Obsidian is used in cardiac surgery and in other medical endeavors where a finely honed blade is vital, as well-crafted obsidian blades have a cutting edge many times sharper than high-quality steel surgical scalpels. Even the sharpest metal knife has a jagged, irregular blade when viewed under a strong enough microscope. When examined under an electron microscope an obsidian blade is still smooth and even.
As a gemstone it possesses the peculiar property of presenting a different appearance according to the manner in which it is cut. When cut in one direction it is a beautiful jet black; when cut across another direction it is glistening gray.
How it is cut reveals its use. How our souls are cut, shapes ours. Everything we experience in our life, in some way, chisels and shapes what is left, making it sharper, or grinding it to bits.
Visiting family last week, we went through some old photo albums and memories to share, the comment made that I had saved so many pieces of things of the past, of my family. I'm not sure why. I think it's because the past has been such a tumbling series of changes that having the artifacts of memory helps me remember how each piece shaped my life. The grade cards from school, a picture of a model rocket built in junior high. My Mom's badge from the Sheriff's department. A petal from a wedding bouquet, that unwittingly survived every other keepsake of that decade being burned in a fire. A notice of an estate sale. Things that touch the memory.
I grew up in a small logging town, nestled at the base of beautiful, forested mountains. Ever present was the noticeable rotten egg smell of the pulp mill that I never noticed as a child, but is as constant as death and taxes. There were no malls, simply a main street, a roller rink, a movie theater and only two fast food restaurants. It was a town where my best friend and I could ride our bikes over streets unconfined and unhurried, until darkness or hunger for family dinner around the table brought us home. It was a town where you could raise your family in relative comfort and safety. Life was routine, life was predictable. You graduated high school, married the first or second person you ever slept with. Had several kids, a mortgage, a dog, a cat. You retired and got a gold watch and watched the next generation take over the positions in the mills. The mountains notwithstanding, it was a flat landscape of life, and one that I knew, probably by the age of 12, that I had to escape from.
At the time, and still today, the biggest employers were the lumber mills, and the majority of my graduating class, attracted by pay an 18 year old can only dream of, were working the green chain or in the pulp rooms right after high school. Like most assembly and factory jobs, it's honest work, hard work, sometimes exacting and dangerous work. If you were on the green chain, it paid the most and stole the most. It stole the youth from your bones and the hope from your horizon, for by the time you were 25, you have a modest home, kids, a bass boat and the prerequisite four wheel drive and college and a distant city are beyond thought. And the pay that was incredible at 18, required more and more shift work and overtime to provide for your family, leaving you no time for the boat, let alone a life.
Life might have it's moments of fun, watching your kid play softball where you once played, watching the sun come up over the river. But it's not what you dreamed of when you were 12 and the spaces between your dreams, once lined up like pickets on a fence, get farther and further apart. All you have to fill those spaces were a few beers with friends on Friday, or an hour or two hiking the woods, striding further and further away from yourself. Simply existing, one or two parents struggling, as the daily repetition of just breathing, eating, and paying a growing pile of bills in an economy gone sour, hammered you into an attenuation of wasted hope and frustrated longings as dull and pale as spiritless ashes.
I visit regularly, as my folks still live there, Dad settling there after he retired from the military after the war, lured by the mountains and the fishing. Dad enjoys it there. I don't think he will ever leave, and though I enjoy being at home with him, I don't look forward to revisiting what my future could have been.
For when I step away from his house, I don't really belong. After 8 years of college and a substantial career, I am a stranger in my hometown. I'm one of the few who left, as soon as I was old enough to go further West and fill my life with books, music, thoughts and questions. I wasn't the only one that went, we heard about them in bits and pieces, a scholarship notice here, a medical school graduation there. But those kids and myself soon drifted away from peoples thoughts and faded away, until we return for a visit and people look at us long and hard, as if they might remember us from a grainy photograph somewhere. No one knows exactly what to say. It's as we stepped over some invisible line in the sand when we left, and are never seen quite the same way.
Visiting Dad, I ran into someone at the neighborhood grocers with whom I played with as a child. She's been working the register as long as I remember, and although she is as pretty as she always was, there's a roughness to her, like a piece of beautiful fabric that's become worn and frayed over time. "How've you been" she asks, but the question doesn't reach her eyes - eyes fragile and the color of tea, the color only deepened by the deep wrinkles I already see around them. She asks what I do for a living, and when I tell her, I might as well be telling her I was just abducted by aliens and returned, my life so foreign to the life she leads. "Well you have a nice day" she says and I nod and take the receipt for Dad, not knowing what else to say. We're strangers, and though as children we shared bike rides and ice cream and secrets, now we are looking at the world from completely different places.
It's not the State, it's not the town, both are as beautiful as you might ever find. But I can't live my life that way, in a sepia toned existence of just eating and breathing and going to a factory or job I hate to pay the bills for people who care as little for my dreams as I soon will myself. Waking up each and every day with tastes dulled by the grind of life with no flavor; skies cloudy with the dark reassurance that living life far back from the edge gives. Comfortable, safe, and as stale, bland and artificial as a Twinkie.
I left that life, as quickly as I could. Left in a trail of exhaust from a small airplane that would as soon kill me as carry me forward; leaving it perhaps a bit worse for wear, but alive. Flying out into a night as black as obsidian, senses sharp, and ready to jab at whatever life threw my way. Yes, it's been a life of changes, of mistakes, of tears, but it's brought me to this spot, here today.
Here where I keep small snippets of memory in a drawer in my desk drawer to remember why it was all worth it. Pieces of fabric, of bone, of obsidian, a rock from Donner lake, a trip with someone I loved long ago. For memory feels before knowing remembers. It feels stronger than knowing recognizes. Memory feels with nerves sharpened by pain, and aged like wine, until every nuance of life is clear. Every choice you have made, laid out on the table.
In the town I've lived in for a while, I'm mostly a stranger as I keep to myself, but it doesn't bother me, as those who meet me and include me in their circles do so for who I am now, and not what they expected me to be. And those that are with me are because they share that same elemental feeling of living that seems to have escaped so many.
Last time I was back home I couldn't help but notice that the huge field back behind my Dad's home, where once we hunted for shiny black arrowheads, is now the parking lot of a Walgreens, and the forested hills behind me are crowded with homes, hills I could still see if not for the large Burger King sign that blocks the view. As I walked back from the store to my Dad's house I searched the once familiar sky for the clouds that fueled my flying dreams and strained my ears to hear the beloved sound of a log train. But the train no longer runs along that route and I only hear the clatter of traffic.I don't really belong here any more. Somehow today, I don't belong anywhere but here in this place, now, but here I am at home.
Would I change my past, even the most profoundly painful parts of it, knowing I would not be the person I am today, in this moment of time, in this place? A past that, had it been less stressful, might only have ended diminished and foreshortened in it's outcome. For without all of those tears and struggles and changes in landscapes, I would not have ended up in just this one spot, in just this one moment, walking the land I own, hunting for food I will put on my own table, quickened breath as I cover land teeming with promise. Against my arm, the feel of my shotgun, smooth as obsidian, yet strong as steel. Up ahead, Barkley flushing out a covey of quail, muscles taut with the excitement of just being alive.
I wouldn't change a thing.
I wouldn't change a thing.