The Place by Jerry McGowan - HTML preview
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The evolution of all that is!
It had been twelve years since I heard the voice at the lake. I was enjoying my time at Wake Forest and had made many new friends who helped to shape my life. Once I got past my freshman year, I had a pretty good understanding of how the system worked. The freshman year of college can be an intimidating time because everyone else seems to know more than you do.
Wake Forest is located on a beautiful campus that used to be the R.J. Reynolds estate. It encompasses several thousand acres of gorgeous buildings, forests, formal gardens, and pastures. It was one of the most beautiful colleges I had ever seen. There were three thousand students, including grad students, at the university. Because the school was so small, one got to know just about everyone there. For me, Wake Forest fulfilled every dream I ever had about what college life could be.
It was late one fall, and the football season had ended. We had a short reprieve until winter workouts began. It was a time for many to heal up from all the damaged tendons and torn-up knees they had experienced. I was on my way out of the training room early one Friday afternoon and headed down to the girl’s dorm to see a friend, when I suddenly found myself thinking of my roommate from the year before. Ronan was a year ahead of me in school, and he turned out to be one of my best friends. We’d been through a lot together, and when he left, it created a space in my life that would not be filled easily.
I hadn’t seen or spoken to Ronan since May of the previous year, when he returned home to Wisconsin. That was the funny thing about college. When people left, one rarely heard from them again. It reminded me a great deal of high school in that regard. I could only imagine he had moved on to bigger and better things—new responsibilities, a job, and perhaps even a family. There were no computers with e-mail back then, and letters took a long time to write.
To actually get a phone call was a gamble at best since one was always in class or on the field.
As I walked along the concrete sidewalk, I had the strangest sensation Ronan had returned. We all know those feelings. They stop you from whatever it is you’re doing and force you to pause and take notice. I stood there for a moment, recalling some of the outrageous things we had done together. Moments later I found myself smiling before continuing with my walk. Yet the feeling of his presence would not go away. It was stronger than anything I’d felt in some time.
I remembered back to the day Bob almost drowned and the voice that kept that from happening. I stopped again and looked around, trying to dispel the feeling that something special was taking place, when I noticed a tall, lean figure standing next to the iron railing at the back of Reynolda Hall. The figure was looking directly at me. It was Ronan. I broke into a run up the stairs and embraced him.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, excited to see him. I held him by the shoulders, not quite believing he was there. I stood back and looked at him. He had lost weight—not that he was ever that heavy.
He smiled that big-toothed grin of his and replied, “I needed to get away, so I thought I’d come down for a visit.”
“So what are you doing, now that school’s over?” I asked, expecting him to tell me about some great job he had, making lots of money.
“I work construction back in Milwaukee,” he replied, with a hint of unhappiness. “It pays okay, but I don’t like it much.”
I knew what that was all about. I had worked construction since my thirteenth birthday, mostly during summers all through high school. If it wasn’t for the band, I think I would have been bored to death. Even the thought of it made me tired, but I sensed it wasn’t just the job that had him depressed.
“In order to be able to find a job, I needed a car, so I bought one,” he said. “I can’t wait to get it paid off so I can find a real job.”
I was puzzled. Here was one of my best friends out of school, yet feeling trapped by car payments and who knew what else.
“I thought you’d be doing great and having a ball,” I said, waiting for some kind of excitement to surface.
“Life after college isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” he said. “I started living at home because I had nowhere else to go. With no job and no money, I was stuck. It was okay for a week or so, and then my parents started pushing me to get a job so I could help with the mortgage,” he continued. “They didn’t much care what kind of job—just one that made money.”
“Bummer,” I replied, quickly finding myself hoping college would last forever.
“I had to get transportation in order to look for work, so I bought a car. My father co-signed for me,” he said. “Worst mistake I ever made. Now, when I get a few days behind in the payments, he gets all bent out of shape, asking me when I’m going to send a check. It’s not like I ever missed a payment or anything,” he said dejectedly. “It’s just different than what I thought it would be.”
