In seventh grade I had a Walkman. I bought it from Costco after saving money from mowing the lawn, washing cars, and scoring goals in soccer games. It came with a fancy fanny pack to hold it in place during the jogs that I never took it on. I had headphones with curved plastic pieces that wrapped around my ears and held them in place. Switchfoot had recently released their hit album, The Beautiful Let Down, and I played it on repeat with my new Walkman when I should have been sleeping. I had a massive crush on Leanna Merrill but she liked Travis. A lovesick pre-teen, I hid from – or indulged? – my feelings in the late hours through the repeating tracks of “Meant to Live,” “More than Fine,” and “Dare You to Move.” The songs rocked me like lullabies and, only now do I see, infused me with a set of values. Switchfoot hailed to me with the concept of more: “Everything inside you knows there’s more than what you’ve heard/There’s so much more than empty conversations filled with empty words” (“On Fire,” The Beautiful Let Down, 2003). There was more to me than a silly crush on a girl with dark hair and freckled cheeks; there was more to my life than second place in a girl’s heart; there was more in this world than the seventh grade social scene. The music I listened to interpellated me with the ideal of more, a hunger of the soul that led me to flee the dusty asphalt of my suburban town for college; that led me to flee the jacaranda petals on the sidewalks of my university to study abroad on the cracked pavement in Buenos Aires; a hunger that led me to flee the concrete of the western world for the dirt roads of Africa. I can’t stop searching for the more for which we were meant to live.
Now I live at “the end of the world,” and I can’t stop searching the sky for more. The tones of the clouds change by height and by distance in their relationship to the sinking sun, mountain ranges floating through air, each peak a shade different from its neighbor. Occasionally they feel heavy, a matte-gray turned purple in the beams of light. Other times the light seems to originate from within the clouds themselves, as if they contained their own sun. And still other times they hover distantly behind the haze of the horizon, softening the hues of the weather system with an aged quality, liked faded paints on a chapel wall. In the evenings, an east-facing porch has made me aware of our domed atmosphere, as stars and planets begin their rolling journey around us from the horizon line, pinpricks of light spinning over an orb.
No matter the tone, the sky always feels distant. It holds itself with a daily posture of indifference to the woes of the land below. Sometimes, in moments of loneliness or self-pity, I wish to lose myself in that remoteness. These moments are what taught me the value of music, the extreme importance of hearing sound – of using your own voice – everyday. After stretches of isolation, like a Saturday spent grading papers indoors, I get inside my head. I tend to take myself too seriously, imposing a structure on my day and evaluating myself based upon the completion of various tasks. I tighten up and forget to listen to my voice until I feel as silent as the empty air. But even the sky needs to thunder. So I’ve learned to turn up the volume and let the electric chords cut their way into my afternoon: “But we don’t care no more/‘Cause we know life is short/And we don’t care who hears us now/Breathe it in and let it out” (“Let it Out,” Fading West, 2014). I yell the words. I slide my feet across the concrete floor, forgetting my body in the vibrations of sound. I inhale the silent air and produce my voice, the more that I have to contribute, and I let it out.
Regardless of the thunder I shout on any given day, however, the sky proves unattainable. At times, sunny afternoons riding my bike on the road to the east, I swallow the wind and she fills me with her vastness. But the freedom of it is ephemeral. It’s only air, after all. More and more, Africa teaches me that the more that I’m after doesn’t exist, at least in the manner in which I had conceived it. It belongs to the remote sphere of childhood, that distant bubble of memory when all things felt possible and the limits of human life hadn’t yet made themselves visible. Growing up is the process of becoming aware of those limitations, when the brevity of our existence comes into view. The revelation only feels suffocating because nobody told me about growing up. Nobody told me that people I know would start dying.
On February tenth of this year, a message from my friend Anthony stopped me. The brother of one of our friends from high school passed away unexpectedly. His name was familiar. I knew his name, but I couldn’t put a face to it. I hadn’t spoken to the friend since I started college, probably. But I still sent her a message on Facebook telling her that I’m sorry, that I’m thinking of her, that I hope she is surrounded by people she loves.
