghetti with smiles.

Or my skis gliding silently over fresh powder as snow continues to drift down all around, alone on my birthday on the backside of a mountain I know well. Home is a good hug. It is the smell of pine.

Home is curry cooked in a full kitchen. Home is falling on the floor with new friends because I am laughing so hard. It is anywhere that I have a belay partner. Home is one more rope length, then lazing by a mountain lake. It is riding bikes through city streets in the rain, soaked and laughing. It is people who make me feel comfortable – it is being comfortable with myself.

And someday maybe home will be in a neighborhood and on a porch where I can share a drink with my neighbors and in a community where children’s clothes are passed between families. But for now it is enough to find comfort in knowing that the café down the street has a particular kind of cinnamon coffee cake. Within myself, I have learned to find home wherever I am.


Laurel Myers is a scientist, storyteller, adventurer and believer in the possibility of a better future who is currently finishing graduate degrees in veterinary medicine and public health.


 

If you can do it, then so can I

By Cesar Lazcano

I was born with a type of glaucoma that caused me to lose all vision in my right eye. Yet I did just about everything growing up, never thinking I had a visual impairment.  At least, I never paid too much attention to it. In high school, I played so many sports – soccer, wrestling, track and field, cross country. Even when I got a bit older, on my days off from work, I’d religiously run 5-plus miles and go to the gym.

But by age 25, I lost all vision in my left eye after my retina was scarred from a number of retinal detachments and multiple corrective surgeries.

It was a depressing time for me. I lost everything, from my first car that I’d fully paid off just a few months before my surgeries to my pursuit of becoming a firefighter. I thought my life was practically over.

I noticed changes in my health too. After my eye surgeries and later on, I started to notice how nothing in my closet would fit. Even though I couldn’t see it myself, I knew I wasn’t healthy. I realized I had to change or things were going to get a lot harder for me.

I became disciplined in working out and eating a healthy vegetarian diet. Because of the nature of my eye surgeries, I was restricted in how much weight I could lift; I started from a mere 30-lb dumbbell and slowly picked up from there. I started competing in adaptive sports for the blind, such as blind baseball (more famously known as Beep Baseball) and in running 5K and 10K races with the assistance of tethered sighted runners. I also competed in 100-meter sprints in track and field in an effort to participate in Pre-Paralympic tournaments.

A photo of Cesar playing beep baseball in a lush baseball field

I would soon find out these sports would become my saving grace from a spiraling depression. I became friends with many athletes who were blind just like me. With them, I felt more at ease with myself. I knew I wasn’t alone anymore, that there were many others with similar conditions – some more tragic than my own.  It’s a good feeling to focus on your sprints or try to swing a bat and then think about your struggle with blindness.

With them, I felt more at ease with myself. I knew I wasn’t alone anymore.

The difference between me and these other athletes, though, was how they were able to live an independent life and I couldn’t.

I soon moved to Littleton, Colorado, where I began an intensive 9-month independent training program for individuals who are blind or those who are starting to lose their vision. The Colorado Center for the Blind, where I was taking the program, teaches students how to read and write braille, how to travel with a cane, how to type and use a computer and other accessible tech. The Center for the Blind also taught students home management – my favorite – where I learned how to cook.

Every single one of those skills has become essential in my everyday life now. And when I’m not using these skills, I find myself in the kitchen trying to find out what recipe I want to whip up.

Photo of Cesar chopping onions in a kitchen

How do I do it? The best way to know my kitchen is by memorizing its layout. Practice makes perfect in every sense of the phrase. When starting a recipe, I have to always rely on my other senses – my other senses have become more heightened because of my lack of vision. But the answer is more simple than that: I’ve learned that I just have to concentrate more.

A photo of Cesar chopping tomatoes in a kitchen

You don’t just use one sense when you’re cooking. When I’m chopping celery, for example, I listen to the sound the chopping makes, and I move the celery as I’m chopping and feel how long or small I’m cutting it. Just right there I’m using two senses. And then all of a sudden I hear the timer on my phone go off, and then I start to smell the ingredients in the stock pot. And I try a taste of the stew by dropping a few drops on my hand. In that case, I’ve used all of my senses. With a pot of water, I have to listen closely to hear it boil. I smell or taste a certain food or ingredient to know if it’s gone bad or not. I use my sense of touch to feel French bread, or blueberry muffins, to know how spongy or hard it’s getting.

