You are at a country music festival, the weekend’s final act.
It is late and you are feeling the love.
For the artists, the music, the atmosphere, those you came with, all those you didn’t come with but with whom you are now bound and bathed in a warm bubble of what will surely be a lifelong memory.
Then there are alien sounds, rhythmic but not musical—and not coming from the stage.
Then comes the chaos, the confusion, the sudden mad scramble and cowering amid bullets and falling bodies all around you, blood spattering your clothes (is it your own?), screams of fear, of anguish, and death for 58 people.
And for some reason, you are not among them.
You are alive.
You are driving down the three-lane highway with a childhood friend on a sunny afternoon, fast lane.
You need to get off, so you move toward the middle.
A driver in the slow lane has the same idea, same time.
You don’t notice, until you do.
Then you yank your steering wheel, harder than you should.
Now you are hitting the freeway wall, banging and bouncing, yanking again on that wheel, too late and hard again, all hair-trigger reaction now.
You find yourself fishtailing across three lanes of highway, no other cars struck, thinking, or having thought happen to you in those microseconds of cascading awareness: I can’t flip over, I can’t flip over.”
You don’t, and you come to rest on the shoulder of the highway, your friend and you unhurt, shaken to the core, pulses racing, fortunate beyond words.
You are alive.
You are sleeping on a Sunday night, the clock ticking toward your meetup with another Monday morning at work, ever familiar.
Then you stir, inadvertently.
Something is happening.
Something making you restless, confused, yanked from your dream.
It’s a pounding on your door.
“Fire, fire! Get out!”
You spring up, bound to the door, but your neighbor is already gone to the next house.
All you see now are flames, coming down the hill.
You start grabbing things.
“My keys, where are my keys?”
Wallet, jacket (“Quick, honey! Move!”), the drawer with the important papers (“Just take it all; throw it in the car, now!).
The dog and the cat.
You rip your shoes on, and you run.
To your car, to safety, down the road through falling embers making like rain on your windshield.
And you get to the bottom of the road, and you make a turn, and suddenly you think: “Where am I going? Where should we go?”
There is time now to think those thoughts.
You are alive.
“I got sunshine on a cloudy day,” goes the song.
But these are jagged bolts of lightning on crystal-clear days.
It is the suddenness, the ambush, the bolts from the blue that we can’t abide, that leave us numb and grasping for explanation.
We are deposited into this world blissfully unaware. Helpless, unthinking, utterly dependent.
We don’t know from anything, because we are not separate from it—yet. We exist in a benevolent fever of desire, our mother’s breast or its facsimile quenching our every need.
It is only later that we can look farther, out and around, at a world separate from ourselves. We have a name and needs, and there are other names, with other needs.
We want, but we don’t always get.
We have entered time, and its cellmate: suffering.
We spend all the rest of our lives trying to avoid it, rationalize it, reconcile ourselves to its stubborn, dogged intrusion into all we hold dear.
We have no choice, in the end, but to submit. Or check out, futilely, with dope, drink, hatred.
But submission’s reward is a peculiar, hard-won freedom—to loop back, though all the wiser now, to the unity we knew when we first emerged.
To the bliss of the moment.
The nipple, the touch, the murmur of the beloved.
The ready acknowledgement of one’s dumb, blind good fortune.
We are alive!
Alive to the reality and urgency that we need huddle together, gather with our tribe, but the tribe enlarged now, shorn of all tribal distinctions other than our common humanity, made extraordinary by the intimate knowledge of fire and fate, caprice and contingency, and the tenderest, deepest yearning of our hearts.
Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. See more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Photo of eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery in winter by bcgrote, Granada Hills, California. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bcgrote/
Beautifully said Drew. With friends in Florida, California, Texas and Las Vegas, and here in Costa Rica, all barely dodging some form of catastrophe, awareness of how high this tightrope we walk can become, slaps us in the face, wakes us up to what is really important. This cruise ship we ride, it is the Titanic.
Reminds me of what I think was a George Foreman quote when he was told Muhammad Ali would dance away from him all night: “He can run, but he can’t hide.” Not much hiding from that tightrope you reference either, Kirk. I would just hope that if we are indeed on the Titanic, we at least get the same quality orchestra!
Those of us, we around these United States who are fortunate enough not to have had adrenaline coursing through our veins, or the necessity of facing the tasks of coping with loss of human life, from whichever current source, we who have not personally faced this devastation of family and homes, we do mourn and grieve together these losses, this senseless violence, the tragedy of lives cut down, the wreckage of sweet and beautiful places destroyed after being tended to lovingly over the years, for the sweeping vistas of Sonoma.
Grateful for being spared, we can acknowledge all this precious life we are often so fortunate to take for granted, and help the healing. Our collective challenge is to not succumb to numbness from these overwhelming onslaughts, not to look away, to remain caring, sane and responsive in the face of so much disaster and tragedy.
Not easy; quite the understatement.
Amen, Angela. Sing Ay-ay-ay-men…
SO glad you and your family are well and sheltered. I’m not sure anyone in Santa Rosa is unaffected.
I’ve pondered joining rescuers but know I’d be in their way. Please know I’m keeping positive thoughts for you and your entire community.
That universal desire to reach out and help those in distress is quite the powerful force, Layne. Thanks for being right there in the thick of it!
Drew, not sure how you captured the precious, razor thin line of life and death—–but you did. Most of us have had that OMG moment when it was oh-so-close. Seems to me the challenge is to take the immediate and immense sense of gratitude, nurture it, and keep it as a living guide in life.
Exactly, Jay. Which requires ongoing attention and intention, seems to me. It’s the essence of “spiritual practice,” which, boiled down is nothing so much as never forgetting how thin the line is, and how fortunate we are to still be dancing on it…