“I understand,” I replied, not having a clue what he was talking about, but knowing how easy it was to get sucked into the expectations of society. My father taught me all too well about responsibility and accountability, not that I listened a whole lot.
Perhaps that was one of the reasons I was more like my mother than my father. She had the artistic personality in the family, not that she had much of a chance to explore it. But she also had the patience of a saint, unlike my father!
“So what do you want to do?” I asked, changing the subject before I became totally depressed. “Obviously you’re here to get away from all that, so let’s do it!” Before he could reply, I said excitedly, “Let’s hit the tavern for a beer. You can buy since you’re working.” He looked at me as if I hadn’t heard a word he’d been saying, when we both suddenly burst out laughing.
I really liked his car, which was used, but a real beauty. It was a forest-green Grand Prix with a vinyl top and a simulated wood interior. It was better than any car I ever had. I mostly drove my father’s car. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciated the transportation, but it was a bummer arriving somewhere for a date in a car that was older than I was.
When we arrived at the tavern, we sat down and ordered our first round of beers. “So what else have you been doing since you left?” I asked.
“I traveled around a bit. I spent some time in Northern Wisconsin and really enjoyed it up there. It’s such beautiful country! I would have stayed there in a heartbeat, but there was no work. How about you? How’s football?” he asked.
“Football’s good,” I replied. “Hard work as usual, but still good.”
“And how’s your love life?” I asked, hoping to improve his mood with a change in conversation.
“Don’t ask,” he replied. “Who can even think of a girlfriend—or any friend for that matter—when I haven’t got a pot to piss in!”
I started laughing because I didn’t know what else to do! Hearing him so depressed struck me as both odd and funny at the same time. It was so different from the Ronan I knew just a year earlier.
“Ronan, if that’s the case, I can certainly line you up with a date for the weekend. At least that way you can remember what it’s like having a date!”
He looked at me and began to laugh at the irony of the situation. He took another drink of beer. It was good to see him start to unwind. There was nothing he could do about his problems here, so he settled back and began to enjoy the moment. I tried to keep him focused on his reasons for getting away in the first place. We made some more small talk, when I decided to share with him what had been going on with me.
“Ronan, can I talk to you about something?”
“Sure,” he replied. “What’s going on?”
“I know this might seem a bit bizarre, but I need your feedback—as a friend.”
“What the hell?” he replied. “We just went through the sixties! Everything’s bizarre!” The levity at the table made it easier to begin.
“Just before I saw you standing at the railing, I had the strangest feeling you were on campus. I’ve been having a lot of those feelings lately, and strangely, they’ve all been coming true.”
“That happens to everyone,” he said, sloughing it off like it was nothing to be concerned about. He took another swallow of beer. “Haven’t you ever thought about someone you haven’t seen in a while, and the next day they call you up?” he asked.
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” I replied excitedly, “but it’s more than that. Hearing from you is one thing, but showing up? . . . I mean, that’s a bit unusual, wouldn’t you say?” I asked.
He looked at me and then placed his beer on the table. “Do you really think you’re tapping into something special here?” he asked. “How much drugs are you doing?”
“It’s not the drugs,” I replied. “I really do think something special is happening here, and it’s happening more frequently all the time.”
He smiled and said somewhat nonchalantly, “Don’t let it get you down. You’ll figure it out. You always do.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I replied, hoping for more feedback than he offered. “Thanks for listening,” I said, then let I it go. I think he needed me to be there for him at that moment more than I needed his feedback.
We spent the rest of the night and weekend having a great time reliving memories and visiting old friends. However, before it ended, Ronan made a comment that sent a chill up my spine.
“If I could do it all over again,” he began, “I think I’d stay in college for the rest of my life.”
(Needless to say, my life in school was great, except for the studies.)
“Ronan, you hated class and hardly ever went. Why would you even think about being in school for the rest of your life?”
