I was exhausted. The school year had ended at last, and the final day had been a particularly hot and busy one. After submitting grades, rearranging classroom furniture, and taking care of the myriad details that the end of year procedure required of all teachers, I was spent and ready for the summer to begin (well, in some ways; I have never been a fan of the summer, but that is another story). Our principal had graciously offered to host the staff for a year-end barbecue at his home that day, and I planned to attend for a short time, bid everyone a good vacation, and head home to my family. Perhaps, in retrospect, given the day I had had, this was asking too much.
I had been at the gathering for what I guess was no more than twenty minutes. I was speaking with a colleague about our plans for the summer, when she suddenly asked me a question: “Are you okay?”
“Sure,” I said. The next thing I remember was being supported beneath my arms, walked into an adjacent room, and being lowered onto a couch. Some people were speaking to me, asking questions such as “Do you know where you are?” and “How are you feeling?” Others were on their phones; I heard my wife’s name spoken, and the a reference to “E.M.T.’s.” When I finally found my tongue, my questions were rather direct, such as “Why are you all talking about me?”
“Jeff,” a colleague said, “you collapsed to your knees and then fell forward on the kitchen floor, flat on your face. Don’t you remember?”
I looked at him in shock. “What are you talking about?” I asked. Others soon corroborated the story, one colleague gently touching my forehead, telling me that I would have a pretty sizable bruise the next day given the force of the impact of my head with the tile floor. I didn’t know what else to say. Losing consciousness was not something I was used to doing.
After being checked by the E.M.T.’s, who recommended that I go in to my doctor just to get checked, my wife arrived, and we went into the urgent care clinic as they suggested. The diagnosis, fortunately, was a simple one: dehydration. Yeah, I would have to own that. Knowing full well the need to drink a lot of water on a day as hot as that one had been, I just hadn’t taken the time. I was also exhausted, and the stress of the last couple of months, coupled with the dehydration, had at last taken its toll. A nurse at the urgent care clinic took blood samples just to have them tested to rule out something more serious, and then released us. I was finally headed home.
You never think it can happen to you; you always feel in control, up to every challenge, impervious to the things you hear happening to others on the news but that will never happen to you because, well…you’re you. When you are one day forced to reckon with the truth that yes, such things can happen to you, some quiet introspection is in order. As I contemplated ways to avoid having my head bounce off of anyone else’s floor at an inconvenient time, a quote from “Rocky III,” a movie I had first seen in seventh grade, punched its way out of my subconscious memory: “You lost that fight, Rock, for all the wrong reasons. You lost your edge…the truth is, you didn’t look hungry. Now when we fought, you had that…eye of the tiger, man…the edge. And now you’ve got to get it back, and the way to get it back is to go back to the beginning.” That was it—that was what I needed to do: go back to the beginning. As luck would have it, the perfect opportunity to do so was only a couple of weeks away.
I was born and raised in Pullman, Washington, graduating from high school there in the year 1987. That was exactly 30 years ago. I had been unable to attend the 20 year reunion of the PHS Class of 1987 due to a scheduling conflict, but this year, the schedule was a little more flexible. What better way for an educator to go back to the beginning than to return to where his own education had been received, both in and out of the classroom? I would stay with my parents who still lived there, reminisce with old classmates, and make pilgrimages to places of significance, even spiritual resonance, from my childhood. I would find my edge again.
After a daunting eight-hour drive and an evening meal and conversation with my parents, I did as I had so often done as a high school student when I wanted to be alone—I took to Pullman’s streets on foot. The city remains, despite its 33,000 residents, a place where one can still feel safe walking its streets alone at night. At least I do, and I always have. Though I was tired from the journey, the walk I had planned would not take me far. The sun was just beginning to set as I stepped out on my parent’s porch and crossed the yard to the sidewalk. I inhaled deeply, savoring the memory-laden smells of the environment that had nurtured me as a child, smells so very different from the ones that characterize the coastal region in western Washington where I currently live. The soft evening breeze carried the scent of the wheat fields just beyond the edge of town, fields I had run through and played in as a child. I walked slowly, deliberately, every familiar sight triggering a memory of a person I had known or something I had done there. There had been changes, of course, after so many years; trees were taller, houses had been repainted or remodeled, and unfamiliar names now graced the mailboxes at the edges of the yards. The essence of those streets so ingrained in my mental pathways still remained; the sidewalks still bore the same cracks, and in the most fundamental ways, I knew that I was home.
