Thursday, January 7, 2016

What was in 2015


Certain stretches of life feel more seminal than others.

I suppose that's an obvious statement: life moves in ebb and flow, stop and start. We stumble along. Sometimes we stumble into important phases that shape and guide all that comes afterward. That was 2015: a year of important stops and starts. A year of things terrible and awesome.

January

The year started on the "terrible" end of the spectrum.

One of the quirks of my swingy-uppy-downy broken brain is that when I suffer a long depressive episode I tend not to remember much of it afterward. So, I don't know what sparked the misery that had me so firmly in its grip. I know only that it had been around for a while; I remember little to nothing of the months leading up to January.

The other day, Jenn had to remind me we spent last Christmas (i.e., Christmas 2014) in West Sussex with her best friend and best friend's family. I had no memory of that happening. I have no memory of it happening.

No personal memory, at least. I have factual memory. I can remember it in the way I can remember Texas declared independence in 1836. I don't contest the truth of said factual memory. But in the same sense I don't personally remember Texas declaring independence, I don't remember Christmas 2014. I was there but I wasn't. The darkness of mind was already upon me.

February

January's low mood carried into February and worsened. I can't remember specifics. I can remember it was awful. Really awful.

I mean, Lord.

March

In early March, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. Because she possessed all the frailty of an M1 Abrams tank this diagnosis didn't come early. She was not the sort to go to the doctor if something felt not quite right. She had to first collapse from exhaustion and be taken to hospital. By that point the cancer was severe.

To give you a sense of just how tough my grandmother was, in the hospital doctors discovered she had actually broken her back several months before. Of course, she hadn't mentioned it. She had just carried on being everything to everyone: volunteering, hosting parties, cooking all the time, and serving as 24-hour carer to her husband of nearly 70 years.

As a result of Libba's toughness, I had never considered her mortality. There was factual acceptance –– everything dies –– but no personal acceptance. And because of this I was largely dismissive of the news of her illness. This is Lib we're talking about. Indestructible Lib. The woman who by her presence made the rest of the world seem lazy. The idea of my grandmother being ill felt implausible.

I wrote friends who are doctors to ask their opinion of her particular type of cancer and each diplomatically told me to say my goodbyes. I chose not to listen. In my conscious mind I figured Lib would get treatment and start returning to normal by summer; I made vague plans to visit at Christmas. You know, when she'd again be healthy enough to bake me cakes.

But in my subconscious, I guess some part of me understood the reality to which my conscious was oblivious. I think perhaps my mind started to remap itself as a result. I don't know. I'm not willing to touch it yet; if I think about Lib for too long I start crying again. I can't get past it. It feels like there is clawing inside my skull. I need to turn away.

My Suzuki V-Strom 1000 at Llantwit Major

Somehow this all led to my getting a new motorcycle. That doesn't make sense, but it does. I had ridden my Honda CBF600SA to York for a work conference and had spent the first day of the conference with aching/tingling up to my elbow from handlebar buzzing.

Inline fours, you see. Or, at least, that inline four. Anyway, it made me angry and on the way back I stopped at a motorcycle dealer in Bristol and ended up signing an agreement to buy a brand new Suzuki V-Strom 1000.

I can give you all kinds of reasons as to why I "needed" a different bike based on inadequacies of the Honda and superior qualities of the Suzuki. All those reasons are valid and true –– the 'Strom is a better bike that is better suited to my all-round needs –– but none of them were what was going through my mind as I signed the purchase agreement.

Instead, I was simply thinking about the fact that this was something I could control. I couldn't do anything about my grandmother's cancer, but I could sure as fuck pony up downpayment on a mid-range adventure-touring motorcycle. In your face, Universe.

As my friend, Chris, would later observe: "We all deal with grief in different ways. Motorcycle's better than a heroin addiction, I reckon."

April

The fact I would buy a motorcycle in response to my grandmother's poor health was no surprise to Jenn. She likes to joke that a motorcycle is my go-to answer for everything.

