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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo of eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery in winter by bcgrote, Granada Hills, California. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bcgrote/