The Hardest Goodbye

My brother told me once that energy just doesn’t disappear. “Information sent through radio waves, tv and even the internet will be around forever in one form or another – traveling through space,” he theorized. “What about when we die?” I asked, “what happens to all that energy?” “It goes somewhere too, maybe it turns to dark matter, maybe stars.” So, I heed these childhood conversations in hopes that you, my best friend that taught me so much and whom changed my life entirely….and ultimately left me far too soon, will hear this somewhere in some form: I love you. I miss you.

IMG_2023.JPG

Swimming with my Psyche

I climbed over the railing and stood on the edge of the pier, towering 50 feet above the chilling, murky green waves of the Pacific ocean. The back of my neck tingled. My chest pounded and my mind went numb with fear. No!! it screamed. NO!! It protested, shrieking like a wild animal about to die. But my left foot took a step and then, ever so gracefully, followed by my right, my body ignored its desperate pleas and I fell through emptiness.

There are those moments in life when you will experience transitions. When all your best laid plans go straight down the shitter. When your life looks and feels nothing like you imagined. You feel like a failure and it’s almost impossible to keep this broken record from repeating over and over again in your mind: you’re a failure, you’re a failure. In early spring I was offered a fully funded graduate research assistantship  in South Dakota. I planned to pursue my PhD studying disease ecology in herpetofauna (my dream). But life is never so simple.

I learned very soon after visiting the small college town that the position fell through because of a grant that  would not be funded until 2016. Sorry, my prospective advisor wrote in a quick I-don’t-feel-like-dealing-with-this email. Sometimes these things work out, sometimes they don’t. All I could do was stare at the computer screen with my mouth open, my heart wrenching. My life plans for the next five to seven years were completely ambushed and I lost all direction.

Fast forward a couple months and I’m sitting on a bus on my way to San Francisco. I’m living with my parents because I can’t find a job, and these trips to San Francisco to visit friends had become a bright spot in my life in what I had seen as an otherwise dark existence. But on that bus ride, I kept thinking how tired I was of being an underdog, how I just wanted to quit life if I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, so I just sat there and watched my whole life go by helplessly on that bus. I saw my life go from not getting accepted into a school in the middle of nowhere South Dakota, to inevitably living as a homeless bum. Yes, that would be my fate, I was sure of it. And I sat there feeling sick with melancholy and dwelling in self-pity. I delved into a selfish black hole of loathing and contempt; I could feel my heart and my gut churn as it turned from a cheerful, healthy pink to a dark, gross black. Negativity  must have been spewing from all sides of me. I’m sure other passengers could smell it and I’m sure my host would be able sense it as well. But somewhere, in the very depths of my mind, buried deep and out of sight, I could hear a muffled voice trying to talk me out of my wallowing, I tried to listen: happiness is a choice, it whispered, I think. But maybe I chose to be sad, to be angry. Maybe I was tired of always putting on a happy face…maybe I’m also schizophrenic.

Kate picked me up late from the bus stop. She just got her PhD in physical therapy and was starting to look for jobs in San Francisco. I stood on the corner in down-town San Francisco. It was oddly warm for coastal northern California. The temperature had soared to over 80 degrees and I was wearing jeans and a scarf. Nonetheless, I waited patiently on the sidewalk and watched as Giants fans walked to the stadium and transients pushed shopping carts filled with their entire lives. I could be that person, I thought as I watched a disheveled, weathered man push a shopping cart past me. I appeared to be invisible to him. I could live in San Francisco, unknown to anyone, nameless. …Just one bad decision away, I thought.

My thoughts were interrupted as Kate pulled over on the side of Townsend street, cutting off a couple of taxis. We exchanged pleasantries, Kate was in a hurry and it always seemed like she invited me to visit when she had no time for visitors. “So I have this swim tonight.” Of course you do. “Ok.” I didn’t think anything of it. Kate was an open water swimmer, an endurance athlete, she swam across channels, competed in Iron Mans. She would do her evening swim, I would take a nap, I thought. Everybody wins. “It’s a full moon swim, so we should get you some reflective gear or lights.” “Ok.” I mimed mindlessly, tired and dehydrated from my trip. “…wait, what? I don’t swim in the ocean.” “But you said you’ve been swimming.” “Not your kind of swimming.” “Well, it’s really more of a float, the worst part is the jump.” “You’re not convincing me. This sounds like you’re describing my unintentional death.”

