fire in the sky

fire in the sky - The Best Advice So Far - paper lantern Chinese floating sky lantern

I’ve had a document open since the 4th of July with title and picture in place, ready for me to write this post.

Each day since, I’ve sat down in front of a blank page. I’ve stared. I’ve thought. I’ve thought about what I’m thinking. I’ve done the self-talk to convince myself: This is going to be the day.

It’s been over two weeks of this routine.

Usually, a blank page excites me. Since I was a child, a blank page has always represented endless possibilities. Lately, a blank page has felt like … just a blank page.

Today is the first time words have come out.

I’m hopeful.

While it’s true that my head is still a bit scrambled due to the accident in April, I think there’s more to it where this particular post has been concerned.  I had what I can only call “an experience” over the holiday weekend. I don’t often use the word profound, but this was. I felt something. I made connections I hadn’t before. Parts of what lay within the scope of my physical senses came into crystal clear focus while others seemed to fade to nothing. Invisible. Inaudible.

It came in pictures. It came in inklings and suspicions that burgeoned into something close to ideas. It came in emotions.

The problem is that it did not come with words.

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It has felt like it needs to be written. I tried getting around it and on to other topics, chalking it up as perhaps something that should remain with me alone. But it has stayed put, unyielding, like an avalanche that simply has to be cleared from the road if there’s to be any hope of moving forward. And yet in the last 24 hours, a realization struck me: I’ve actually been afraid to put it to words, for fear that it will be lost in so doing, like trying to pluck snowflakes from the air with warm fingers.

My brain and eyes hurt as I consider trying to do what seems impossible in the moment. What if the words I choose wind up stripping the heart from it all, rendering something beatific as banal?

Don’t get me wrong. It was not an epiphany of the religious sort (at least not as far as I know). The sky did not weep blood. There were no ladders descending from the heavenlies. But it felt pivotal nonetheless.

I think what finally has me writing is that I wrestled the angel and won. I’ve let go of the notion that I need to make it all make sense, to open any eyes other than my own. So if you read on and find yourself ho-ing and humming, that’s OK. And if even one other soul out there sees a glimpse of what I saw that night, I’ll consider it purely serendipitous.

*****

To be honest, the 4th of July is not among my favorite holidays. Yet somehow, it’s wound up being the backdrop for many key moments across a lifetime, including one of my favorite chapters in my book — a chapter entitled “Creative Love” (Chapter 14), which was adapted from one of my early posts.

I should point out that, for the past twenty-some-odd years, my 4th of July festivities have actually taken place the day before, on the 3rd. Friends host an evening party down by the ocean. And as dusk gives way to darkness, from points up and down the coastline, you begin to hear the first isolated eruptions.

*bang*

*sizzle*

*whirrrr*

*screeeech*

*pop-pop-pop*

Young and old alike don bug spray and glow-things, cover-ups and star-spangled headbands. And, like psychedelic lemmings, they make their way toward the source of those sounds.

They line the sidewalk above the sea wall, packed in shoulder to shoulder. But I squeeze through them, over the guard rail, down the slope to the wall itself, rocks skittering under my sandals.

I do not stop there. I sit on the wall, feet dangling, and hop to the gravel along its lower edge. Secretly, I feel a certain sense of accomplishment and pride that I can still make the leap “at my age.” Then I make my way down — across the tops of the precarious larger stones, over the plain of pebbles and onto the dark sand. There, I settle myself on the same protruding rock that has been my perch these many years.

Any time I’ve tried to explain the ambient soundscape, I wind up coming back to the word “cacophony.” Every house along the coast is blaring different music. Orchestral patriotic numbers try valiantly to surface, pulled down by the quagmire of competing drum beats and gratuitous 80s guitar riffs. Dogs bark. Children holler to be heard by parents standing right beside them. Some cry as adults try to explain with exaggerated smiles that all of this noise is quite natural and “fun.” Laughter comes in rippling waves — rowdy, raucous, strident, bellowing.

Then comes the first squint-inducing  :: BOOOM! :: as the major fireworks begin in earnest.

The nearest pyrotechnics are being launched not more than twenty feet from where I sit. I do not look out to see them. I look up — straight up, my neck cranked backward at a 90° angle. Every so often, one of the projectiles detonates too low, and I am showered in ash and glowing embers that fizzle out only after landing on moist skin or wet sand.

It’s quite a spectacle. I don’t just have front-row seats; I am center stage.

As if in unison, the surrounding throng cheers and squeals and shouts in direct proportion to the size, brightness and volume of each explosion.

This is the way of things, year after year.

Only this year — something changed.

The main attraction was playing itself out overhead. The growing cloud of acrid smoke wafted my way, stinging my eyes and blurring my vision. The sulfur bit at my nose.  And each shock wave set the fine bones around my sinuses to reverberating. I took a reprieve from watching, slowly righting my stiff neck and pressing cool fingers over my eyes.

This in itself is not an unfamiliar part of the event. But when I opened my eyes again, my attention was immediately drawn to a soft orange glow in the distant sky, its reflection glimmering on the surface of the water.

