Summers in New Hampshire provide a teenager with blissfully warm weather and an abundance of distractions from the boredom that seems to accompany the day-to-day existence of the young.
There were the streams in which I’d fish for trout, and the marinas filled with pickerel, and Weirs Beach with its small mouth bass. My father’s boat would take a few friends and I water skiing. We had waterslides, and alpine slides, and the Weirs’ famous arcades and candlepin bowling. And there was the Gilford town beach, with its scattered scrub pine clinging to the yellow sand, a beaten down concession stand and the large grey raft moored just 10 yards beyond where the lake bottom fell away into inky blackness.
I’ve had an image involving that raft at Gilford Beach in my mind for over a week now. Imagine this: A teenage boy runs for the edge of the raft, throwing his head back as he leaps into the air. The ungainly and unsuccessful half-gainer ends with a loud thwack, flat on his back. The cheers that had urged him to make another attempt turn to the third groan of the afternoon as he rises back to the surface, his face oscillating between grimacing pain and gleeful grin accompanying a hearty, deep laugh and more than a few groans of his own.
It’s only as I write this that I begin to understand what drew me to this image, this memory of an old friend from the ’70s.
Glenn had a quality that made him difficult to dislike. He combined incisive intelligence, lethal wit and a playful soul. What I remember as the most lovable thing about him, though, was his laugh, a guffaw, really. There seemed to be a deep resonant joy in his being. He always seemed to be having more fun than anyone else. Maybe that`s the greatest quality any of us can ever acquire. I have a favourite Buddhist proverb: “To a practitioner of Tendai Buddhism, everything is wonderful.” I recognise the debt I owe Glenn for exemplifying the beauty of that proverb, the truth of it.
Happiness is a choice. The unhappiest of us can’t imagine how to elevate ourselves from our misery. The happiest of us have made that choice a habit. They find joy in the strangest of places, like Glenn on that day at the lake. He dared. He risked. And no matter the outcome, it seemed, he found something beautiful to love about the experience. We all stood on the raft, feeling his pain while basking in his glee. I look back and realise that pain is not suffering, that suffering is every bit the choice that joy is, and that pain itself need be of little consequence when we make that choice.
He never did make it. I remember most the pained grin and laughter as he climbed back up onto the raft, a pain and laughter we all shared with him. Children and young adults can be so cruel, but in the face of that kind of reckless bravery and mirth how could anyone even think of jeering him? He’d rise from the ladder, already working up the courage to try it again.
Not long after graduating from high school, Glenn was walking along a local highway, late at night. The way I remember the story, he was high. He must have swerved or stumbled out in front of the car that hit him and killed him. I guess that binding memory I have of him is a metaphor for how his life ended here, in this material realm. One night he just landed flat on his back.
But, like on the lake, landing on your back isn’t the end of the journey. I imagine his soul rising, looking back at his broken body, remembering the pain not just of that moment of his death, but the inevitable pain of living, the remorse for not having made more of a life gifted with so much vitality and promise. And then the grin rises with the memories of all the beauty, love and light he`d experienced even in his brief visit here. With that comes the laugh, the hearty guffaw, and already the resolve to try it all again as he rises to the heavens where friends await him, greet him, welcome him back to the spirit realm we all spring from and return to, again and again.
From the raft, we throw ourselves into it, into life, with varying degrees of abandon and success, and when we rise back to the surface, it’s always to cheers and good natured ribbing, the kind that nurtures, lets us know we’re cared for. The kind that gives us the courage to give it another go.
Maybe in that realm it’s easier to be brave, to take the big risks. I like to think so. I like to think that maybe, someday, even in our human manifestations, we’ll all find Glenn’s fearless sense of wonder, glee, courage and abandon. I like to imagine life being that way. I’m trying to find a way to be that way, to make that choice a habit.