A couple of hours later, I was on my bike zooming down the hills of San Francisco headed towards south beach for a swim. It was Kate’s birthday, after all, so I acquiesced, at least to meeting her friend Rainy for a margarita before moonrise.

I was oddly calm on my bike as we almost literally flew down the hills of the Presidio past the Bay Bridge, even with the moonlight swim in the back of my mind. There is nothing like the chance of death while balancing on two skinny wheels, riding down 60% grades,  that will force you to focus. But really, what did I care if I crashed? I had no dreams, no goals anymore, no ambition…might as well shift into higher gear and go faster.

Across town, The South End Rowing club smelled of salt water and raw wood. Beautiful kayaks and sail boats made of balsa and red ceder sat lined up perfectly in a large room just past the front door. The floor creaked as you walked on it and wind sang through the rafters that were vaulted at least 3 stories high.  The nearly hundred year old building didn’t feel old really, but it felt rife with tradition.   Kate and I sat our bikes in the back of the building by the docks.  “No one will bother ‘em.”, said a friendly middle-aged man in swim trucks and a polo shirt.  As someone that grew up in the Midwest I was used to families that never got too friendly with their neighbors and people that never managed anything more than a “hi” and maybe a smile at the grocery store. The people at the South End Rowing club are almost too friendly to believe. But they live in San Francisco and come to work out at a gym that is steps from the ocean and decked out with hardwood floors and sailboats; what do they have to be grumpy about? They’ve made it, so to speak. “Molly’s going to swim with us tonight.” “I think I’ve foreseen my own death” I quipped with a straight face. The man smiled politely, “We’ll take care of you.”  “I’m not sure what that means.” I said blankly.

“Hello!”  a boistrous voice rang out from a locker room within the hall-like first room. “It’s Rainy!” Ah, I thought, the woman that is buying us alcohol…well, Kate anyway, it’s her birthday. “You wanna go get a margarita?” Without waiting for an answer she starting heading for the front door of the club. Rainy was about 60 years old and a long distance, open water swimmer. She just got back from an endurance swim in the southwest (there are several large lakes in the dry, south west desert).

We followed her out to the boardwalk and she walked into the first bar she saw. The stout, tan, wild haired woman brought me a margarita after we took a seat at a tall table surrounded with bar stools. After one strong drink all I wanted to do was stay at the bar and drink more. What I did not want to do was jump off a pier and swim in the open ocean. “I’m afraid this is how I’m going to die.” I told Rainy, a high-school teacher. No one was taking my claims seriously.  

“So,” Rainy started, “You’re done with school?!” She directed her question to Kate, and ignored my fears. “I’ve never really swam in the ocean before…you know other than just playing in the waves on the beach.” No response. “I am done! And now I don’t know what to do with myself. It feels horrible.” Kate responded. “You’re just in a transition period.” I said, surprisingly empathetic. “It’s true,” Rainy agreed, drink in hand, “and they never really go away, those transitions. I’m 60 and I still go through them, sometimes they last years..it’s life.”

I sat there in that bar already buzzed, hoping to get pleasantly drunk, contented by Rainy’s comment. I felt validated. I felt like I was sitting there watching my friends graduate high school, get accepted to college, graduate college, get accepted to grad school, graduate grad school, and have a well paying, fulfilling career waiting for them without any hassles or hang ups in the middle. But was in some kind of transition, waiting, waiting like my life would actually change for the better, but never having anything work out.

I like Rainy, I thought. And at that moment, I felt it was alright to be flawed. At the same time I felt my heart rate sky-rocket.  Fuck it, why not go jump off a pier and swim a mile and a half in the ocean, what do I have to lose? “Here, I’ll show you,” Kate whipped out her phone and showed me a map of the bay as we finished our drinks and our conversation turned to swimming. “We walk 6-and-a -half blocks and go to this pier, we jump off and swim back to the club. Oh, here is where you have to be careful” she pointed to a pier in the middle of the route, “or else you’ll be fucked, you know because of the tides.” “uh….OK,” was literally all I could muster; I started to shake a little. “I’ve never really swum in the ocean…other than in the waves.” I announced again. “Oh don’t worry  – you’ll be fine!”  “OK,” I squeaked.

