Last Journeys

Every December I circumvent my love of quality film watching and succumb to bingeing on cheesy holiday movies. Hey, we all have our vices — mine happen to take place between Thanksgiving and Christmas and center on bad cinematography. Don’t judge.

So imagine my surprise when listed under my Netflix “Holiday Movie” category, chock full of cringe worthy Hallmark Channel ’Tis the Season fodder, appeared a legitimate documentary about men and women selling Christmas trees on the sidewalks of New York City.

What? Christmas, mixed with quality film making, plus human interest, all wrapped up in one of my favorite places? And I didn’t have to live the internal shame of watching terrible TV? How could I not watch?

Within the first ten minutes of Tree Man, Francois, who leaves his wife and young family in Quebec annually to sell Christmas trees as a long time fixture on the streets of New York City, delves into the profound. He speaks of emotionality in leaving home, taking it all in because he never knows when that will be the final time he sees the place he loves. Every venture south could be his last journey. Francois stands on his land, surveying the frozen lake abutting his property, and worries that upon leaving for the holiday season, a season he never has the opportunity to spend with his own family, it could be the last time he is with them. Because you never know.

I’m convinced this sense of wanting to hold on, memorize the minutiae of moments, grows stronger the more loss experienced throughout life. Francois lost his father at fourteen, as well as some good friends as life moved forward, providing background for such thought processes. He takes nothing for granted.

There are points in time, significant places and people, that resonate within and become highlights in our life course. These occasions pull at one’s insides, unerring, sacred, and unique to each and every one of us.

I’ve felt it. Ensconced in local pubs in Belfast, Irish relatives on all sides, or packed into one of their cozy living rooms laughing, storytelling of loved ones passed a constant. Singing by a campfire overlooking Lake Ontario, the moonlight and a thousand stars glinting off waves washing flat rock spanning out from the shore. I’ve been gripped with the overwhelming need to freeze these moments, not let them out of my clenched fists, for fear of an internal undoing should they be lost. This is that same feeling Francois speaks of, not knowing if you will ever have that moment again. It’s an uncanny mixture of gratitude, greediness, longing, and bereavement. Is it the last time everything will be in place? Is it the last journey?

Five years ago, Christmas time — these weeks usually spent on mindless holiday TV viewing abandonment — became a season of agonizing grief. We lost my dad out of nowhere, with no warning. A couple years later, just before St. Patrick’s Day, we lost his best friend to cancer, a second father to me. This week, news came that we are losing another of our extended family — our “American” family puzzle-pieced together years ago by our expatriate fathers and mothers trying to make a better life for themselves, but living thousands of miles from home. This man, who helped shape the person I am, is an American who welcomed them all into the fold and helped build our mismatched close-knit circle of kinspeople, not born of blood, but chosen out of respect, friendship, and love.

We are losing him, and I want to pause everything, hold on to this more innocent space in time in which I haven’t lost yet another person, another moment. Human nature can be selfish in this way.

But that is impossible, the logical portion of my brain tells me this. So I acquiesce and make a silent agreement with the universe to live in the present, savoring each moment that my phone doesn’t ring with bad news. If it doesn’t ring, it means there is status quo among those I love. I am stretching the moment, rather than trying to harness and immobilize it. A side effect of experiencing all sizes of tragedy is reluctant acceptance that you can’t stop life, or death, from happening.

What I’ve found I can do is make a point of looking around myself and finding people, and potential moments, that enrich my life and figure out ways to reciprocate. Grow new memories to cherish, build new connections — a road paved by instrumental people I’ve been privileged to know. What better honor than utilizing their lessons, taught by example, and teaching future generations these essential qualities?

As it turns out, their last journeys are in the memories of all of us left behind, moved forward via word of mouth or turn of hand. We hold on to them by continuing their legacy.

The Extroverted Writer

Ideas are generating on my desk — telltale multi-color sticky notes cropping up is my first clue. This tells me that the last several weeks of working on me is going somewhere even though I’m still in the panicky baby-step phase of that procedure. However, I am learning things.

I’m an extrovert — not new information for those who know me — so alone time, while needed, gets to me after too many days… or hours. Some extroverts, at least my kind of extrovert, hover close to the introvert line without wading fully into those more solitary waters. There are free MBTI tests you can take online that will tell you exactly what percentage into extroversion or introversion you are. Look it up.

I will never be the reclusive writer that disappears for months on end while I delve into the literary world I create. Extroverted writers like me need breaks that include human interaction, whether it is texting, calling, speaking, being with others. Sometimes, with extroverts, you don’t even need to participate as long as it’s around you.

This is one of the most recent things I’ve discovered about myself. Or rediscovered, I’m not sure which.

After my first marriage split up and before I dated the Wusband, I would leave my house — a place filled with more unpleasant memories than pleasant — get away from the residual negative energy, and find myself in various artsy coffee shops. Writing had been wiped off my scope of practice through the turmoil of my marriage, and inspiration swept away by the pain of being unhappy for so long, so I would bring my laptop into cafes and figure out bills, look for jobs online, fill out applications.

I did this again once I entered graduate school a year later. I’d find myself writing papers in those same outlets between classes or before picking the kids up from school, theater, sports, etc.

I always thought I sought out external places to concentrate because I wanted to get away from the house, be somewhere neutral. I was wrong.

It’s because I’m a writer who happens to be an extrovert.

I’ve noticed some of my more recent prolific writing is occurring in cafes and coffee shops. People are all around, the hum of conversation surrounds me drowning out the indie music playing overhead. The occasional word or sentence of a nearby conversation punches through the thrum for attention — snippets of another’s life — laughter rings out, dishes clunk down on thick wood tables or clang into the return receptacle. I sit on the edge of this human experience and find I can work.

When I need a break from the solitary act of writing, I just look up.

I look up from my table at some rustic, grass fed, organically-minded cafe and see the triad of older ladies, grey to white hair, dressed in chic styles denoting comfortable lifestyles, and overhear words like Amsterdam, canals, and Van Gogh. Near the entrance, two women, one round with pregnancy, greet each other with happy hoots and warm embraces. I look beyond them to the line of patrons waiting at the order counter, make accidental eye contact with a balding academic type in his late 30’s, and note that he has fashion sense before darting my gaze away and reprimanding myself that I have sworn off dating to concentrate on me.

Okay, sworn may be a harsh word. I’m not seeking it, I’m not pursuing it, I’ve turned away from it. For now. While I work on me.

I’ve noticed many in-person interviews/potential freelancing entrepreneurs meet here to decide if they want to trade services or combine their efforts on a project. Professors sit over coffee and exchange ideas or discuss personal lives outside of academia. Middle aged sons take their mothers to lunch and catch up on what has occurred in their lives over the past weeks, sometimes months. And then there are the writers, like me. Hovering over laptops, scribbling on love worn pads of paper, eyes that gander up only to stare into space, or sometimes at others as I do, and then return to their task.

It only takes a few moments for me to glance around and take it all in, but it fills the social need of my extroversion enough that I refocus on my laptop screen, type in my password — having timed out by 20 seconds thanks to the diversion — and get back to work, satiated.

I do this several times per visit.

See? I’m learning about me already.


Photo by Luke Chesser