Once, in another life, I jumped into what I remember as the Indian Ocean, far from the sight of land. Looking back on it, I think it must have been the Arabian Sea, based on what else was going on at the time. That isn’t important, though. What is important is that I remember thinking to myself that I would be born anew in the baptism of the sea. I remember feeling that I would come out of the water a new person, with a new life. As it turns out, life doesn’t often work that way. We don’t get to choose our baptisms, nor do we even see them often, until we look back in hindsight.
Now, looking back from a different life, my life then was much the same the day before that dunk as the day after, and the only really memorable thing about that time is the thought that jumping into the ocean would somehow change who I am.
When I look back though, I do see other markers, other times, when my life changed enough that I may as well call the life before a different life than the life after. None of them are epiphanies gleaned in a moment. All of them are times that I didn’t see for what they were at the time.
After the stunning revelation that my first wife didn’t love me in a way that I was acceptable with (some 15 years into our marriage), I drove across the country in a moving truck, carrying the majority of my worldly goods to her new place of residence while she drove my children, my dog, and my cats in a brand new mini van that I had just bought her. We were an unhappy, rag-tag caravan, not so much traveling together as stopping at the same places in the evenings, in some nod to frugality. I slept on floors in nameless hotel rooms all the way from the east coast to the desert in Arizona. I don’t remember the parts of the trip from the evenings, though. I remember the long drives through the desert, alone in that rented truck. I remember the joy I felt, finding fresh made tortillas at a truck stop in west Texas, filled with the most mediocre carne guisada that I have ever had. I remember tracing the tracks of my childhood in a three hour detour to the sleepy town I grew up in. I remember listening, over and over, whenever I could find them on the radio, to two songs. One seems kind of obvious, now. It was, of course, We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together. It was a new song, at the time, and it was catchy, and it nicely filled what was going through my head. The other song, Home, is a ballad about not being alone, and it reached out to me, there in the depths of the desert, seeming to call to me, despite the fact that I was busy taking my entire life, and moving it away from me. And so it was. I did leave that life in Arizona, with all its things, its bits, and its bobbles. But the song was right too. I reached out. I got closer to my parents, my sisters than I had been in years.
That life there, the one after that trip to the desert, it was a happy life, but lonely. I practiced yoga. I learned calculus. I had friends and went to concerts and generally spent some time learning how to be human, without the supports I had become so accustomed to in the years before. I had my coffee shop, and my yoga studio, and everyone at both knew me by name, by face, by habit, but all at a distance. Friendly, but not close.
I didn’t know, then, that it was a different life. That my time, there in the desert had left me changed. It did though.
Eventually, as quiet times do, that life came to a close. I reached out, and got closer. I made friends, and found old acquaintances who turned out to be friends. I learned to love my neighbor for the good man that he was, even though I didn’t know it at first. Eventually I met a lady. We were awkward, as new couples often are, but we persevered. I tried to like beer, in a strange road trip to a beer festival in Savannah with an Australian friend of ours. I learned to appreciate dancing in our backyard, even without ever really learning how. I learned how to loose at mini-golf, and that it wasn’t important who won, but who played. Then, suddenly, inevitably, I proposed.
Later, in the desert, I was with my wife, and we visited my aunt. We had been, recently, to Arizona, to see my children. It was an awkward, strained visit, fraught with worry. And I had the chance to see, again, all those things, all those bits, and all those bobbles that made up my old life. And I left knowing that the only things that I missed from that life, the only parts that I wish I still had, are the friendships of my children. I didn’t see it, there in the desert of Arizona. I didn’t see it at my aunt’s house, my aunt who is my aunt because I have the good opinion of her niece, when we had dinner and talked of cousins and family and friends and joy. I didn’t see it a day later, in a different desert, where we broke bread with my parents and sisters and their families. But looking back I see it. It is there, in the sand of the desert, marking another line across my life.
I can see back, in that long ago time before the desert, when I worried about having a nice house, and a nice car, and a nice job, and I looked to see what people would do for me, and I didn’t know that I had friends. I can see back, to that time after the desert, when I wandered lost, without my old supports, and not knowing what to do. And I can see back, to that epiphany that I never had, that just became who I am, instead of what I realized. In that time, in the desert again, where I figured out that I don’t care about things anymore. I care about people. I care about friends, I care about family, I care about our joy, and our sorrow. And my worries are how to be a good friend, and a good husband, and a good father. And my grief is that I came out of that desert, that second time, without the friendship of my children, that I didn’t even realize that I had lost.
And then, after all that, here I am again. On the ocean, thinking my life is at a turning point. I did this once before, and I was wrong. Maybe this time I will be right, but even if I am, well, as the song says, “The ocean is a desert with its life underground and a perfect disguise above”.