Meeting in York next week? "Fine, I'll ride up on my motorcycle."
Grocery store out of milk? "No problem, I'll ride my motorcycle to the Yeo Valley and milk a cow myself."
Endless war in Syria? "OK, we're going to need a lot of motorcycles..."

And in April my life and motorcycles intertwined even further. I got my first article published on RideApart. To that point I had been keeping my own motorcycle blog and writing for various sites like Asphalt and Dirt, Biker News Online, and ThrottleX, but RideApart is in a different league. Getting to write for them felt like a really big deal. 

And, with the benefit of hindsight, it was. It was the starting point for an action I would take 8 months later, an action that will, hopefully, redefine my future path. 

May

Lib died. I flew down to Texas for the funeral and came unglued. You know that kind of crying where you shake so hard you imagine your muscle will tear from your bones? Where your arms don't work? Where your head spins and you don't know where you are? Don't know who you are? Where you feel trapped in your body?

I suffered 11 intense episodes of that kind of crying in just the seven hours between my arriving in Houston and meeting my parents in Lake Jackson. After that, my linear memory ceases. 

Clara Elizabeth Cox: 1 November 1926 - 9 May 2015

There were dozens more crying episodes. Amongst the 90 billion reasons my grandmother's death was so hard to deal with was the fact it meant the breaking apart of so much else. My grandfather was not in good enough health to live on his own, and if you honestly considered the assistance he needed you were looking at employing upward of six carers. 

So, losing Lib meant Breezy also lost the ability to stay in the home the two of them had lived in for roughly half a century. If you've ever read "A Drive in Summer" you'll know the whole story is driven by that house, the two people that built it, and the sense of connection they provided. 208 Pine was the centre of my universe, Lib its sun –– providing gravity and warmth no matter how far away I wandered.

The house was to be sold. Breezy would live in a care home in League City, some 45 miles from Lake Jackson.

Breezy's defining characteristic had been always toughness, but what man could handle that? Being physically beat to hell by multiple strokes, losing your wife, losing your home, losing your community. And in as much, I knew that in saying goodbye to Lib I was saying goodbye to him, too.

I cried almost nonstop during the week I was down there. In the time I wasn't hyperventilating with grief I walked or drove around Brazosport (the catch-all name for Lake Jackson/Clute/Freeport) trying to breathe in as much of it as I could.

It was hot and humid, but the Gulf breeze kept you comfortable. Every part of me ached with the need to stay. I told Jenn I wanted to move in to my grandparents' house.

She said no. My parents strongly agreed with her. I could find no one who would even humor me. Even my dad's brother, who lives in Brazosport, furrowed his brow and said: "Gah, Chris, I don't see that as the best idea."

I could fill a book with how much it hurt, how mad I was in my ache. But let me tell you a good thing:

My cousin, Suzanne.

I'm not entirely sure why Suzanne and I never got along as kids, but, man, we didn't. I mean, everything about her agitated me. And when she was hit by all kinds of personal issues in her teens and early 20s I took it as the Universe's justification of my point of view. 

But, you know how this goes: The person getting shit done? The person who kept my grandfather together while his whole world was falling apart? The person who took care of all the unpleasant details without once complaining? The person who made a big breakfast for all of us, just as Lib used to? The person I needed a hug from most at the end of the funeral? Suzanne.

My cousin as a little girl, looking mean as sin. I love this picture.

In all the hell of that week there was the solace of discovering within me an immense respect for my cousin. Yeah, she can still get on my nerves –– I have no doubt she'd say the same about me –– but I'll wear it with immense, shouting pride that she's family. And I will punch you in the nose if you speak ill of her. Of course, you won't feel it because she'll have already ripped out your intestines and strangled you with them.

The space between 

Remember what I said about depressive episodes. After I got back from Texas I effectively shut down. Hell, I don't even remember getting back. And, but for a few key experiences, most of the the summer is blank space in my mind.