People can get so perplexed about how a blind person can manage to cook anything. How can they if they can’t see?

Cooking is something you take for granted when you have sight, I think. Whether or not you’re good or great at cooking, you know you can still make yourself a sandwich. Now that I can cook, I no longer have to worry who’s going to make food for me or about the impending doom about how I’d make food later on in life. Now I make whatever I want at any time. And not only do I feel independent making food for myself, but I can cook for others. That’s something I truly cherish.

A photo of Cesar at his graduation from the Colorado Center for the BlindTo pass the program at the Center for the Blind, everyone must be able to make a graduation meal for the entire center, staff, students and guests – with help from no one. And I did just that with my graduation meal that hosted a little over 60 people. It took me three days to finish my graduation meal – it was a challenge. I felt like Gordon Ramsey. I cooked Italian country soup, a side of Greek eggrolls and a tres leches parfait for dessert. When people were enjoying every dish I had made and getting up to get more, I knew my hard work had paid off.

People can get so perplexed about how a blind person can manage to cook anything. How can they if they can’t see? I find myself answering this question many times. And my answer is: If you can do it, then so can I. I just do things a little bit differently.


Cesar’s Greek Egg Rolls

Ingredients
16 egg roll wrappers
20 oz. Simply Potatoes Shredded Hash Browns
3 C. fresh spinach
1 small red pepper diced
1 lb. bacon cooked, crispy and diced
3 green onions diced
½ C. goat cheese
1 1/2 Tbsp. all-purpose Greek seasoning
1 Tbsp. salt for taste
Vegetable oil for frying
¼ C. sun dried tomatoes
1 Tbsp. garlic salt

Cook bacon. Use bacon drippings to sauté potatoes for 5 minutes. Put potatoes, drained of excess grease, in a bowl. Stir in spinach, red peppers, bacon, onions, goat cheese, Greek seasoning and salt. Let cool.

Heat oil to 350 Fahrenheit. While the oil is heating, take out the egg roll wrappers. Take a wrapper and lightly wet its outer edges with water so that it will stick together when rolled. Put ½ cup of potato mixture in wrapper and roll according to the directions on the package. Put aside until all the egg rolls are filled. Fry egg rolls approximate 5 min. or until golden brown. Let them drain and rest on a paper towel until all the egg rolls are cooked. Do not over crowd egg rolls in the oil. Most deep fryers usually fit 4 to 5 at a time. Serve and enjoy!



Cesar Lazcano is originally from Casa Grande, Arizona, a small town between Phoenix and Tucson. Lazcano will be attending a 6-month small business training program to pursue his own business in the snack vending industry.


 

We can see the finish line from here

By Anonymous. 

I once heard a lengthy interview on the radio with a social psychologist who believed that the concept of closure is something of a myth – that all losses have some permanent effect.

I listened carefully and considered my own losses.

I am in my mid-sixties now, and more than 35 years have passed since my wife left unexpectedly. Not quite a year later, she called me and told me she had remarried. We have not spoken since then.

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I was fortunate in that I had close, generous friends who helped me through the worst of it. I left my job two years after she left, went to grad school, changed careers, moved several times, and retired. I never remarried, and only very rarely went out with other women. These were, almost without exception, bewildering and humiliating experiences. As the years went by, I talked about my ex-wife and the divorce less frequently.

What I remember all these years later, as though it happened an hour ago, was the look in her eyes as she uttered her vows: a look of love, happiness, and contentment.

But it’s never far from my mind. When I attend a wedding, I listen carefully to the vows. They are awe-inspiring, an expression not only of love, but of optimism and hope.  I was married in a small civil ceremony – nothing elaborate – but what I remember all these years later, as though it happened an hour ago, was the look in her eyes as she uttered her vows: a look of love, happiness, and contentment. When I hear other young people express vows now, I share in their hope, but I wonder whether they will have the patience, the self-control, the selflessness, and the attentiveness I lacked as a spouse.

