Walter Mencken 8 a.m., July 30
- Community Blog
It Can Still Happen
It was a fall morning in 2008. The impression that all was not going swimmingly economics-wise had reached critical mass. Reading the news had become an exasperating downer; was there nothing good going on anywhere? The presidential election was coming up, but did it really matter when things were falling apart at such a rate? The world seemed a gloomy place.
Long ago I set up my life so that such things wouldn't bother me as acutely as they do other people. Maybe it was--in part at least--just luck, though some people have a way of making sure that they keep on staying lucky in certain aspects of their lives. Yet now, moving along into my fifties, living stress-free was seeming a vastly overrated activity. Jaded and world-weary before my fortieth birthday, I never really figured out what to do with all the freedom that stood in place of the debt, responsibility, and obligation associated with most in midlife.
On that day, in such a mental state, I was attending a conference at SDSU. I live nearby, but hadn't been on campus in awhile. Actually, I teach part-time in a couple of community colleges; it isn't like I do nothing all day. It's just that that's all I'm beholden to do. Though often told it's where I really belong, long years in the military and with a multinational company had made me dismissive of academia, having seen so much of my own hard work dismissed in favor of administrative expediency and having improvised so many solutions to real-world problems that couldn't wait for "further study." So nowadays, I'll offer an opinion if asked but at some point disconnect from the Big Picture. It's somebody else's worry, and I suppose it's nice to feel enough at peace with oneself to take that sort of view.
The weekend of that yearly conference is always brilliantly sunny. It's like a summer day without the intensive baking heat, and with a peculiar interplay of light and shadow characteristic of fall. I see people that I don’t see that often and probably wouldn’t want to, but we’re all in a pretty good mood and glad to see each other at that particular time. It starts with registration and breakfast outside, which being by nature a sun lover and early riser is just about my favorite part of it.
Living in San Diego is also a vastly overrated activity, it seems at times. Being born here, maybe I take it for granted. Yet taking a step back and viewing things in the third person, a day like that makes it easy to see why people travel thousands of miles to be in a place that to me is simply "home."
Contemplating the state of the world with a cup of coffee in hand, a lady caught my eye. A bright colored dress she wore, while standing against a whitewashed, sunsplashed building in the early morn. I know a thing or two about women, but this one threw me for a loop. It was the way she looked, though it was more than just “looks”. She seemed to be anticipating something, and so had a rather energetic aura that contrasted with my apathy. It made me feel a bit less apathetic. She wasn't all that young, but neither am I. Maybe others wouldn't even find her particularly beautiful, but… I just stood there with the coffee cup burning my hand.
Like most born-in-the-'50s San Diego natives, I grew up white bread as could be. Though Crawford High even then had a spicy ethnic mix, the prevailing youth culture for all colors and creeds carried a heavy dose of uninquisitive Leave-it-to-Beaver complacency. By the time of graduation--our ceremony at Aztec Bowl exactly ten years after JFK's visit and just a few hundred yards from where I was now standing--it all seemed so stifling that I set out to see the world. A quarter century later I came back, appalled at the effect of chronic sunny days, Disneylandish Southern California living, and the drug culture of my generation on an astonishing number of childhood acquaintances. In time, I'd come to believe that anyone who hasn't experienced at least part of life among snowfall, sub-freezing temperatures, or genuine hardship will never amount to much.
It was a new life in an old place that I was starting when I returned to my hometown in the fall of 1997. The souvenirs and other reminders of a fairly interesting first half found their home in a modest condo in my familiar Rolando neighborhood, while the bigger houses acquired over the years were rented out, sometimes to the chagrin of tenants with small children and worries aplenty. Then unexpectedly, up popped the bonus of being able to see my hometown with the fresh eyes of a newcomer… while all the time knowing I was finally and definitively at home. It was a gift, I suppose, though I had no idea what to do with it.
As for this lady, I wondered where she could have come here from, and what had brought her here. She could have been anyone, maybe a slightly nervous first-time conference presenter. I shrugged it off. Being not altogether dreadful to look at, once in awhile women check me out. Generally I find it tiresome. They're more interested in my unusual hair, a wavy mop of copper and silver, than they are in me. I know that, and so don't read too much into it when a woman catches my own eye.
A couple of times during the day we exchanged a friendly glance or two, but I didn't bother trying to meet her. I got some idea of why her presence might have seemed so intense at the moment I first saw her and how--though really the matter defies logic--her own state of mind might have contributed to the feelings that rushed through me like an electric shock. She wasn't a first-time conference presenter, it turned out. I hadn't really thought so.
Many things happened that day, and they kind of converged into something that I'd hesitate to call spiritual, since that always strikes me as granola-headed New Age nonsense. Just the same, for months thereafter, very positive images bounced around in my head. And at the focus of it was this lady, standing against that building at the beginning of that day, with her smooth dark complexion and colorful clothes and shining eyes. On another day I might not have noticed. Even another person who looked like her, I might not have noticed. In a very pure way, it was she that I noticed. Very seldom has a feeling for another seemed to me so life-affirming. I wanted to feel that way forever.
I still wonder where she came here from and how she came to be here now, in this place to which I have such a soulful attachment. Does she miss the place where she was born? Is this just a way station in her life, or does she see it now as her home too? I’d ask her, but our paths don’t cross and I’m a bad actor, lousy at dealing with anything that doesn’t just happen in the natural course of things. Or maybe, like Curly in “City Slickers” or Bernstein in "Citizen Kane" recalling the girl with the white parasol, I figure it could never get any better than this and that reality would only spoil a wonderful memory. Yet I long to show her places important to me and tell her the stories behind them, and to come to know all that is important to her.
Every day since then has been different from before. Maybe I realize on each new day that the past, the memories of people and events in a place so important to me, is less relevant than the here and now. Maybe I just want to be someone that this person might someday notice in a positive way. Maybe I realized then that I'm older now, that I have more days behind me than ahead and have figured out, finally, what to do with the rest of my life.
For whatever reason, curiosity--always my only real driving force--made a comeback, and it’s a neat thing to feel. I’ll recall graduate school at SDSU during a return home in the ‘80s, the irresistibly enthusiastic fellow that I was then. I find myself wanting to create things, and that people like them because they reflect so much that is heartfelt. I’ll read about things, and people enjoy discussing them with me, because instead of just politely tolerating the discussion as I used to do I'm genuinely interested. I no longer carry around the tired and cynical attitude that I already know everything I need to know... though in my life before I probably did.
Whatever craziness the world might throw our way in the times to come, as long as I can feel that way I know there is still much worth caring about. It was as if something within me desperately needed to re-awaken, lest it be lost forever. It's distinctly a middle-aged feeling, something I wouldn't have had either as a lovestruck kid or as an old man regretting paths not taken and things that cannot be changed. She fulfilled a purpose in my life, perhaps by grand design or perhaps only by peculiar convergence of circumstance, and for that I love her.
Live your life however long you live it, and you might get half a dozen moments of pure magic like that. On any other day, I probably wouldn't have noticed her. On that particular day, on a brilliant fall morning in a familiar place, I did. And though nothing perhaps will ever come of it, I will always remember her and know it can still happen.
"God has created a new day
"Silver and green and gold
"In hope that the sunset may find us
"Worthy His gift to hold."