In April of this year, an email from Peace Corps Mozambique stopped me again. Two volunteers were involved in a car accident. One of them did not survive. I didn’t personally know the volunteer who died, but he came to Mozambique in the same group as my roommate. He had only been at his site for a few months, but transportation in Mozambique, a travel necessity that I have used countless times, killed him.
In May of last year, I was drunk in Nampula city during a conference after my first trimester of teaching. My house had just been robbed. Another volunteer here, a close friend of mine, told me about his good friend from college that just died on a bus in Tanzania after beginning Peace Corps service there. He said that the strangest part was holding onto the memories with that friend, of late nights on a golf course in Minnesota, and knowing that nobody else had those memories anymore. He reminded me of a child still holding the string after the balloon has floated away into the sky. In December, I travelled to and from Tanzania on a bus on the same route where his friend passed away.
In October of last year, a Whatsapp message informed me of the death of my friend from college, an older brother in my fraternity. He died in a boating accident near Catalina Island. I remember Michael on an elevator in Las Vegas. It was around nine or ten on Sunday morning as I descended to check out. Michael got on holding a frozen daiquiri, his Hawaiian shirt open except for one button, and he gave me a hug. “James,” he said. “I just lost five hundred dollars. I’m going to bed now.” I’ve been holding onto the string of that memory for a long time.
I imagine watching the balloon now, floating higher and higher into the air. The sky is vast, but I know she is domed. As the deaths in my life accrue, the infinite possibilities of my childhood seem to pop, one by one. “I remember you like yesterday, yesterday/I still can’t believe you’re gone/ I remember you like yesterday, yesterday/And until I’m with you, I’ll carry on” (“Yesterdays,” Oh! Gravity., 2006).
Last night, contemplating the question of self-pity, I decided to put in my headphones when I went to bed. For a moment, seventh grade came back to me. I let myself press repeat on a Switchfoot song and tried to feel the braces once more on my teeth and the bleached tips of my twelve-year-old hair. I find myself looking back, wondering what happened to yesterday, all too often. Two nights ago I did just that – looked up at the sky – and ended up kicking a rock with my bare foot. I’ve since added a broken big toe to my lengthening list of ailments. Currently, my left big toe is broken, my right MCL is still recovering from a tear, I have post-infectious IBS, and my shoulders still sport tendinitis from a misguided effort at weightlifting four years ago. The limits of my existence have come into view. In my efforts to achieve more, many times I discover less. I miss the now in search for the more. As I’ve become aware of this (is this what we call growing up?), my gaze has begun to shift from tomorrow to yesterday. To the lives I detailed above who will forever be yesterday. To my niece getting a pet snake on her ninth birthday, which will forever be yesterday. To hiking in Mission Trails with my father the weekend before I left for Africa. To eating shawarmas on a rooftop in Buenos Aires. To my crush in a purple dress at a beat up dance hall called Tango del Rey. To a fortune cookie on the rocks above La Jolla cove in August. All yesterday.
Perhaps the members of Switchfoot had a similar bildungsroman experience. In a more recent album, they write an ode to the twilight called “Souvenirs” that encapsulates the estranged sentiment of growing up:
I close my eyes and go back in time
I can see you smiling
You’re so alive
We were so young
We had no fear
We were so young
We had no idea
That life was just happening
– (“Souvenirs,” Vice Verses, 2011)
The song reveals a consciousness that evolves as one ages, a movement from the “wide-eyed” bliss of youth to the haunting understanding that “nothing lasts forever.” I cannot lament time’s ceaseless changing. My toe will heal and I will be grateful for that change. The leftover memories will linger. They will induce moments of self-pity and of regret as well as moments of laughter and of genuine nostalgia. They are my souvenirs – strings left in my hand to remind me not to miss the now for an idealized concept of the more. Life is happening, and, oftentimes, the more is in the now.