A floating lantern.

Though it was much further away than the immediate spectacle, it consumed my focus. I tracked its almost imperceptible movement across the horizon. The noise of the fireworks and the crowd grew muffled somehow, as if I were covering my ears.

All the while, as I continued to follow the steady course of that far-off light, the quieter sounds around me became all the more clear.

The gentle shooshhh along the water’s edge as the surf swelled and receded, followed by the gabble of tiny pebbles being pulled over one another and back into the sea.

The rasping whisper of dried seaweed stirred by the faint breeze.

The sound of my own breath as I exhaled.

Nearby and to my right, two children — a boy and a girl, perhaps 10 or 11 — had placed their own sky lantern gingerly on the sand. After a few failed attempts to ignite the wax, the flame took hold, growing in intensity, setting the expanding white paper above it awash with amber light.

It swelled and began to levitate from the sand, tentative and unsteady. The children worked together to cradle the base and sides as it rose — slowly, slowly — until, finally, with one last gentle push, it was up, up, up and out across the water. I knew that the children were holding their breath. I knew that I was. I can’t explain it, but it felt like a physical vessel of hope.

I watched it go, making its journey ever higher, ever further, until it was no more than a pinpoint, indistinguishable from the backdrop of stars.

As serene as it all was, however, there was something more happening on a deeper level. There was meaning.

Katy Perry’s #1 hit “Firework” was an anthem for underdogs everywhere. In the chorus, she belts:

Baby, you’re a firework
Come on, let your colors burst
Make ’em go, “Aah, aah, aah”
You’re gonna leave ’em all in awe, awe, awe

Again, I don’t quite know how I’ll manage to condense into words and sentences the thoughts that crystallized there on the beach that night. But I’ll start by saying that, while I have been known to give Katy a run for her money, singing harmonies with her at the top of my lungs while driving, I am not her intended audience.

I’m not the wallflower at the dance.

I never “feel like a plastic bag / Drifting through the wind,” aimless and lacking a sense of purpose.

I’m not one to stand in the shadows, wishing for some assurance as I try to muster enough courage to take a chance.

And I’m not in any way belittling those who do find themselves identifying with these scenarios. I’m simply saying — that’s not me.

I am the firework.

I have always been.

In the bridge section of “Firework,” Katy sings:

Boom! Boom! Boom!
Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon
It’s always been inside of you, you, you
And now it’s time to let it through-ough-ough

But from as early as I can remember, Boom-Boom-Boom! moments have never had any trouble getting “through-ough-ough.”

I mentioned this in a previous post (which was also revelatory), but my mother will tell you that when I was very small, I used to make entrances by bounding through doorways, announcing my arrival with “Tah-Dah!” as if I were really something special.

*BOOM!*

At the age of six, I read my first real novel and memorized the scientific classifications of insects and fish, as well as the list of the longest words in the English language.

*BOOM!*

People would toss me a Rubik’s Cube and shake their head as I solved it in mere seconds. When it came time for art contests, I didn’t just draw a picture; I created intricate images using one continuously weaving line that never left the page and never crossed itself.

*BOOM!*

I was a 4.0 student and the top student at every level of my education.

*BOOM!*

I’ve sung before audiences of hundreds — even more than a thousand. I’ve hit the high note. I’ve moved the audience to tears. I’ve received the applause, the standing ovations.

*BOOM!*

I’ve been on the ins with the famous and the infamous.  When I write letters to moguls, mavens and movie stars — they write back.

*BOOM!*

People who’ve known me have been either avid proponents or vehement opponents, but everyone chooses a side. There is no middle ground. For better or worse, I make an impression. People remember me.

*BOOM!*

I’ve made bricks with no straw. I’ve righted the flag in the heat of battle. I’ve been the voice of the masses against corruption and injustice. I’ve been a father to the fatherless.  I’ve sung the blazing anthems to encourage the downtrodden, and I’ve taken their hand to pull them up again. I’ve swooped in to save the day at the eleventh hour more times than I can count.

*BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!*

Mind you, I don’t try to be noticed. It just … happens. It’s just part of who I am. It was in the little boy who jumped through doorways and it’s in the man-me. I’m a chance taker. I believe we’re all just real people — rich or poor, famous or obscure — and so I tend to approach everyone the same, neither fearful nor fawning. And for some reason, that stands out in the world.

I have no regrets. But that night on the beach, as the fireworks thundered and raged overhead, I envied the paper lanterns.

Quiet. Constant. A glow on the horizon. A symbol of hope.

I wanted to be like that.

I want to be like that.

I’d rather be known for what I am doing than for only what I have done, to be the steady beacon rather than the sudden *BOOM!*

The Best Advice So Far: I'd rather be known for what I am doing than for only what I have done.

I’m not trading my leaps for tiptoes. I’m not saying goodbye to doing big things. I still have a fire burning inside of me.  I think, perhaps, it’s just becoming a fire of a different sort.

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