Today I watched a storm roll over the Sierra Nevada range from the idle quiet of my car, parked where the road ends, just behind the Minden Airport. It was 2:50 in the afternoon and I was observing a moment of silence. It struck me as odd that silence has become a novelty to me-- something I don't much encounter on my busy days. The sound of the wind as it played discordant keys with the license plate on the back of the car as the clouds rolled gray to white and back to gray again.
I listened, and I there was something in the silence I couldn't quite grasp. What it was, I wasn't sure.
Recently-- as in last week-- a former writing professor and friend of mine passed away, and I've been struggling with coming to terms with what that means more than I thought I would. We weren't particularly close-- I mean, when you're one of five in a graduating class of nonfiction writers, you tend to get to know your professors. But I can't say that, if prompted, that I could recall any heartbreaking face-to-face conversations between us when I was a graduate student at Saint Mary's College.
In fact, most of our correspondence came after I graduated, when I was struggling with a shitty job, bad luck and everything that goes along with it. It was what he wrote to me in that year or two after moving back to Nevada that sticks, and still does.
I wonder about that as I peel myself out of bed to ride the bike in the dark December mornings, and to ride it again in the dark December nights. I watch the numbers on my Garmin pedals which tell me if (but not when or how hard) each muscle group is firing, if every part of my legs are alive, and working like they should be. 230-240 miles a week. I need to be alive, vibrant.
I worry that the races I dreamed of are fading. I wonder if I'll ever be fast or strong enough. I don't feel old, exactly. More like weary. Tired. Or, maybe it's just sadness. And, it's not because of my chronological age, but because of something I heard on NPR on one of my long drives to or from work: "you lose your innocence when you don't believe that love exists anymore."
The words stab me, and I wonder if the fading images of races has to do with me letting go of my own life, as I once knew and loved it.
Before my professor passed away, I was put in charge of a small, but "semi-not-important" proposal at work, and I decided to put my heart into it-- a good old college try. I reasoned that the distraction might get some rise out of me, and that I might find some new purpose in writing-- in something-- again. But, I miscalculated my importance and learned that the employees in Colorado don't think very much of me-- suddenly the project's off my plate, and the 30-hours and 40-pages I wrote are erased and I feel downright shitty. That was Wednesday.
Then, there's Thursday. I read the text about finding his body at around 4:00 in the afternoon and drop my phone on my desk and muffle a scream. I can't remember a thing the man ever said to me, but the breath is sucked out of me, (like I need a paper bag) I hit the white wall with my shoulder before I find the stairwell to the outside where I run out and stare at the clouds and shake and shake until the silence nearly brings it back, but not quite.
About a week later, the day the Colorado proposal is due, I lose it. I am taken so far off the project that I'm not even allowed to touch the paper that the words I didn't write are printed on. I scramble through my personal email for the last thing Wesley wrote to me, because something tells me that it was important, somehow. It's an act of self-preservation, and I try not to hear the sounds of accomplishment and "you-did-so-well's" coming from the conference table behind me as the proposals are assembled and I feel less than an inch tall.
With the magic of gmail, I find it in seconds. It was written almost a year ago, to date. He wrote: "You haven't failed at anything. You're still on your journey as a writer. Writing is a long, hard process. So diligence, persistence. These are really the keys. You have the unquestionable talent. Now, it's the next step. Keep going. Please, please don't give up."
I watch as the proposals I didn't write are bound and put into boxes to be shipped to Colorado. I want to scream: "this job feels like giving up," but I stuff myself into a bathroom stall before I can scream. I cry for a little. Snippets of past races come to my mind when men who were stronger than I out-powered me on a climb. I remember the burn in my throat and how it tasted like blood the heaviness of my legs. Yet, I didn't give up, not even when I knew I'd never pull them back and I had no chance at a podium finish. So, I tell myself that I'm stronger than this. Then, the idea comes to me that it would be better to be outside, to watch the clouds and to let everything settle.
Darkness comes early, and I'm on the bike again. More miles at a cadence of 90 revolutions per minute. Mindless music to match the motion of my legs. To articulate the legacy of a person's life is no small thing, and I hardly feel up to it, not having known Wesley aside from the handful of times we met to discuss the work I submitted to his workshop classes. I can remember that he smoked, carried a backpack, and had an unusually deep sense of compassion for others (even if he couldn't completely understand them, like I imagine he couldn't understand me. I can hardly understand me.)
But in the silence and the quiet, I hear Wesley's words; now, more than ever, they resonate.
"Don't give up."
I think back to the swirling white and gray of the clouds, the ambiguity of their motion and color. I don't know what it means to "not give up" anymore; is my job giving up? Is not training giving up? Where does my resignation lie, exactly?
There were workers where the road ended near the Minden Airport, clearing the road and shoulder of debris from the storm. A worker threw a stray roll of bailing wire into the desert, and it clanged against a standing fence post, making the sound of a religious chime.
How can I-- or any of us-- keep going?
Yet, I know I will ride the bike tonight, and tomorrow morning. I know that the heart that beats in my chest will not stop its palpitations, even though it aches right now. The words, when they come, attach themselves to the moment, defining it.
It's nothing, it's everything. I look into the approaching storm, as it turns the clouds, transforming the world to white.