“Because it’s better than having to live in the outside world, having to fend for yourself every day just trying to survive—never mind getting ahead.”
I began to understand. I knew my life at school was as good as it could get. Why wouldn’t it be? Being in school for four years and having everything given to me because I was there on a scholarship was the good life. But to suddenly have it all taken away and be left to fend for himself must have been quite a culture shock for Ronan; I knew it would be for me! It must have been doubly hard transitioning from enjoying attention as an athletic star to being someone nobody knew, or much less cared about! Yet my own culture shock was awaiting me just around the corner!
As I sat there thinking about what his life had become, I realized mine was on the same course. I hadn’t decided on any particular profession, so considering life after graduation was a moot point. I was twenty years old, my hormones were raging, and I was expected to think beyond that? There were so many more important things to consider!
Ronan’s visit opened my eyes to a number of realities, the most important being a commitment to enjoy the rest of my college experience. I soon found myself thinking about how we found one another that day he arrived. It was no coincidence! He knew exactly where I’d be, and I knew he was there! I thought about this a bit longer and then began to reason it out. He probably went to my dorm, and not finding me there, began looking for me. The campus was small, so it would have been easy to find me. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to ask him if that was the case. I tried to let it go, but the feeling wouldn’t leave.
Ronan left early Sunday morning. I think he was sad to leave because coming back to school reminded him of how life used to be. We lost touch after that. It was some forty years later before we spoke again. He was married and had a family, but more important, he was happy. We shared some memories, but that was all. Life had changed for both of us, yet whenever I think of him, it’s with a smile.
The following week I was sitting in my English Literature class, listening to a lecture, when another thought came to me. I found myself missing the fall foliage back home. There wasn’t a more beautiful place anywhere to enjoy the fall season than New England. I wanted to be there to take in the colors and kick the leaves as I walked down the sidewalk. The sound of them crackling underfoot never got old—and neither did the crisp taste of cider, pressed fresh right at the mill.
As children, we raked the leaves into piles as tall as we were. We climbed trees and leaped into the piles before throwing them up in the air over our heads. When the weekend came, Dad made smaller piles that he burned along the side of the road. Burning leaves as a boy was something you never forgot. We watched as they burned, creating glowing red ashes before cooling down to become piles of wispy gray ones that lined the street before blowing away.
As I continued reliving my memories, I was interrupted by the students leaving class. I gathered my books and made my way to my dorm to get ready for my next class. On the way, I passed the post office and decided to check my box for any mail. I got very few letters from home since everyone there was just as busy as I was, so I was surprised to find a letter from my brother, Richard. He and his twin brother, Steven, were the last to be born into our family, so they are several years younger than I am.
I walked outside and made myself comfortable on a wooden bench and then opened the letter. Much to my surprise, in the envelope I discovered four perfectly shaped maple leaves with the most magnificent colors I had ever seen. As I held them aloft in front of my eyes, the sunlight made the colors brighter and more beautiful. The veins in each leaf were clearly visible and created complex designs one might easily overlook if he didn’t have a passion for viewing leaves in the fall.
I soon found myself thinking about the daydream I had in class just a few moments earlier. Was this just a coincidence? When these things happened earlier in my life, I simply experienced them and moved on. This event, the one with Ronan, and others I experienced recently were different, or maybe I was just becoming more conscious of them now that I was older.
A week had passed, and I began thinking about the leaves my brother sent me. It reminded me that Thanksgiving was just a few weeks away. I looked forward to it every year. In our house it truly was a celebration of thanks: for life, friends, and food! Yet I knew I wouldn’t be getting home this year since the money wasn’t available for a plane ticket. I suddenly realized that I had another option. I chuckled that I hadn’t thought of it sooner. What if I could find a ride home for the holidays? There were not many people attending Wake Forest from Massachusetts, but I knew I could find someone heading in my general direction. I put the idea in the back of my mind and headed to the cafeteria for lunch.
