I decided to amp up the number of times I exercise each week and in addition to that, I plan on adopting an even stricter enforcement of the amount of damning carbs I consume.
So in an attempt to jump start that, I decided to take my battered and rheumatoid body out for a walk around Memorial Park, one of two major parks due west and southwest of downtown Houston. Memorial has a decent walking trail that’s three miles long. Perfect way to start this far more intense effort to lose the extra butt I’ve been walking around with since that caloric onslaught we call Thanksgiving.
A lot of people were of like mind this afternoon. The track was crowded but that’s understandable. It was partly cloudy and the high today was 50 degrees. For Houston, this is winter. In a city where the seasons consist of hot and not quite as hot, this was a rare day indeed.
I like walking in the chillier temperatures. Nothing gets my head straight quite like walking in the midst of it. I get a walker’s high I suppose. And not only that, walking in Memorial Park allows that me to get back to nature. One thing you may not know about Houston is how green it is. Trees are everywhere. Big trees. Majestic oaks and towering pine trees that soar upwards of 100 feet tall….some even higher. Flowers too. The humidity creates something of a greenhouse affect.
Great on our skin; hell on our hair.
This afternoon, I parked my car and entered the walking trail. The air was clear , clean and cool. Dead pine needles did as Nature instructed them millions of years ago and fell to Earth at the appropriate time of year. They carpeted the sides of the trail and crunched underfoot. They mixed in with other affected foliage, both on the ground and in it. It was all quite pretty actually.
I thought about a myriad of things as I walked; what my life was like a year ago; what it’ll be like a year from now. Change and growth that’s already transpired and the mental and physical adjustments that I’ll have to make in time. I thought about the people who’ve entered and exited my life and all the lives in which I’d arrived and departed.
That’s when I noticed a huge pine tree cut in sections, obviously felled by Hurricane Ike went it came ashore three months ago. I walked over to a four foot long piece that had been cut and examined it’s rings. Being the botanical nerd that I am, of course I counted them and according to my abilities to understand the sequence of 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on, this tree died at 97 years of age. That really got me thinking about how it had been previously able to survive so many things. Heat and drought, other hurricanes and the handful of times when snow dared to come this far south and drifted down to this trees boughs, never staying very long.
I thought about the person who planted it. The families who over the years picnicked under it; the young couples who got engaged in it’s shade on a hot summer day. It saw so much life in it’s rooted existence in Texas soil.
That got me thinking about the struggle I’ve had with that notion all of my life. Then, that segued into thoughts about a childhood friend who died on my birthday this year. I went to her funeral which meant traversing back to the scene of the crime–my youth.
Then, I remembered a post I wrote on an afternoon spent not only at my friend’s funeral, but my visit home made me present for the official death of some memories I never wanted to keep and sadly, a few I never wanted to relinquish.
APRIL 27, 2008
They say you can never go home again. There are times, when you just don’t want to, but I had to this weekend. I went back to my hometown to say goodbye to a childhood friend whose life ended on the 49th anniversary of when mine started.
I left that sleepy, little South Texas berg in May of 1977. I’ve been back a few times since, but only a handful of times in the past 15 years.
My sister Karol, my mother and I arrived early and had a few minutes to ride around town before the funeral was set to begin. Ironically, a few minutes is all it takes to tour the city. It’s amazing what you can see if you’re looking; it’s amazing what you can feel when you trying not to feel a thing.
Everything was familiar, yet it wasn’t. The city itself seemed old and decrepit. Buildings were boarded up and collapsing in disrepair. I drove by places where I played, road my bike, swam. I passed by locations where seminal events happened…my first kiss; where I learned to drive; the high school auditorium I walked across to get my diploma. It was devoid of color, like the first 90 minutes of the movie, “Pleasantville”. It was as if enlightenment stimulates vibrancy. But that wasn’t the case here. Everything I saw was dull and lifeless. And extremely limited; or that’s how it appeared to me. Everything had changed; it was all so different. But, I was also looking at everything through a different pair of eyes. I left at 18; a long time ago.
Then I saw people I knew. Or people I once knew.
I didn’t know these versions of my “life-shapers”–people who were so instrumental in helping me create the person I’ve become. They were people I knew as a kid: adults, teachers, parents of friends I’d grown up with. Their faces were in so many photographs of my memory–but not these faces. I didn’t recognize these faces.. Who were they? What happened? They had the audacity to get old. And they had the temerity to hammer that point home by their blatant use of hearing aids, wheelchairs, canes and walkers.
My heart broke in the time it took for me to explain to one of my former teachers who I was for the third time in one conversation. And this was one of who quite fond of me.
What hath time wrought?
Then, I wondered how these people saw me. Most hadn’t laid eyes on me in decades. How DID they see me? Did I seem older, younger, chubbier, thinner, withered, taut, wiser, sillier? Or worse–God forbid– did they see me as completely unchanged? Was I still that little girl, clamoring for attention?
There were those that were lucid and they remembered me right off the bat. We smiled at each other, then hugged–allowing vague familiarity to embrace more than anything else, and then our eyes met. In a fraction of a second, we tried desperately to remember things such as the last time we saw each other, grasping for recall of stories to convey–anything to quell the awkward silence brought on by fading memories and a gaping 30-year time span. And then, we must have thought as we scanned each others faces, “Dear God! How can nature be so cruel???
We’d both changed. In each other, we saw the sins committed by life and time.
He noticed my puffy eyes with dark circles; I saw his incredibly receding hairline, thinly veiled by an attempted comb over comprised of a few, sporadic strands.
She noticed the lines around my mouth; the puppet lines as they’re called. I saw the turgidity of her 75-year old stomach. Her jaundiced complexion would indicate liver involvement. Her lack of energy and malaise would indicate it’s latter stages.
At the wake, this “recognition” happened with amazing frequency that afternoon.
THEM: “Oh Laurie, it’s so good to see you!
ME: “Hi Mr/Mrs (Insert name here) How’s (insert name here). I haven’t seem him/her since high school. Is he/she married?”
THEM: “Yes, he/she and (insert name here) married and are now grandparents if you can believe that. Now, are you still in Houston? On the radio?”
ME: “Yes, I’m still in broadcasting. On the periphery, anyway”
THEM: “The last time I saw you, you were……”
You could finish that sentence with any number of places, adjectives, pronouns; what ever. They would all fit, and I assure you, they were all uttered in the course of one very sad afternoon.
In the end, I said my goodbyes, shared one last hug with old friends who’s lives had been so affected by death and then we left.
I was happy to do so because leaving ultimately meant I didn’t have to stay.
Did I pity those that had to stay? Did I feel sorry for them or better than them because they chose small time life as opposed to my choices? Was I so damn happy living in the city? Is where we live, ever more important than how we live? And if we’re happy–in whatever form happiness takes, really, isn’t environment just a component of that? Is the scenery just a somewhat minor part of the entire picture?
If that’s true, then ultimately, does location matter at all?
As I looked around at friends, people and buildings I no longer recognized, I answered my own question: yes, it matters a great deal.
And so does the cruel, cruel process of aging and the wretchedness it incurs.
I drove off, wiping away a tear. I looked in the rear view mirror as I did and witnessed the day’s final insult. I saw an 80-year old friend of my mother’s struggle to get into her car. Ten minutes earlier, she and I had been conversing and in her old, wrinkled face, I saw my mortality. In her, I saw my past, my present and my future.
At that moment, I wanted to vow that I’d never return, but I knew I’d have to. Fate would ensure I’d have to eventually to come back for more goodbyes.
They say you can never go home again. But there are times, when you have to. And while you can thank God you don’t have to stay, in some ways, you can never really leave, either.