Can I digress here to tell you how much I hate having this happen? In this post about looking back on the year gone by, I am unable to tell you what happened in almost half of it because The Great Sadness has robbed me of recollection. 

That's my fucking life. Half of it slipping away into the irretrievable darkness. Not because of drugs or alcohol or too many years playing pro football but just because. Because this interminable ache spins inside my chest.

I am so sick of it. So very, very exhausted by it. And so deeply angry at the institutions that have failed me when I've asked for help.

I am better, though, when I stay on the move. That's always been the case. So, it's no surprise that of the little I can remember July stands out. That's when I rode my motorcycle to Tuscany. I wish it had come at a different point in my life, one that would have allowed me to remember it more vividly, or have built up greater enthusiasm before or during.

I mean, dude, I RODE A MOTORCYCLE THROUGH EUROPE! That is a pinnacle fantasy for some people and I feel I'm too quick to simply catalog it as One Of The Things I've Done, giving it no particular importance above any number of other things I've done. Maybe I just didn't go for long enough...

People wading into the River Aare.
The moments that stand out most for me from that trip were in Bern, where I finally got a chance to go swimming in the River Aare –– something I've been wanting to do since I saw this BBC story almost six years ago.

There's something about playing in water. I am too mentally lazy to try to articulate it, but that's where I feel most purely happy. And when I search my memory for events that took place between May and September the things that pop up first are related to water: the River Aare; the swimming pool in Tuscany; the River Avon, near Bath, in August.

I don't remember much else.

September

Breezy had made it four months without the love of his life. That's more a testament to his physical endurance than anything else, because, man, he really didn't want to be hanging around. He died on 18 September; Jenn and I flew out for another forced family reunion.

I think Suzanne took it hardest. Breezy had always been a stubborn advocate of her. One of my favorite stories of him comes from a time after he had given his old Cadillac to Suzanne and she was caught going 108 mph.

Upon being told about the incident by Suzanne's father (my mother's brother), Breezy had said: "Nah. I don't think that Cadillac can go that fast. She should fight the ticket."

Lib and Breezy in college.

For me, though, there was a sense of peace. In the space of a season I had lost two of the most influential people of my life, but there was/is the comfort that they are back together. Those last few months of his life must have been nothing short of torture, physically and emotionally.

My mother's memory of her father is as a Superman. As a little girl she would bring friends to the house and get him to show off with feats of athletic skill –– spinning a basketball on his finger or displaying his phenomenal strength. It's nice to think of him like that again, showing off for Lib. Her wryly smiling.

As I say, there was a sense of peace for me. And within it I found myself suddenly more appreciative of my family than I've ever been. My uncles and aunts, all my cousins.

Most of my life I've tended to distance myself from family. I don't really know why. It has to do with being unhappy in my own skin, I suppose. I wanted the people to whom I was related to be extraordinary, in the hopes that would rub off on me, that I could share in their greatness. Arguably, they are extraordinary, in their own way, and I've spent the bulk of my life failing to appreciate it.

With my usual arrogance having been broken down by grief I got to see the good, the kindness, the humor, the deep appreciation for hard work that runs through my family. So, strangely, my memory of being back in Lake Jackson for my grandfather's funeral is a happy one. Or, perhaps "life-affirming" is a better phrase.

Jenn and I explored a bit of Houston while there and I did a good enough job playing host that she was even willing to entertain the idea of moving there one day. Admittedly, she was under the influence of a few margaritas when she said this, but it was still pretty amazing. You have to understand that Houston –– and most of Texas' Gulf Coast –– is an incredibly hard sell: hot, swampy, sprawling, flat, and heaving with mosquitoes, snakes, and, worst of all, conservatives. It's not exactly a dream location for a Devonshire girl. I don't know if I'd ever want to move back down there, but it's nice to know I have the option.