Fifteen minutes later I stood before my destination, and as I had expected they would, the tears began to fall. It was completely rebuilt now, a modern fortress reflecting years of careful consultation and planning—Pullman High School. Not a brick of the institution I had attended remained. It didn’t matter, though. The new building stood on hallowed ground, where the current generation of “Greyhounds” came each day to acquire the skills, both academic and social, that they would carry through their lives as I had mine. Being a teacher myself, I understood the nature of the mission that went on each day behind that magnificent new building’s walls and in its classrooms. The kinship I felt with the school that stood before me was doubly powerful in that it stood on the very ground where my own adolescent feet had walked so very long ago and that the experiences that were shared in its spaces mirrored those I knew so well in my own professional life.
I stood before the massive glass panels surrounding the school’s main entrance, gazing into the well-lit foyer before what was clearly the new school’s gymnasium. The wall outside the gym was covered with the lyrics to the school’s fight song, a song I had sung so very many times over the course of my Greyhound tenure. I sang it again that night as the tears flowed freely (actually, they are flowing as I write this). We were scheduled as part of the reunion activities to have a tour of the school’s interior the next morning, something I was really looking forward to as a teacher to see how the interior spaces had been arranged to deliver the best educational experience possible. At the moment, I was content to stand there, singing boldly with tears in my eyes—tears that kept coming throughout the walk back. I had begun to reclaim my edge.
The next couple of days were filled with reunion activities for the 27 out of 178 of my classmates able or willing to attend. I would not presume to think that any reader would have interest in the intensely personal discussions we had, but there were some two takeaways from those events worth sharing in this context. The first would be that many of my classmates from 1987 had not led, or were not leading, very happy lives—and many were not alive at all. Stories of divorce, health challenges, and dead-end careers were plentiful. Life is just straight-up hard. Many of them wore masks to hide their true emotions when questioned about their lives, much as they had done in high school. One evening, after a meal together, we all sat outside watching the sun begin to set. I said a name of an absent classmate, and without exception, someone present knew their story. Here is an excerpt from that conversation, with names altered:
Me: “Jennifer O? What about her?”
Classmate #1: “Dead. Alcohol poisoning.”
Classmate #2: “That one doesn’t really shock me.”
Me: “And Rachel K?”
Classmate #2: “She’s getting married this weekend. Couldn’t come.”
Me: “Married? Dude, she already is married. You know, to that guy that was two classes ahead of us that was her boyfriend when we were at PHS.”
Classmate #2: “Nope, he died. Massive heart attack. Two years ago.”
Me: “Crap! How…how are we all dying? We’re only 48.”
Me: “Okay. What about Susan P? You know, the really brilliant one that was going to go on to cure cancer or build a space station or something? What about her? Surely she went on to do the big things we all thought she would do.”
Classmate #1: “I saw her Go Fund Me page about two years ago. She was a doctor, and couldn’t even afford to save her own life. Some illness that went septic. No one could help her.”
Me: “Her too? God.”
The fragility of our lives really hit me that night. How could these people with whom I had grown up and learned to laugh be gone from the world just 30 short years later? One day we are happy and healthy, the next we are fighting for our lives, and then we get snuffed out like a candle. I also learned that several of the classmates engaged in that discussion themselves were cancer survivors. Okay, I thought, no more thinking you have a long life ahead of you; if there’s anything you still want to do, you need to get it done, and soon.
The second takeaway was that without exception, all 27 of my classmates agreed that if it were ever possible, they would return to Pullman to stay. Indeed, a good many of them had never left at all. Had the stars aligned at the right time, I would have stayed as well, or returned as soon as the opportunity presented itself. As it was, my destiny had other plans—plans for which I am eternally grateful. Nevertheless, the bond with my homeland is a powerful one, and Pullman is the home of my soul. It always will be. The power of place is real.
Once the reunion events were at an end and my classmates scattered back to continue the lives they had built, I took one final day to engage in a few rituals demanding my attention. I cut some stalks of ripened wheat from a field outside of town to adorn my classroom desk in the fall, serving as a constant reminder of where I come from. I returned to the high school to walk a few laps around the track, which encircled the football field where I had shed my share of blood and tears so long ago. Oh, and I wept again. I drove out to Pullman Community Cemetery, parking the car beneath a canopy of trees. I couldn’t remember where the headstone I was looking for was located, but it didn’t matter. I had the time, and I would find it. As it turns out, I walked straight to it without hesitation or the slightest wrong turn; it was the grave of Mike Pritchett, my best friend in elementary school. We had drifted apart during our middle school years, and I can’t really pinpoint why. He had taken his own life when we were in the eighth grade. No one can ever know the reason for such a tragedy, and I to this day can’t fathom it. All the same, I knelt beside the headstone, staring at a photo of him as he looked in the eighth grade, which is affixed to the stone itself. I placed my hand on the stone and told him how much I wished he had told me about the pain he had been in, and how I wished I had seen it in time. Someone who had visited the gravesite before me had left a single red rose in front of the stone; it was fresh. A classmate from the reunion, I am pretty sure. We had spoken about Mike as well the night before. I said goodbye, and walked back to the car as more tears came.
