After a hot and tossing night, early this morning I slipped down a thick mudslide into a molasses sleep and dreamed I was taking an acting lesson.
In my dream, the cement walled classroom hosted a blue-and-white linoleum floor, with a plate glass window overlooking a sloping hill and a broad green lawn. Four or five students sat with me as the teacher challenged us to hold a microphone and describe an experience that shaped our lives. I listened as my peers spoke, until it was my turn.
The class of course, was imaginary. This story I told, true:
I walked onto my college campus in Vermont as a freshman desiring nothing more than to remove the stigmas of “shy,” “quiet,” and “reserved” that had labeled me through eighteen years in my home town. A transformation began via the young women with whom I lived in the second floor of the brick dorm on the quadrangle at the heart of our college—nestled on a valley floor with clear-aired views of the Green Mountains. One friend in particular, a native Vermonter, as opposed to we Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey transplants who decended on the school each year, engaged herself so totally in life that she taught me lessons that I employ to this day.
Through her genuine and honest greeting to everyone she encountered and the extra moments she paused to speak with each, she taught me that direct eye contact attached to a welcoming smile almost always sparks one in return; that speaking from your gut earns trust, that kindness is essential.
She was so present in every conversation, that she made whomever she was speaking with feel like they were the most important person in the world. She wasn't aware of this—it was as natural to her as breathing. So much so, that in the spring, when five young men asked her to the same semi-formal, as her friends we were not surprised. She however, quivered with open-mouthed amazement. When she won her event in the state-wide track meet though, we had no idea she was such an accomplished runner. She never boasted, stating that she ran because it was fun. Through these actions, she taught me to try my hardest but to take myself lightly, and that by living a life without artifice, it would be possible to exceed expectations.
Already an accomplished poet, she sculpted words like a knife through soft butter. One afternoon on a six-mile cross-country trail, she showed novice skier me how to look for the sunset through the backbones of trees; for the snow that dripped like melting ice cream down the tops of distant mountains, to listen for the quiet in the woods, to feel the cold hush and to inhale the whoosh of our narrow skis as they cut through an unmarked trail. Recording these pictures while trying to emulate her grace, I was aware to some degree, of the lessons I was absorbing although always in life, hindsight brings history into clearer focus.
As these things go; in our junior year there was…not a falling out…but a drifting away. We lived on separate campuses, our social lives expanded; when it was time to say goodbye for the summer before our senior year, we hugged briefly and promised to be in touch over the extra week I was staying in Vermont, but failed to do so.
That August, she flew to Colorado to see her boyfriend. One night they crossed a center line and hit a truck head-on. I received her last postcard in the mail two days after her death, wherein she imparted a final lesson—that grief blisters us inside like scalding suns.
I also learned that regrets can surface over a lifetime. You see, her untimely death robbed me of the chance to acknowlege to her how much she did for me—the way she opened me up—for the countless smiles I’ve received throughout life in return for my own; the way she demonstrated that words are soft and pliable and if you concentrate you can shape them to your will—and that if you pay close attention, every day will offer you solitary moments to breathe in and treasure.
In today's early morning dream, I told this story while standing in front of a microphone, and my classmates moved closer to listen to my words. Then I woke up, and ached with the long sadness of never being able to express my appreciation to that gentle person who soothed and formed parts of me with the same care in which she created her poems— and I stepped out of bed and decided to write this post—in hope that all these years later, Middle Passages may give flight to my thanks.