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One of my best friends turned 70 recently. While we are both in good health, he says, “We can see the finish line from here.” He’s right.

A few weeks ago, a former colleague died suddenly; He was two years my junior. For 40 years, he held the same job I had for more than 20 years, but in another city 50 miles away. I’d have to go to that office four or five times a year for meetings and training. The relationship Thomas and I had was superficial, but superficiality often gets a bad rap.  When I’d go to the office Thomas worked in, I’d find him, say hello, and chat for a minute or two.

Thomas was a tall, gregarious, African-American man. He always seemed happy. I never heard Thomas say a bad word about anyone, and we were in a line of work in which we encountered many people about whom bad things could be said. He always greeted me with genuine warmth and friendliness. The day was always a little better when I had a two-minute exchange with him.

Going to Thomas’ funeral seemed like the right thing to do.  It was an interesting cultural experience. I was raised in an Irish-Catholic household; Thomas in a Baptist one.

Most of the funerals I’ve attended have been Catholic – austere and ritualistic. Thomas’ funeral was, at times, loud and boisterous. There was singing, clapping, and praising of Jesus. Thomas’ family and friends were all African-American; His current and past co-workers were almost all white. At one point in the ceremony, his co-workers were asked to stand and the congregation applauded, a gesture I appreciated. We were made to feel welcome.

The funeral was two hours long. There were eulogies, encomiums, and messages of consolation for Thomas’ wife and adult son. I listened carefully and nothing I heard said about Thomas surprised me: His diligence, warmth and friendliness were noted.

His widow spoke last.

She spoke of meeting Thomas in college more than 40 years ago. She praised his character, his steadfastness as a husband and father. She talked about the deep friendships they formed with other couples. She said Thomas was not only the love of her life, but her best friend. She said she won the lottery when they married.

What would my ex-wife say if she were to offer a eulogy?

When attending funerals, a man at my age wonders what will be said of him when his time comes. After all, we can see the finish line from here.

As I listened to Thomas’ widow, tears welled up in my eyes, but not for the loss of Thomas, nor for the loneliness his wife and son will endure. As I listened, I knew that no woman will ever say she won the lottery when she married me.

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What would my ex-wife say if she were to offer a eulogy? She would say she was only 17 and away at college for the first time when she met me. She would say that, for reasons now lost, she got emotionally wrapped up in me to the point where it seemed easier to ask me to marry her than to start over with someone else.

She would say she was unfailingly patient, kind and loving toward me. She might say that in the nine years she knew me, she never uttered a harsh word to me. She would say the love she gave me was answered with selfishness, inattentiveness, and too often, irritability.

She would say she finally gave up on me and realized there was more to life than being my partner, so she got out and found someone who appreciated her more. Whatever became of my life after that was not her responsibility.

But ex-wives don’t show up at the funerals of their first husbands.

Maybe a friend would say I was a concerned and loyal friend at a difficult time in his life. Someone might stand to say that in my younger days, I was a good man to have in the group on a 20-mile training run. I hope some young man recalls that when he was in high school, trying to figure out what life is all about, I helped him see what the sport can teach us if we take it seriously. Someone might recall that I was a skilled practitioner in the art of pub conversation. I hope that someone remembers that when my father was elderly and locked up in a dementia unit, I eased his pain and loneliness. Probably not – no one else was there.

But ex-wives don’t show up at the funerals of their first husbands.

What no one will say, because no one knows, is that throughout my life, when I woke up in terror from a dream that frightened me – in the hazy moment between sleep and full consciousness – I turned to my right, thinking, wishing, maybe hoping, that she was still there.


The author of this piece requested anonymity. Second Sun respects storytellers’ desire for such discretion under careful consideration.


Illustration by Sarah Drew. Photos from the public domain, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Open Access initiative (Creative Commons Zero).


 

Bangrak: Finding a new normal

Text by Dylan Eitharong. Art by Stephen Michael Haas.