In the locker room back at the South End Rowing club Rainy handed me a blinky light, “This will keep you safe.” She said.  “OK.” I said. I didn’t realize the power of invincibility was contained in blinky lights. Rainy snapped a yellow swim cap over my long blond braid and I followed a group of swimmers  in speedos decked out with glo-sticks and lights, mindlessly. My face was blank, my mind was blank, I was panicking on the inside.  Somehow, like in a bad dream, I was screaming inside, yet I had managed to stifle the urge to yell out “I’m not doing this! Help!” I could barely speak. My thoughts focused on the map Kate showed me, on the jump in the dark ocean. “It’s only like 50 feet. It’s the worst part.”  “K,” I said, feeling my hands start to sweat. As we walked down the boardwalk that was crowded with people staring with gaping mouths at the half-naked swimmers, I forced a smile..inside my mind was running the other direction, running back to safety, to the bar with the margaritas.

My body felt helpless, my hands felt tingly and sweaty. Anatomy made no sense to me anymore  – my heart was in my stomach and my stomach was in my feet. I could barely breath – I should take a breath though, a big gulp of air before I jump. “It’s OK, Molly!”I heard a voice from below. I looked down and saw several yellow-capped swimmers being tossed up and down in the waves.  It’s ok….I thought and I took a step and then, ever so gracefully, another step..and I fell through emptiness. I fell long enough to take another breath, to feel my heart sink even deeper, to meet my stomach in my feet.

Sploosh! I was embraced by the cold vigor of the bay.  The wind was knocked out of me. The air was so warm and I was sweating while sitting in the rowing club, but the water, the water was so cold. No one was wearing a wet suit…not even me. And then, at that moment, I realized these people were insane. I opened my eyes to nothing but olive-colored murk. I felt waves, I tasted salt and I reached for air.

I bobbed up and down in the ocean like buoy. Fuck, the water was cold.  Somewhere in my mind, I knew the Pacific was so cold,  but I trusted all these people in speedos and bikinis and glo-sticks and blinky lights. Why were they doing this? I gasped for air, I struggled to put on my goggles and Rainy handed me some flippers she had jumped in with. “You’re OK,” Rainy repeated over and over. “You’re OK.” “Are you OK??” She finally asked.  “Yea, I’m good.” I stated.  I treaded water in the ice cold bay of San Francisco and tried to digest what exactly just happened and what exactly I needed to do in order to get dry and warm as I saw the rowing club’s kayak about a yard away. I flipped over on my back and watched the sun sink behind the Golden Gate Bridge and saw sea lions dance in the last golden rays of the day. And I floated in that freezing water and didn’t feel like so much of a failure.  Adrenaline was also surging through my body after a 50 foot drop into a 50 degree choppy body of water.

It had been a long time since I had felt that happy when I reached the shore. Safe and exhausted and proud of myself for accomplishing something. Proud of myself for jumping off a pier and swimming in the cold Pacific ocean. There are times in our lives when we think less of ourselves. When we think we can’t possibly go on. When we think we’re failures. “This was your first time swimming in the ocean??  And you just jumped off the pier and went for it?? You’re hardcore!!” a seasoned swimmer in the sauna practically screamed at me. Where were you before the swim when all I could talk about was how I had never swum in the ocean? I sat there naked and in shock remembering the trials of my swim before I answered her: a swimmer pushed me into an area of swirling water under a pier called the Jacuzzi and I was told to swim for my life after we got too close to a barge.  “Ha ha, hardcore…or maybe just determined.” And maybe it’s those random, crazy, impossibly insurmountable moments in life that help remind you that everything in life worth doing is not without difficulty or fear or torment.