We went to Galveston and stumbled upon a gumbo festival, where the classic Texas mentality of "If I'm standing next to you for more than 30 seconds it means we're best friends" was in full swing. We drank oversized cans of beer and laughed with everyone. Later in the day, we went swimming at the beach and the water was clearer and more pleasant than I have memory of it ever having been when I was a boy.

Jenn walking in Jay Cooke State Park

Before returning to Britain, we spent a week in Minnesota. One of the highlights came in driving up to Duluth and spending the afternoon walking around Jay Cooke State Park. Afterward we ate at Grandma's and the idea of wanting to run the Grandma's Marathon in 2017 started spinning in my head. We'll see if that comes to fruition: finances and fitness are difficult to predict so far in advance.

There was also opportunity to see old friends. I get really twisted up over the fact my friends' lives have dramatically changed in the time I've been living in the UK, and that I've not really been around for that change. It makes me worry that I have configured my way out of the picture.

My best friend, Eric, and his wife, Kristin, have had two kids since I left St. Paul 10 years ago. That means their focus and priorities and interests have changed, as happens with all parents. As my friend Dan put it when his first son was born: "I have to accept that I'm not Dan anymore. That's what being a dad is; you're not that guy you were anymore. Bad fathers are the ones who won't accept that."

Both Dan and Eric are good fathers. Kristin is a good mother (as is Dan's wife, Johanna). What attacks me during bouts of homesickness is the fear that I'll lose my closest friendships because I haven't been around very much to witness, participate and support the constant evolution of self that comes from parenthood and, simply, living. I worry I'll be forgotten.

So, I suppose the highlights of visiting Minnesota came in visiting those friends and feeling so much at home. That seems to be especially the case when I'm around Eric. I love that dude.

I love his kids, too. As the grown-ups were chatting, Eric's eldest daughter came running into the room and shouted:

"Mom! I just made a huge poop!"
"In the toilet?" asked Kristin, in her trademark stoically bemused tone.
"Yeah!"
"Did you wipe your bottom?"
"Yeah!"
"And did you flush?"
"Yeah!"
"Well, good job, honey."

October

When I go through depressive episodes, one of the things I seem to enjoy doing is setting up little traps to be sprung far into the future. My method of doing this is to close my eyes and click far, far ahead on my Google Calendar to an unknown point where I will then place a reminder for myself.

The reminder almost always speaks to a goal or ambition that I feel I have failed to achieve in the present. Because I've placed the reminder randomly, and the black-hole nature of depressive states, I soon forget about it. Then, several months or several years later it will pop up and slap me in the face.

Penarth

On 14 October, the reminder was: "BUY A HOUSE."

See? This is the kind of crap I pull with myself. Self sabotage.

One of my long-standing sore points is the fact that the financial stupidity of my youth, coupled with my general laziness, all but guarantees I will never have the savings nor credit to buy a house of my own.

What's interesting, though, is that my mood was still good enough from having seen family and friends that this particular trap didn't work. It didn't kick me into a foul mood, as the reminders tend to do.

Of course, it helps that the old house-buying complaint isn't as solid as it once was. I kind of do own property. Kind of. Our flat is legally in Jenn's name, but philosophically it's something "we" own. We both share in the endless burdens that come with 130-year-old property; we'll both benefit when we eventually sell it.

And therein lies the other reason I wasn't upset by the reminder. Essentially, the reminder's intent is an attack, an attempt to highlight a weakness and make me feel awful. But on 14 October 2015, I felt something close to OK about my life. I had a (leaky) roof over my head that I could ostensibly call my own, but I had, too, friends and family across the ocean, things to look forward to in my life, and an incredibly beautiful, kind, supporting, humor-filled wife with whom to share it all.

November

One of those things I was looking forward to was EICMA, a motorcycle trade show that takes place in Milan. In early November, I convinced Victory Motorcycles to lend me one of their Vision touring bikes and, for the second time in the year, I rode from Wales to Italy.

