The days surrounding September 11th are tough for me. I’m aware that in no way does this make me unique. I spent three days this week in my classes talking to my students about the 9/11 attacks, the events of the 50 years prior that led up to that beautiful and terrible fall day, and some personal stories about what’s happened since. It’s a sticky week because, like everyone else who felt like their lives had been hijacked twelve years ago, I can go right back to all those feelings given just the right provocation. Grief is a pernicious creature; it wants to connect one awful episode of loss with the others we’ve endured. So, for me, 9/11 quickly ushers in sharp emotional barbs from the loss of my friend Erik, who was killed in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2005. That’s an easy connection, one that I was expecting to feel again, and other, non-war related losses come up as well. None of this is new to me.
I anticipated these rough days last weekend when I unpacked the remaining boxes (save one) of the 35 that I shipped from the other side of the world. Out of the wrapping and cardboard came clothes, books, and photographs, mostly. A few small knickknacks and keepsakes. Very few in fact. There was bicycle I wrote about. A bag of frisbees. The Buddha head I sculpted a few years ago. I purged a lot to prepare for this trip, so there wasn’t that much to unpack. It wasn’t until yesterday that I was acutely aware of the things that didn’t come in my shipment.
There’s a lot I didn’t pack — couldn’t bring with me — which I miss. My dog, Kali, for example, who I only adopted last October and became an important part of the last year I spent in Baltimore. Seeing all the street dogs here makes me think of her often. My mom’s roasted lamb and all the trimmings is missing, as is the perfectly comfortable bedroom setup I had in my place in Baltimore. My bed here is harder than a rock, but it wasn’t just the furniture that made my old room so comfortable– there was a way the light shone perfectly through the windows in the afternoon that made the room feel like warm nectar. I miss Baltimore Bike Party, which is more fun than I could ever describe. A few of the things I miss go back a few years — I still miss my Man Couch which I sold a several years ago and have regretted ever since, although it’s unlikely it would have made the trip. These are really about moments of comfort and joy which aren’t here physically but will always be with me.
What I miss most is being known, especially when feeling vulnerable and raw, like I have this week. I spent the first six months of 2013 savoring the time I had with the people I’d built into my life. These relationships are far more valuable to me than anything I could have boxed up. As those who were around me the last couple of days in Baltimore can attest, the final push to pack up my belongings was hectic, but it was the things I couldn’t take with me that was the most difficult part of leaving. And while it’s exciting to meet new people and make new friends, I really wish the last box left to unpack contained that familiarity of fellowship that makes me feel grounded, known and at home. Especially this week.
That last box in the corner of my new bedroom contains clothes, some hangers, a couple of oversized books, and, there, at the bottom of the box is a little bit of loneliness. I may never finish unpacking that box.
One of the earliest memories I have of my paternal grandfather is the time I learned he “made” his own bicycle when he was a kid at the junkyard near his house in Ogden, Utah.
I was young when I heard this — maybe 4 years old. I remember imagining him fashioning wood or scrap metal into the tubes that made up the frame and handlebars. I couldn’t figure out in my head how he would have “made” the wheels and tires. I was perhaps influenced by this children’s book where the main character, who was around my age at the time, “made” an airplane in the barn by himself from spare lumber. By the time I was 4 I knew Grandpa could make anything out of wood, and I naturally assumed he’s always been like that. So making a bike at the junkyard was a relatively easy act of creation for him — like God in Genesis (And on the Eighth day, the Lord made two wheels, handlebars, a frame and a seat, and it was good). It all made sense to me. My hero-worship of my grandfather started at this point in my life.
By the time I was done assembling my bike yesterday my fingers were covered with grease it occurred to me that I probably saw Grandpa’s hands stained with the same dark grey coating from working in his garage at least as often as I saw him with clean hands.
Grandpa died at age 93 a little over 2 years ago. He was both a very humble, quiet man and a terrific story-teller. I did an oral history project with him several years ago where he told me about the cars he owned through his life. I recorded several hours of these stories on tape. These conversations were by far the longest stretches I’d ever heard him talk. One of the things that was so great was how clear the details of his memory were. He had picture-perfect details in his descriptions — the colors of the trees and sidewalks, the location of shops and houses on the street, the direction the creek (pronounced crick) by his childhood house flowed. His articulation of his first car — a used Model T that he bought when he was a senior in high school for 25 bucks — was so vivid I could almost hear it running as he talked.
It’s funny to me how memory works. The smell of steel wrenches and grease. The tacky feel of the gritty texture on my hands. Suddenly I’m thinking of Grandpa hitchhiking to California in 1935. He left Ogden the day he graduated from high school.There’s a John Steinbeck sort of quality to his journey in my mind — the faded colors, the urgency to find work anywhere, the resourcefulness that was perhaps matter-of-fact in that era but feels far away now. I see some parallels between my grandfather’s journey to a new place and a new life, and my own journey here, but I think he confronted much more uncertainty going West than I did coming here.
There’s a slum near my house that I decided to explore on my way back from meeting a friend for coffee. I wondered what Grandpa’d make of what I saw. Some of what I passed is outright disgusting — the open sewers, the river lined with garbage of every conceivable incarnation, water emitting a smell that defines fetid. But it’s not all gross. There are also small stands selling fruit, jasmine, electronics, and — here’s what Grandpa would like — repair shops. Over there’s a place that fixes bicycle wheels. Right here is a place that fixes motorbikes. Down there is a car mechanic, and I just passed a bunch of tuk tuk skeletons, stripped for parts to fix newer versions of those funny vehicles. The smell on this street would get to him, and there’s no way he’d be down with the food in this country, but he’d get a kick out of watching these men work. If he could get a tuna salad sandwich on wheat bread with a slice of iceberg lettuce he’d stay all day. I’d enjoy seeing him interact with these guys. Not talking really, but instead showing them some pointers and learning how to do things he’s always done with tools he probably never thought of using. He spoke the language that men who create with their hands speak, and I think it transcends barriers the rest of us run into.
It’s funny what memories a little grease will spark.