What We Try to Leave Behind

Fresh out of high school,
I left home–
the place I knew best, and loved most,
with a heavy broken heart.
The break-up with my high school sweetheart
was the obvious reason for taking flight,
but truthfully, I had wanted
to get away from what I was
for a very long time.

I will always remember that warm summer morning when I left.
Just two days after July Fourth,
and just two days before Mom’s birthday.
I remember studying the Greyhound bus ticket,
and thinking of John Denver’s song, Leaving on a Jet Plane.
I felt like crying, but my anger wouldn’t let me.
Somehow the break-up, a summer job in Tucson,
and my deep-seated desire to see the world–
all seemed to fall into place,
and so I got on the bus.

Traveling sixty-eight hours on a bus across America
gives you plenty of time to reflect on your life.
My high school love was not completely forgotten,
but the sight of so many other beautiful young ladies,
like a couple of straight-up vodka martinis,
helped to ease my pain.
I re-read her last two letters,
and kept returning to one thing she had said:
What we had was real, but so are our dreams
to make something of ourselves in life,
and that we should not sacrifice.
Otherwise we are likely
to blame ourselves and each other forever.

While the hurt stun deeply,
I knew I wasn’t willing to give up my dreams.

No mental or emotional conclusions to my questions
during the long hot bus trip, but somehow
I felt like I deserved better in life.
That the life I was given,
but really I had created,
was not good enough
to match the “I am somebody” self-image
that quietly grew inside me
over my first eighteen years.
And yes, the “I am somebody” image
is just a cover for my real self-perception:
“I am nobody.”

I remember looking up the meaning of narcissism
in Mr. Sharpe’s English class, and thinking
I wasn’t narcissistic, because
I was sacrificing my dreams
to be what everyone else wanted me to be.
Upon reflection, that is exactly what I was.
I was consumed by my own will and desires.
I could think of nobody but myself.

I wanted to move on to another life–
in another place, and maybe even in another time.
I thought I could do it; that is shed the life I had,
like a man throws away an old hunting jacket
because of the blood stains
that won’t wash out.
So the Ohio Valley and all it meant to me
became a memory–
left to rust away, like the local factories
that once supported so many men and their families.

For packing so light,
my suitcase seemed so heavy.
Much heavier than I ever realized.
I guess that’s the way life feels,
when it’s filled with blame, anger, and sadness.
And all along,
I thought I had left those parts of myself behind.
Just for a fleeting second,
I felt the tiniest hint of regret.
But that was washed away,
as the bus door opened, emptying us
into a dingy bus terminal just outside St.Louis
for a restroom and snack break.

I never turned back,
but for a long time looked back over my shoulder
at the ghosts that seemed to be following me.
Eventually, I stopped looking back,
and the ghosts disappeared–
into my dreams, awakening me often as shadows,
where the unknown and forgotten
always seemed to linger and dance.

There is a lesson in all this, and that is:
No matter how hard we try,
we can never live happily until
we claim all parts of ourselves.
No matter how hard we try,
we can never forget,
nor go back and change,
what are lives really were, and still are.

I realized all this some time back
while rummaging through some old things
in a trunk in the basement.
I found that old hunting jacket.
I slipped it on.
Surprisingly, it still fit,
but mysteriously, the blood stains were gone.

Click here to hear me read this poem.

(Warning: Sorry, but this is a very big file and it will take 3-5 minutes to download, BUT I think you will enjoy hearing this one.)

3 thoughts on “What We Try to Leave Behind

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