When I think of Bangkok, I think of Bangrak.

I don’t have family living in that area of the city, and it’s not particularly cool, or hip, so my friends and I don’t spend our nights dancing or hitting up bars there. It is, however, the first part of the city I got to see not from a taxi leaving the airport. In fact, it’s the first place my feet touched Thai soil. Or cement. Whatever you want to call it. I was 24 years old.

It’s the first place my feet touched Thai soil. Or cement.

When you arrive in Bangkok, make sure you do so at night. And make sure you bring something to make you go right to sleep. (Read – drugs. REREAD – Legal drugs. Or you’ll go to Thai prison, and die.) This isn’t because you need to get your body adjusted to the time difference, and deal with the almost flu-like jet lag (which you should deal with, but separately); but because you need to sleep, and then you need to wake up – early. Don’t try and arrive in the morning – you’ll miss it. Arrive in Bangkok at night, go straight to your hotel in Bangrak district, and sleep, so when you wake up at 5 in the morning, you can step outside and smell.

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Take all of it in.

(If there is one smell that immediately takes me back to Bangkok – it’s pla raa – that is, a stinky, funky fermented fish sauce used in a plethora of dishes, but in Bangkok it’s usually the indicator of a Som Tam – papaya salad – stand. It’s EVERYWHERE, and while it’s not necessarily a good smell, whenever me or my team use the stuff in our own cooking, I’m immediately transported home.)

The first thing you’ll notice is charcoal. The second is gasoline. One is coming from grilling. One is coming from the exhaust pipe of a motorbike, of which there are hundreds. The first smell is coming from one of an endless amount of street food vendors starting their day. Time waits for no one in this city, and people are hungry. Things must start early.

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Follow the smell of the charcoal, and the gasoline, tailing closely behind a motorbike driver down Charoen Keelung road, and you’ll begin to smell something else: Jok.

Jok (pronounced like “joke” with a sort of cough), is little more than boiled rice, cooked over charcoal until it becomes a white, smoky sludge. And there’s pork. Lots of pork.

Time waits for no one in this city, and people are hungry. Things must start early.

The Jok that your nose will lead you to (mine did) in Bangrak is the decades-old Jok Prince, and their version is the best version in Thailand. In a country with a cuisine not known for its breakfast options (as there are…very few, aside from hotel versions of American and European standards), Jok is one of life’s great culinary pleasures, most often enjoyed in the early morning.

The version at Jok Prince is cooked in a rich, clear pork stock that picks up the smoky flavor of the charcoal that it’s cooked over, and filled with more pork – intestines, liver, and rough meatballs the size of ping pongs.

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The first time I went to Bangkok, I was completely overwhelmed. Also confused. But not in a bad way.

Since I grew up in the states, I thought I was familiar with Thai customs and culture, but being there for the first time really changed me. It was strange, especially because I’d always considered myself very Thai. But nope. I felt like a complete foreigner. The one thing that was immediately familiar to me was the food – I knew what every dish was from looking at it, I knew the names, how to order them – because I’d spent so much time in my late teens and early twenties educating myself on them. As with any culture, food became the element of bonding between me and other Thai people – more specifically, my family, whom a lot of which I was meeting for the first time. That’s also what keeps me going back. To learn more about it, so I can keep having these connections.

One of my favorite things about Bangkok is that it almost feels like three different cities – there’s Bangkok in the morning, Bangkok in the evening, the slightly sinister late night Bangkok – all of which are totally different and unique in their own ways.

There’s Bangkok in the morning, Bangkok in the evening, the slightly sinister late night Bangkok.

The first three times I went, it just felt like I was visiting this magical place where my family was. Now, after living there for a few months, it feels like a home to me. I have friends there. I have favorite spots to eat. I do normal things on most days – watch TV with my aunt, cook dinner for the house, go get coffee at my favorite shops. It’s a really wonderful feeling.


Dylan Eitharong founded Bangrak Thai Street Kitchen (@bangrakthaistreetkitchen), which ran from 2016 to 2019 in Orlando, Florida.


Stephen Michael Haas is an artist based out of Pennsylvania. 


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