After lunch I stopped by the post office, and much to my surprise, there was a single letter in my box. I fumbled with the combination on the lock and retrieved it. Inside the envelope was a letter from my father and a round-trip ticket home for Thanksgiving. I couldn’t believe it! As soon as the happiness wore off, I began to consider whether this was really just another coincidence—or something more. These experiences were happening far too frequently. It seemed the ideas that interrupted my normal thought processes were happening more frequently, and they were coming true.
The memories of the voice I heard as a child began to enter my thoughts once again. I wasn’t concerned, but I was curious about whether or not there was a relationship between what happened those many years ago and what was now taking place. I became preoccupied with what occurrences would happen next. My sleep became a portal for additional thoughts to invade my subconscious. As my focus became distracted by the things that were taking place, my studies began to suffer. I was more intrigued by these experiences than whether or not I passed my courses. It was not a problem, mind you, but it was a distraction. Fortunately, however, this was the time when I discovered a new friend at the university.
Next to my dorm was the Student Psychology Center. I had read about some of the studies they had done and wondered if perhaps I might find some answers there. The next morning I finished my nine o’clock class, but instead of returning to my room, I visited the center. I asked the receptionist if there was someone I could speak with and was told to have a seat. Moments later a woman in her late thirties came out and greeted me, then invited me into her office.
“My name is Mrs. Warren. What seems to be the problem?” she asked, pointing to a seat across from her own.
“I don’t know that there is a problem,” I began. “I’m experiencing some things I was hoping you might be able to explain to me!”
“What kind of things?” she asked.
I told her what had taken place with Bob and me when we were young, along with the events of the past few weeks. I explained that the frequency of these events seemed to be increasing.
“It’s like I think of something, and the next thing I know, it happens!” I explained.
She smiled and asked if these events upset me. I thought for a moment and replied, “No. Why?”
She replied, “Good. If you were upset by these events, it would be a completely different matter. Not being upset by them opens the door to a very different approach to understanding what’s going on.” What she said made sense.
“What happens when these events occur?” she asked.
I thought for a moment and then replied, “Have you ever been doing something when suddenly an idea comes to you completely out of the blue, and it’s different from what you were doing or thinking about?”
“Yes,” she replied, “I think everyone does.”
“Well, lately that’s been happening to me a lot! It’s beginning to keep me awake at night, and I find I am more interested in it than anything else.”
“So it’s become a problem for you?”
“No, I wouldn’t call it a problem. It’s just on my mind! I find myself wondering what will happen next. Even though I’m eager to discover what that will be, I also want to understand why it’s happening. There has to be a reason!”
She thought for a moment. “Does anything else take place when these incidents occur?”
“Not that I can recall,” I answered. “Before it occurs, I find myself thinking about normal things, and the next thing I know, in comes this idea that has nothing to do with what I was doing or thinking. It’s not like any idea, either. It’s one that forces me to stop whatever it is I’m doing and pay attention to it.”
“It doesn’t upset you while this is happening?” she asked.
“No, but I suspect it’s going to keep happening. Eventually it could have a negative impact on my studies and football, especially if I don’t get a handle on it,” I answered.
“I have something I want you to try,” she replied.
I was excited to finally begin to understand what was going on, and somewhere deep inside, I knew this person would be the one to help me.
“The next time this happens,” she began, “I want you to stop whatever you’re doing and find a quiet place to be with the thought that comes in. It’s important to find solitude. You want to minimize distractions.”
“Okay,” I said. “Then what?”
“In order to begin to understand what’s taking place, you’ll need to get close to it and get to know it.”
What’s the it you’re talking about?” I asked.
“That’s what you’re going to find out!” she replied. “When the next thought or idea interrupts you, stop what you’re doing, and find a place to sit quietly. While you’re sitting there, I want you to close your eyes.
“I want you to do your best to feel what’s happening,” she continued. “In order to understand it, you need to identify what’s different about it. Tune out everything except the thought that made its way through.” She paused for a moment and then said, “By the way, it’s not the thought we’re interested in, but the reason and the place from which it comes.”
