Saturday, July 28, 2007

10:30 a.m.

"Accidental Zen"- A story I wrote my freshman year of University. Posted as contrast to the chapter piece done in seventh grade.

I can trace it all back to one unimportant day in June three summers ago. When I say unimportant, I mean it; absolutely nothing special happened. It is just my reaction to the world that changed. That, despite its seemingly simple sound, is quite a distinction.

It happened while I was rambling around the block in my neighborhood, trying desperately to clear my head. I lived in one of those areas where a few families with high hopes for their children moved in and named the streets after all the Ivy League universities. My best friend and I, as we got older, were unable to ignore the resulting irony: I was a Democratic, anti-war eighteen-year-old who lived on West Point Avenue; my best friend, who lived a block over on Harvard Drive, was going to the local community college next year. We lived in an optimistic neighborhood that reminded us daily of all we had ever done to disappoint our parents- solid proof that life has a sick sense of humor.

Other than that it was a nice area; architecturally the same, with lots of brick and carefully trained ivy, and a split street with trees running down the strip of carefully tended grass in the middle. But it was obviously old; the sidewalks had been heaved and churned by the roots of the trees as the area got older, and there were places where walking could be quite an adventure. Since I was just coming off my last growth spurt and fervently believed that the inanimate was, in fact, out to get me, I was walking slowly and looking down, trying to keep my clumsy, too-big body from betraying me and letting me kiss the pavement. All I saw were the network of cracks in the sidewalk, and all I heard was the sound of my own footsteps and my restless thoughts.

I usually drove wherever I was going and limited my exercise to the treadmill in the study of our home or the steps at school, but something had driven me outdoors despite the heat and the humidity. My shirt was sticking to my back and I the air I was swallowing felt like warm pudding, but I was angry at my family and thought that the park down the road might offer a better place to think. They were yelling at me because I had yet to make any serious decision as to what colleges I wanted to apply to, and they were worried that I’d never get it together in time. My grades were good; I’d easily be able to get into any of the colleges that were sending me info, but I didn’t have the will to find anything out about them. I sat in the back of all my classes, got good grades on tests, and was utterly bored and miserable for seven hours out of my day, five days a week. I didn’t feel like I had anything worthwhile in my life.

A typical story for someone as old as I was then. I think now that my bitterness fed the discontent of my friends, which made all of us more bitter and dissatisfied in turn. A vicious cycle. But at the time, it was very real. And none of us knew we were doing it to ourselves. My parents had tried repeatedly to show me, but I wasn’t ready to hear it, I guess. So I went for a walk instead.

The park didn’t help at all. Vicious squirrels kept on shaking leaves and twigs down on me, and a small group of young children were screaming on the playground. Maybe I just didn’t feel like thinking after all, but I decided the park was too loud and headed back home in an angsty funk.

Halfway back I heard a twig snap and looked up from my careful study of the cement. A girl was walking down the sidewalk towards me, headed in the direction of the park. I looked at her face, expecting to see the same unhappiness I felt at being stuck on foot, but though her skin was flushed from the heat, she didn’t look bothered by it. She was in a dark T-shirt and blue cargo pants, yet looked perfectly comfortable. She met my eyes and smiled slightly, twirling a small pinecone in her right hand. As we passed shoulders I heard her say “hi”. It was almost a whisper. I nodded in reply and put my head back down.

I didn’t think much of it until that night. I was drifting off to sleep, thinking about how hot, miserable, and sticky the walk had been, and wondering if that girl was insane since she was wearing pants, when suddenly it occurred to me: I had never noticed any pine trees in the area. This realization kept me awake for a long time. I had lived here my entire life-- Could I really have been that unobservant for eighteen years?

I went out the next afternoon and wandered around until I found a pine tree less than a mile from my house. I took one home with me and set it on my dresser between two photographs of me and my friends.

After that, I started to think about things differently. I think I shocked myself into paying attention. I saw, now. I noticed what was actually going on. At first it was just my surroundings. The worn grooves on the high school steps from a century of angry kids, the kinds of trees on my street. Eventually, though, it extended to people. I looked at my friends and saw what was causing their unhappiness, and was able to fix my own. My family couldn’t understand what happened. I stopped sulking. Small things stopped annoying me. I started going for walks, and my college applications ended up getting mailed without any guidance from my parents.

Now I look back, and it amuses me that a pinecone was responsible for who I am today.

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