When I was still living in New Jersey, we had a huge icy snowstorm one time. School was canceled for a few days and the roads and sidewalks were treacherous, despite prompt plowing and salting. Back in our neighborhood it was particularly slippery, and it was in these conditions that I found myself walking to my best friend George's house a few blocks away.
I was dressed appropriately -- jeans tucked in snow boots, scarf tied round my face against the wind. Each step had to be placed carefully, and I was slipping and sliding all over the place. At one point I must have lost my concentration, because the next thing I know I am staring at my legs unceremoniously splayed above my head, steel sky above my legs.
Yes, I was falling in the most out of control, awkward, unrecoverable way possible. Now understand -- this was the beginning of junior high. Acute self-consciousness falls so far short of describing the paranoia and anxiety of that time. Yet, here I was, walking through the neighborhood where both friends and enemies lived, and I was making a complete ass of myself. Never mind that slipping on the ice is something people do all the time; in that state of mind, it felt like an act with fatal consequences.
After falling solidly on my back, breath whooshing out noisily, I had to take a moment before I could gather my motor control. The first thing I did was look around to see if anyone had seen me. I scanned the crystalline surroundings for any color splashed against the white; any evidence of someone in the vicinity. A beat. Then relief. There was no one.
Once the nervousness of being seen in such a compromised position passed, I began to laugh. A loud, uninhibited laugh. The kind of laugh that carried a hint of the maturity I would have in looking back in hindsight and shaking my head at the ridiculousness of my junior high anxieties turning ordinary clumsiness into social suicide. The kind of laugh that I would never allow myself in any other situation than when I was alone, unseen.
As my laughter subsided and I pushed myself off the ground, I began to get very sad.
I was 12 years old and trying very hard not to believe in God. After all, this was the year that witnessed the only time my father hit me in the face. The subsequent altercation involving a knife and baseball bat ended with me on the ground being choked by the very man who had helped give me life, the man I had just tried to kill.
This was the year I was consumed with guilt after finding out my mother had bipolar disorder, her internal chemistry influencing the mood swings for which I had begun to hate her. When I realized it wasn't her fault, I could direct that hate nowhere other than myself. What kind of son hates his mother?
This was the year I told myself that there could be no God at all if these things could happen to one family. The self-centered trajectory of such thoughts is symptomatic of adolescence, I suppose, but to this day I am amazed at the narrowness of my scope. I had friends in school who had it much worse, and it never crossed my mind to doubt God's existence because of their situation. But this was happening to ME.
Brushing the snow and ice off my coat, I breathed in the aloneness that had moments before released me to laugh wholeheartedly. As that solitude expanded in my mind to a cosmic scale, I was overcome by the stark emptiness I felt surrounding me on Homan Avenue.
And I walked away sad.