What she said made perfect sense to me. I had been making the thought the focus of my search, when all this time perhaps it was the reason for the thought that was creating my anxiety.
“Once you get to know the feeling, become familiar with it,” she said, “and don’t be afraid of what you might experience.”
She then looked directly at me. “Do you think you can do that?” she asked.
“I think so,” I replied, “unless I’m on the field during practice. I don’t think the coach would find my asking for private time too amusing.”
She smiled. “You know what I mean. Can you do that?”
“I’ll give it my best shot,” I replied. I thanked her and left her office. Little did I know her advice would become the most important piece of the puzzle to date. This was actually my first introduction to meditation.
It wouldn’t take long for me to test out her theory. A week later, I decided to take a break from cafeteria food and visited the local burger joint. On the way back, I was thinking about all the things I needed to do before heading home for the holidays. Suddenly, an idea came out of nowhere. The girl I’d been dating was on an exchange program in France for the year, and I’d not heard from her for some time. It was not unusual since calling was expensive and finding time to write between studying and getting to know the culture would be difficult at best. I smiled for a moment, thinking about how she was and what she was doing.
I went into my room and closed the door. I thought this was the perfect opportunity to give the new theory a try. I sat down on my bed and closed my eyes. I was completely relaxed, but I was interrupted several minutes later by someone in the dorm yelling about a phone call. I remained seated and continued to relax as best I could. At first, a million thoughts raced through my mind, but as I became more relaxed, the thoughts became less distracting. I was beginning to realize a quiet calm within myself I had not experienced before. The distractions around me seemed to fall by the wayside, one by one.
I found myself beginning to realize how I was feeling, no longer concerning myself with what I was thinking. I came to learn that this would be the key to my eventual understanding. I stopped pushing for answers and simply waited to experience them as they came to me. I knew one thing for certain: I had no control over any of this. I became aware that the more I let things be, the more comfortable I became.
It was like what I felt at the lake those many years ago. When I let go of the internal struggle, along with the panic and the fear, I became open to what the voice was saying and not concerned with who was behind the voice. Only then was I able to do what was necessary to save Bob’s life. This was no different. I was beginning to understand, even though it seemed just the opposite of what I had been asked to do: let go of the idea, and look for the reason it was happening, as well as the source.
As I moved forward in my experience, I found myself wondering why I didn’t understand this until now. Of course, I said to myself, I was just a kid! Distractions are what being a kid is all about—experiencing and living in the absolute moment.
Yet things were different now that I was older. Life was less about distractions and more about understanding. It was about harnessing one’s thoughts, enabling the mind to focus. These thoughts occurred in a matter of moments.
I now realized why Mrs. Warren wanted me to relax: in relaxation there are fewer distractions, allowing understanding to emerge. Suddenly, I remembered the words from a song by Kris Kristofferson: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” I was experiencing my own freedom.
I was discovering the gift it was, and all I had to do was slow down enough to understand it. I felt for the very first time that I was on a path to uncovering answers. As I continued to contemplate the words to that song, I was reminded of a book I read that spoke of a slave who discovered his own freedom in the last place he expected to find it—within himself. It was a place that offered answers beyond any other understanding. I needed to find this Place since I knew it held the answers to my questions.
It was the sixties, a time of freedom of thought and action. I felt I was just beginning my quest. While I continued to relax, other ideas began to surface. I was amazed at how these ideas seemed to be related. I was excited to have the opportunity to begin to piece the puzzle together. It was even more exciting to realize this was my life I was piecing together, a real life experience, and not just some idea that had little or no bearing on my walk.
Slowly, the excitement began to dissipate because I was getting tired. My unconscious thoughts were fading, and my conscious fatigue was taking over. I wanted to lie down and take a nap. I was interrupted by someone pounding on my door. I jumped to my feet.
“McGowan! There’s a telephone call for you! Make it quick—the operator says it’s from France!”