Kate and I finally left the rowing club after we ate dinner with the rest of the swimmers.  “Come back and swim anytime!” a swimmer, still in her swim suit, told me as we left. “Ha ha..yeah ok,” I said, honestly. Kate and I hopped on our bikes and rode them back up the same hills we came tearing down earlier, muscles aching and exhausted, with half a smile on my face.

The Universe has Another Plan for You

Sometimes you visit me in my dreams. Why, I’m not exactly sure. I wake up in a fog thinking it was real, but then reality hits me like a left hook to the face I should have seen coming: Oh yea, you’re dead.

Because the Universe had another plan for you. And why it involved you killing yourself with a cocktail of drugs and leaving me wondering why, I’m not exactly sure…but maybe that’s the point. Maybe I’m responsible for my own path, and you were responsible for your’s. And it’s just that simple; that’s the only lesson.

When we were kids we would fight like cats and dogs. Over stupid shit. Over video games, over bathroom time, over rules for basketball. “Mom, he’s so mean to me.”  “You’ll be the best of friends when you’re older.” She would say. And I believed her.  Especially during those times after school when you would walk me to the school bus and when everybody knew me as C’s little sister.  Those times…those times established an identity I wish today I never had…Little Sister

When we were older I would talk to you about space and quantum physics and Stephen Hawking. And you would tell me that there are an infinite number of universes. That nothing created is ever destroyed. That nothing really dies: our energy just takes another form, maybe it leaves this universe and goes to another; but energy, life never just disappears.

One of the few times I cried about your death I was worried I didn’t have enough memories of you. And I cried because I was afraid I would forget. Forget the times we would go to the store and buy only candy when we were kids, forget the times we would walk up main street to get ice cream, and forget the times we would ride bikes together.  Did that even happen? Did I even have a big brother? Did you love me? Did you want to protect me and stand up for me like a big brother should? You left me alone and with so many questions… Are you the reason for my tough, walled-up exterior of a personality? The reason I’ve befriended so many “big-brother” types? Am I angry because of something that happened in my past, because of you…or just something I wanted to happen, for no particular reason?

When you died, I guess you carried with you a letter from Mom and a stack of books. Books by Hawking, Gould, and Poe. What dead-beat junkie does that? It’s funny, how you still carried with you what you used to be before you became a different person, before you became a slave to your addiction.

So you started coming to me in my dreams. Maybe this was your way of telling me you remember me, you really did exist, I really did have a big brother once.  And I guess I started writing back to you blindly over the internet. Knowing that the energy I used to type each letter, write each sentence, publish each post could never be destroyed. That in some shape or form, that information would forever be floating in the inter-webs available to anyone or anything that wanted to find it.

So maybe my writing, my random ramblings to a group of anonymous people online is my way of letting you know, I miss you and I don’t want to lose the memories, so don’t stop visiting me in my dreams.

Living the Dream

I shivered inside my sleeping bag that night. The Santa Ana winds ripped through my tent. I had two layers of thermals underneath my top layer and a down vest over that and still received no relief from the cold. It was only 30 degrees outside, but the wind made it feel so much worse. And after being outside all day in the 20-40 mph gusts, I just wanted it to stop. I wanted warmth. I wanted silence. My ears were screaming and my face was hot. So here I was,  another couple weeks out in the field. Another couple weeks without a shower…or running water. And I thought, What am I doing with my life?

I woke up the next morning after a couple hours sleep. Restoration work in Joshua Tree National Park starts early – before the sunrise, in fact. I ripped my layers of sleeping clothes off like a band aid and got dressed for the long day ahead of me.

After breakfast with the rest of the field crew, a small group of 5 other misfits, we piled into the truck and headed to the field site. The site was located deep in Joshua  Tree where no visitors were allowed.  The sun slowly started to rise, hi-lighting the alien landscape of the southern California desert as we drove. The spiny trees looked less botanical and more animal or human as the sun created long shadows across the desert landscape, making there branches look like mutant arms reaching aimlessly across the dirt.  My gaze stayed fixed on the horizon as we drove through the park. A coyote made it’s way through the dark green creosote and vanished as soon as it saw us barreling by.