I would be leaving early the next morning, but there was one more thing I needed to do. As the sun began to set on that last day, I set out on the streets one last time, and in less than ten minutes stood looking down on Jefferson Elementary School, where my educational journey had begun in 1974. As with Pullman High, the original building was gone, replaced with an ultra-modern school suited for today’s educational needs. Even most of the playground equipment was gone. There were, however, two swing sets still standing from my days as an elementary student. I sat on a swing for a while, listening to the same squeaking sounds of the chains and hardware I remembered from those days long past, recalling the laughter and excitement evoked from competitions as to who could swing the highest or leap the farthest. Good times.
I stepped off the swing set and walked across the school grounds toward a hill on the school’s far side, over which lay the final destination I had yet to visit on the trip. I walked over the hill’s crest, and descended down into the neighborhood where I had lived from my birth until the third grade. A wash of nostalgia hit me with almost physical force as I set eyes on the same buckled sidewalks that I had traversed on a Big Wheel (anyone remember those?), clocking so many miles that the plastic tires were eventually worn through. As with the other neighborhoods I had visited, some things had changed, where others had stayed the same. Taller trees, some remodeled homes, but the same underlying essence manifested itself in smells and other subtle reminders that, yes, this was my first home. The house in which I had lived for those first eight or so years of my life was completely different in every respect, remodeled so drastically that only the driveway itself looked as it had in my early childhood. No one was home. Had someone been, I may well have knocked, if for no other reason to share my hope that they had built memories there as treasured as the ones I held. Then, after walking a single circuit of the neighborhood, I set out for my parent’s house once more, feeling totally reconnected and recharged. As I passed Jefferson Elementary one last time, a voice from my subconscious echoed in my mind: “You began your journey here; we, the schools and streets of this city, nurtured and prepared you for the challenges that lay ahead of you. Return again, as often as you must, to reconnect with the spirit of this land and rededicate yourself to the path you have chosen. Go forward, child of Pullman, and share the gifts we gave you with the wider world.” My edge was keen again, and I was ready to go back to my own house and family, whom I missed; though Pullman remains the home of my soul.
Visiting my hometown was and continues to be one of the most profound spiritual pilgrimages of my life. I have written before of the power that country has over my spirit, and a journey there never fails to replenish my strength of spirit and purpose. In writing this, it is my hope that readers can find the time to revisit a place that has a similar resonance for them whenever they have the need to reconnect or recharge. That won’t always be a town where someone grew up; childhood experiences aren’t always pleasant ones, and some people may have no desire to return due to the power unpleasant memories can have. However, everyone needs a place to which their body and spirit can flee, if just for a few days or even a few hours. A campsite, a park, a wooded glade, a lake, an ocean beach—some place of natural beauty and personal spiritual resonance that helped to forge you into who you have become. If you currently have no such destination, I urge you to seek one out and proclaim it yours. In times of mental, physical, or spiritual exhaustion, a place sacred to you can revitalize your soul and give you the strength to keep going. Stop reading for a moment and let the image of this place fill your inward eye. If you can conveniently get there, I urge you to go as the need presents itself. If it is far from you, plan a trip back if it has been a while since your last visit. You will be glad you did.
You need to do this because, as this essay tried to illustrate, our lives on this planet are short and fragile ones. We can’t afford to believe that we will always be here and will always have time in the future to do the things we want to do. If your life is not how you would wish it to be, what must you do to give it an overhaul? Classmates, friends, of mine have died unexpectedly, and many are living in painful situations. I hope they are galvanized, as I was, to course correct and make the most of the time that is given to them. Those of my generation (Generation X’ers they called us), aren’t getting any younger. “Seize the Day” may have moved into cliché land, but the advice behind it is still valid. Don’t believe that the tragedies of life can never happen to you. I have been fortunate thus far in that I have not yet had to deal with profound pain or loss—but it is coming. I can only work to fortify my mind with the mental and spiritual discipline I will need to endure it when it comes. It is comforting to know that, in addition to current friends and family, the land that nurtured me will always be there when the true challenges come. It will be there to help me reclaim my edge when it is dulled by life’s trials. Keep yours keen as well, so you too are always ready. In the meantime, get out and make memories with those you love while the opportunities are there. In fact, go and do that right now. Carpe diem.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.