The journey was less meandering this time around. On the way down to Milan I covered roughly 1,100 miles in three days. On the way back, I did it in two.  It was also colder and considerably wetter this time; one day I spent six hours riding in solid rain. Nonetheless, it was an immensely positive experience.

Victory Vision I rode to Milan

Much of that has to do with EICMA itself. I was there to serve as eyes and ears at the event for RideApart, the website I had started writing for only seven months earlier. I ended up delivering more than 20 stories from the event and met a few really cool people, which I think will lead to some really cool things in 2016.

One of the coolest things, though, was the sense of confidence I developed in the process –– a feeling of self-sufficiency and the first little sparks of satisfaction that come from freelance work. And, as I say, I'm better when I stay on the move.

Also, let's spell out that experience plainly: I was loaned a $20,000 motorcycle then got paid to ride it to Italy and spend several days looking at motorcycles. That's a win-win-win situation there. Yeah, there was a lot of hard work and some discomfort and I didn't actually make a profit (never eat at your hotel's restaurant), but it's still hard to see EICMA as anything other than a tremendous success.

On the day I returned to the UK, our friends Jen and Dave came out from London for an early Thanksgiving weekend. I've known Jen since the two of us went to high school together in Minnesota. She holds a special place in my heart; she and Dave feel more like family than friends.

On one of the mornings they were in Penarth, Jen tweaked her knee shortly before the four of us had planned to walk down to Cardiff Bay for brunch. Noting that I still had the Victory Vision motorcycle in my possession, I offered to ferry her to the restaurant on the back of the bike. My wife and Dave walked.

Jen and I took a circuitous route to the Bay. I accelerated hard, revved the engine, leaned the bike more than necessary. Nothing insane –– I am notoriously safe –– just enough to give her a sense of what hooks me about motorcycles. Over the engine I could hear her wooting and shouting in the late November chill, could feel her hands excitedly slapping at my shoulders.

"Look at us!" she shouted. "This is awesome!"

A few days later I found out I was being made redundant.

I wasn't too upset. In my heart I had already figured out what I want to do. Going to EICMA had helped me see the potential path to a life I've always wanted: being free to act on my own, to write, to be mobile. I decided I would become a full-time freelance writer.

December

Jenn and I spent Christmas at Jen and Dave's flat in North London. Jen and Dave, meanwhile, were up in Scotland.

It was a good Christmas. Jenn made pheasant for the Christmas meal, then we went for a walk around Hampstead Heath. Late in the afternoon we stumbled upon a fantastic pub that seemed to attract all walks of life. A baby in carrier had been set upon one group's table, dogs ran around, some folks were singing. It was a pub of the sort you'd put in a film. It was a slice of London life, I suppose. There's something about that city.

Jenn and I in the Southampton Arms

On Boxing Day we went to a pub in Greenwich to meet up with one of Jenn's school friends. It, too, offered a unique mix of London characters. Though, things were made especially surreal by the presence of celebrities.

Lenny Henry fronted a blues band that was performing at the pub. The actual British icon that is Sir Lenny Henry. Also there was an astronomer I had seen on "Stargazing Live" and actress Kate Lonergan. I ended up dancing with an 85-year-old woman who told me that as a young woman she had gotten it in her head she wanted to have an adventure, so she rode a Lambretta scooter around the country.

"I went to all the places that I had heard were nice," she said. "I learned you shouldn't believe everything you hear."

Jenn and I were back home for New Year's Eve. We went to a dinner party at a friend's house down the road. We played games and laughed until eventually spilling out into the cold at 3 a.m. As we walked home, we passed a group of revellers and I spotted amongst them the woman who had been my tutor when I did my master's degree.

She didn't see me. I didn't interrupt as she and her happy group stumbled by, singing. We walked in different directions.

Jenn, holding to me for stability, sighed happy and said: "I think this is going to be a good year."

2 comments:

Cam McVey said...

Thank you for writing that; I found it an very moving piece. I wish you both a very wonderful year ahead.

Nikos said...

All the best to you Chris