It had been over a year since I graduated with a masters degree in wildlife ecology. I was so close to going to grad school last fall and continuing my career in academia in a PhD program, but instead, my best options for work had been field jobs, I had become what my friends and other wildlife ecologists liked to call a “field junkie.”

“Your writing, your organization, everything has gotten worse ever since you became a field junkie,” my friend accused me, in an email a couple weeks ago. “I wish I was in the field right now.” I replied honestly.

This last trip, I was working on a nitrogen deposition study in southern California….living the dream, I thought. I dragged my weary body out of the field truck. Truthfully though, I was struggling. I was barely treading water after receiving a graduate degree with what seemed like no future prospects of a job or acceptance into a PhD program. I thought higher education was supposed to better me, help my career, not hinder it.

The field crew got to work as I took my time and breathed in the crisp and very cold January morning air. By the second day in the field, we knew each others life stories. Like with any field trip, the field crew becomes a temporary family. We work together, cook and eat together and even drink together. We become best friends and are each others biggest supporters in what can inevitably be a really stressful working environment. The labor can be intense and the weather can be horrible and often we only have a short amount of time to collect a huge amount of data. So, you learn to love your field crew, or die trying. Ironically, when the work is over and the field job ends, the family breaks up too and we rarely talk to each other again, unless you’re lucky enough to work together at another job.

I could do this, work from field job to job, sell all my things, even give my dog away. I thought, my hands raw after making plant-enclosure cages. I sipped a beer and sat down and looked out over a beautiful sunset. The rest of the crew joined me. Even more, I felt reborn after the women in my crew had a shampoo party in the bathroom of the deserted campsite. After moving our entire camp late the night before we were all over joyed to learn we had running water and actual praise-jesus-buddha-allah flush toilets.  Neither of us had showered in over a week, so we bathed in sinks.

I sighed, content. But then another thought made it’s way into my mid…there was that other part of me that wants to settle. Get a job at a bio-medical company in Seattle or San Francisco. Start saving money so I can actually start my life. All of this struggling, the instability, despite the element of excitement and adventure, it is exhausting. And by the time I do actually reach my goals, will I be young enough to reap those benefits? Should I, in a matter of speaking, Carpe Diem and apply for that 9 to 5 job and forget about PhD school? I’m tired, and really, although I’m still in my 20’s, I’m getting older. In fact I’m no longer the youngest in the field crew…I’m one of the oldest in the bunch.

So, now that I’m back home and have some semblance of stability; when is it time to throw in the towel? When is it time to give up my dreams? Like everything there must be an expiration date, there must be a time limit. When do I decide I’m too old to live on food stamps while working on ecology studies and it’s time to grow up?

My Awakening

The beep beep of a runner’s GPS watch a few steps ahead of me interrupted the repetitive thud thud of my feet around mile 17. I lifted my gaze from the gray and purple gravel, sand floor of the Mojave desert and noticed we were about to enter the canyon. My stomach was in knots. I was dehydrated. I was not going to give up.

But the mind is a powerful thing. And as I ran, I thought.

This has not been an easy year for you, Molly.This just isn’t you, is it Molly?? This marathon thing can’t be good for you. You like riding your bike, you like yoga. You wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for HIM.  And no one will even be there at the end of this race waiting for you…you know, you could have been so much better, you could have done so much more, but instead you’re alone. Alone and just running…running to nowhere.

 And my mind started to run in circles and my feet started to throb with every step and my gut gurgled and twisted and burned. I was in pain. So much pain.

Why am I doing this to myself? Who am I? Who am I??? Over and over again…Who am I?? Why am I doing this??

And then, I entered the canyon and at first it was beautiful. But I was reminded of how I was alone and running and in pain. Suddenly endorphins started to rush through me as if a dam broke and water was flooding a thirst-starved meadow. And simultaneously, I started to cry. I cried because I was alone. I cried because I felt like no one cared. Because I was abandoned and no one loved me. I cried because I ran marathons and that still didn’t make me good enough for him to love me…

My tears dried and I kept running. I passed no one in the canyon and no one passed me. Every turn was deceiving; I felt like I had been swallowed up and I would be stuck behind these cold, gray, rock walls forever. I started to think again.

