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More on Steve Richardson and Impermanence

Today marks a week since Steve’s body was found dead. The memorial service isn’t till Saturday, March 3. This past week, no matter what I was doing, I was trying to take in the specific truth of Steve’s death, the fact that we won’t go dumpster-diving for materials for his art again, the fact that I won’t have a chance to watch him scanning for things to use in his work, things to give other people, things to love. It was a glorious weekend in south Texas: afternoons in the 70s F., bright sun, weeds breaking into flower, the redbud trees just about to burst into flame. Steve didn’t get to see this, I thought. I do. Don’t miss any of it.

I picked up one of my favorite books, Joko Beck’s Nothing Special: Living Zen. She tells a story about living in Providence, Rhode Island when one of her children was a baby, as a hurricane approached. She heard that sometimes airplane pilots, caught in a hurricane, try to reach the eye of the storm, where there are no winds. She imagined what if, instead of being in a plane, the pilot was in a glider, unable to control the direction, unable to avoid the winds, but willing to hang on and enjoy the ride, even if it was the last ride of his life. That’s the condition we’re all in, she says:

“Our own lives are like a ride which inevitably ends in our death. We’re trying to do the impossible, to save ourselves. We can’t do that; in fact, we’re all dying right now. How many minutes do we have? Like the glider, perhaps we have just one minute, perhaps a hundred minutes. . . . Nothing in the world will ever protect us. If we spend our lives looking for the eye of the hurricane, we live a life that is fruitless. We die without having really lived. I don’t feel sorry for the pilot in the glider. When he dies, at least he has lived. I feel sorry for those who so blind themselves with their protective endeavors that they never live. . . . We think others should never be sloppy about the way they live. In fact, we’re all sloppy, because we’re all immersed in this game of self-protection instead of the real game of life. Life is not a safe space. It never was, and it never will be. If we’ve hit the eye of the hurricane for a year or two, it still cannot be counted on. There is no safe space, not for our money, not for ourselves, not for those we love. And it’s not our business to worry about that.
. . . Until we see through the game that doesn’t work, we don’t play the real game. Some people never see through it and die without ever having lived. . . .” (68-71).

Steve was a glider pilot. He kept on wanting fiercely to live, through two years of wretching and headaches from chemotherapy. Even when he was so sick he couldn’t stand up, he’d sit bent over, looking all around him on the ground for anything he could use in his art. He found oddly-shaped sticks, coins, bottle caps. He was completely present. Finally, there was no sign of illness in his body. The chemo had worked. He had a new lease on life, and he had never stopped chuckling. Nobody guessed it was his heart, and not his disease, that would take him out.

When he first started courting Marta over the phone, we who thought we were his friends were all a pain in the ass, full of what-ifs. “What if Marta isn’t as loving as you imagine?” “What if she really just wants to live near her daughter [in Houston] and is using you?” “What if her teenage son becomes a hoodlum when you get him here?” “How can you take on raising another teenager at your age?”

Steve glided right into those winds. He loved Marta. He loved her son. He made Jess and me believers. We shut up. The three of us would go out to lunch (stopping along the road to pick up wonders Steve spotted), and Jess and I both told him to go for it (not that it mattered what we told him). We became his defenders: “It’s Steve’s life. Leave him alone. Let him be happy. If something bad is coming, he’ll deal with it when it comes.” That, too, was misguided. He needed no defense. Joko Beck again: “In a sense, we can’t help others; we can’t know what’s best for them. Practicing with our own lives is the only way we can help others; we naturally serve others by becoming more who we are” (63).

I still had fearful thoughts on Steve’s behalf (how dumb is that?), but at least I kept them to myself. When Steve talked about Marta, his whole face lit up, his voice softened. For her, he cut his hair and trimmed his beard. For her, he was struggling to give up chewing tobacco (he promised her he’d give it up forever before she came to America). For her and her son, he put in new cabinets in the kitchen, installed central air and heat, painted, cleaned, and fixed up the house. He found a place Marta could take ESL lessons. He found a Spanish-speaking Roman Catholic church for her to attend, and he promised he’d go to services with her, although he wasn’t Roman Catholic. I loved to watch him go. He was alive, tingling with life, every minute. He went back to being a butcher so he could send more money to Honduras, to pay the lawyers, to pay for the permits and the hoops they all had to jump through. All that cut down on his time for sculpture, but he kept on collecting materials he would use after Marta got here.

Steve was a glider pilot. For all the years I knew him, even when he was going through chemo, his inner state was pure joy. My best memorial to Steve would be to let myself live more the way I need to live–which is not exactly Steve’s way. It’s Kendall’s way. But it’s more like Steve’s way than not; that’s why I loved being around him. He reminded me of the best in myself. A few years ago Steve was helping me clean out my old office and found one of my old acting pictures–I was 30 and dressed as a hooker, in a big wig and very little clothing, holding a posture nobody in my current life has ever seen. “Oh, teacher!” Steve gasped. “This is you? This is you? Yeah, teacher. This is you!” Wordless, we both laughed till we had tears streaming down our faces. I used to glide. I glided all through my twenties and thirties. It was only after I got my Ph.D. that I started living down to it, being respectable, constrained. I fell into a less lively role. But it’s only a another role, another costume. I can take it off, the same way I took off the hooker costume. I’m here in what Jack Kornfield calls my rent-a-body, just for a little while.

I’m going to Mexico on Spring Break with Gallo and Ansie, and I’m going to take Steve with me in my head. I’m going to imagine he’s beside me, gliding all the way, alert and taking in every second of it. There, among those colors, with two very good friends, surrounded by the espanol I am trying to learn to speak, I will put my heart into becoming more of who I am. Gliding.

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0 responses to “More on Steve Richardson and Impermanence”

  1. Æ says:

    Your post reminds me of my new favorite quotation: “As I grow older, I feel everything departing, and I love everything with more passion.” – Emile Zola. The keener our awareness of our mortality, the sharper the urgency to notice everything while we can and live “this sweet old life” as deeply as possible.

  2. admin says:

    Yes! Love the Zola!

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