How long have I been running? My watch was back in my tent. I just want to go back to sleep. I need to sleep. I need my stomach to stop hurting. I’m sick.

I stopped at the next aid station with my hands on my knees, I paced, I walked back and forth. The volunteers just stared. And I thought, Do I get a ride back from here? Do I keep going? Who am I?? Why am I doing this?? And then standing still with my hands behind my head, I took a breath and I started running.

Four painful miles later, the canyon opened to the deep purples, reds, oranges and pale grays and lavenders of the Mojave desert. The sun peaked through wispy grey clouds and beams of light spot lighted the only green in the entire desert. Creosote and pencil cholla looked like ocean coral on an alien landscape.  And three miles away, I saw the finish line. My joints ached after running 12 miles continuously down hill and my mind reeled from self torment after being alone in death valley for hours.

I crossed the finish line and stopped running. My body knew this was it, I was done. And I swore I was done running forever. I swore this marathon thing wasn’t for me.

I clambered on the bus and we drove back to Furnace Creek. Although I survived, that tour through death valley proved to be the worst race I had ever run and I had never felt so alone. “Molly!” A group of strangers I met early on the course yelled my name. “Three cheers for Molly!!”  “Hip Hip Hooray!” The bus cheered. More endorphins rushed to calm my aching body. I left a part of myself, still running, 282 feet below sea level. I hit rock bottom, I thought, wiping the salt and grime that stained my face from tears, sweat and dirt. I collapsed on the nearest open seat, my head was spinning as other runners on the bus cheered and laughed. I was light headed and I felt like I was waking up from a foggy dream as I looked out the window and we drove away from the canyon, away from the finish line and up hill through the mountains.

 

My Coffee Shop

“Hug me,” was all he said. And my confidence melted away, I could feel it whither away like a tree losing its leaves in winter and I became silent. I stood there dumb at the bar of the coffee shop and I hugged him and I smiled and I blushed and I wanted more.

He was the polar opposite of me. Physically, he was dark: his skin, his hair, his eyes. His personality even juxtaposed mine. He was sardonic, he laughed sometime and he was brutally honest. He called himself an artist, which was true.  I called myself a scientist. We looked odd together. We didn’t match.

“Come talk.” he said. I knew he would be here today. I thought, despite being overwhelmed with work, I couldn’t wait to waste my time across the street at the coffee shop.  …my coffee shop, where he worked, where I had made so many friends over the years and where I went to escape mundane everyday mores that went along with academia. I admit freely I hid who I was there and knowing I could go there, not as a scientist, even for just 10 minutes a day, often motivated me to go to work at all some days.

So, I walked across the street with my blonde hair down and my sunglasses on and I walked into the coffee shop. People walked in and out and he waved at me, “Hug me,” he stated flatly. He leaned against the bar. He was on break.  I wanted to stay 5, 10 minutes, but he had a way of dragging me away from reality and bringing me into a universe where real-life didn’t matter. And I sipped my coffee and he ate his lunch while we talked through his break outside in the sun.

Forgiveness

I try to write you, but honestly, I just don’t care anymore. It still sucks seeing you, I’m reminded of what happened when I see your face. And those feelings, those feelings that would fester in my gut and make me want to rot away still oddly, uncomfortably creep up the back of my throat when I pass you on the street or see you on campus. (Ironic how emotions can change so drastically isn’t it? How when I saw your face a year ago, less than a year ago even, my heart would swell with an excitement, with a pleasure I just couldn’t describe…but life goes on, people reveal themselves, and feelings change). To hold on to those emotions is so exhausting…and really, I’m over it, J. I forgive you. Things will not ever be the same between us, and I fear we will never be more than friends that just say “hello,” in passing, but I forgive you.

For all the secrets you kept from me, for taking advantage of my emotions and not treating me honestly, I forgive you. And let me make one thing clear: this is not for you, but for me (I’m not trying to be conceited, I say this honestly, wholly). Because Love is the only freedom from attachment and holding on to this, holding on to you is not love, not love for you, for me…for anything.

Keep it real
Molly