I Am Awesome: The Meaning of Life

I’m sitting here on the beach at Puerto Inca — a tiny fishing village in the south coastal desert of Peru nestled into a beautiful, protected bay. It’s rugged. Part Planet of the Apes, part paradise.

We’re the only gringos in sight — the rest, around fifty people scattered about — are Peruvian. Tree is on a walk up to the ruins on the right. Later, we’ll go to the better ones on my left, together, as a family.  Sol and Kiki are by my side, sleeping to the sound of the ocean gently breaking on the shore.

My life is all that I’ve ever wanted it to be.  Sure, my writing career isn’t thriving yet as much as I’d like, but, in the words of Winona Ryder in Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael (1990, oh yeah!)…

“It’s good to want things.”

I feel inspired by what I want to accomplish, not diminished by what I haven’t.

And, yet, I wasn’t always this happy.  Several years ago, I was actually quite miserable. Tree and I were separated due to what I called a ‘non-negotiable impasse’:  I wanted to have a child and he didn’t.

So what changed?

I credit my friend, Jody Sherman, for playing a vital part in the turning point of my life.

It was his words that fateful night in his Prius on the way back from the 2008 Obama benefit that tipped the genre of my personal play from tragedy to comedy, from forlorn to found, from depressed quasi-alcoholic whiny desperate hate-my-job biological clock ticking single woman in her thirties to me now — a soul-fat, joyous, happy, healthy, and fulfilled wife, mama, nomad, and writer.

Jody, with his no-bullshit brand of compassion coupled with a ruthless propensity to incise the truth, told me that night in the Prius that I was being stupid. Very stupid. Since I was still thrashing around in pain four months after the break-up, I obviously had made a big mistake. And, besides that, now I had no soulmate and no baby. Brilliant.

He was right. The love Tree and I shared was like a unicorn, it was hard to find and had magical powers.  I had to honor it as the wild mythological beast that it was and not scare it away with fancy words and a hot headed power grab. I had to really trust it, believe in it, surrender to it.  And the truth was that I didn’t want to be apart from Tree, nor did I want to have a baby without him.  Jody knew that.  He knew that I was just trying to act tough and play hardball at my own expense.  Whereas everyone else at the time was backing up my stance, agreeing that, yes, Tree is very selfish, a real Peter Pan, and it certainly was a non-negotiable impasse, absolutely, and of course you can always get artificially inseminated and do it on your own, Jody said,

“Who are you kidding? You don’t want to be a single mom.  And what the fuck is a non-negotiable impasse when you’re madly in love?”

Lightbulb. I immediately felt the biggest surge of relief. I pride myself in being self-aware but somehow this time I had really gone astray. It took Jody’s words to set me straight and help me align myself more authentically.  And, then, with a few more conscious and deliberate choices, the rest of my life started to fall into place.  I’ll forever be grateful to Jody for having the balls and taking the time to be honest with me, and I’m really glad I told him that.  I only wish that I could have said some magic words to him, too, to turn his tragedy into a comedy.

A week ago, my friend Jody shot himself in the head.  

I am devastated.  I can’t stop thinking about it out on this beautiful beach enjoying my beautiful life.  I just don’t understand how this could happen. Jody was that guy that had everything: a beautiful wife (who is one of my best friends, that’s how I met Jody), a bazillion friends, a thriving business that he built from the ground up doing something he believes in. It was all goodright?  Plus he was a real bon vivant–a lover of food, wine, surfing, travel. He knew how to extract pleasure from life. He had a mighty, brilliant mind and an open, prodigious heart.  He was warm and curious and interested and even more than that, he was dark and funny and incendiary. But my favorite part of all was his wicked keen appreciation for the absurd.  He could exploit humor out of the most irreverent topics, and he did. We did, the three of us. Me, Kerri, and Jody.  We watched stupid YouTube videos. We played Fuck Marry Kill. We learned about Jenkem and laughed like third graders for weeks.  They made me watch 2 Girls 1 Cup, yelling “Don’t turn your head!” as they squealed in delight watching my face twist in utter disgust.  He was alive and wonderful and weird in just the way I like my people to be weird.

Why did he kill himself? Why does anyone?

Jody Sherman in Argentina

I wish Jody was here so we could find a way to laugh at this most absurd act of all, his suicide, because right now I don’t know how not to cry.

As the sun gets a little lower in the sky, Tree, Sol and Kiki and I set out to investigate the ruins around Puerto Inca, Tree carrying Sol in a baby backpack.  I giggle at the sight of Tree and Sol.  Morphed into one, they remind me of a beekeeper or maybe a ghost buster. Both images tickle me pink.

Plodding along, I feel such joy about this new beginning for our tribe. Sol is only a baby now, but I’m looking forward to traveling as a family — teaching her, learning together. Tree and I formulate future lesson plans that tie together geography, anthropology, history, art, and philosophy.  We’re both so excited imagining all the amazing things we’re going to do, see, explore, and share.

Reading the plaques along the way, we learn that in the days of the Inca, the people of Puerta Inca built a society into the dunes surrounding the bay (see above photos).  The sole purpose of this civilization was to catch fish and then transport it via foot relay from the coast to the Inca in the mountains of Cusco in just one day. A chasqis (runner) sprinted 5km on hot sand and passed the fish on to the next person for a total of 250km.  Each runner repeated this act over and over again, day after day, for his entire life.

Considering this, I can’t help but think of  The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus. In the essay, Camus introduces his philosophy of the absurd, which, put succinctly, says that man’s search for meaning, unity and clarity in life is futile when there is no god, no eternal truths, and we are all just worm food waiting to happen. He compares the absurdity of man’s life with the situation of Sisyphus, a figure of Greek mythology, who was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again.  Ultimately, Camus asks if man’s realization of the absurd requires suicide, to which he replies,”No. It requires revolt,” and then explores different ways of confronting this absurd life.  The essay concludes, “The struggle itself [...] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

So what is it that makes the struggle worth it?  What makes most of us pick up the rock and push it back up the hill even though we know it will fall back down again?  What does Camus’ revolt look like? And why do some of us give up the fight and succumb to suicide?

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death worldwide.  As a society, we are failing too many of our brothers and sisters.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” Howl, Allen Ginsberg (1955).

Recently, I read an essay entitled Joy by Zadie Smith. In the essay, Smith distinguishes between pleasure and joy, explaining that pleasure can be thought of as the simple delights–a warm croissant, a hot bath, a glass of red wine–that quicken our pace and make our day sweeter, whereas joy is far more complex, harder to attain, and terrifying to lose.  Joy is ecstatic; it’s something that we don’t feel often, but when we do, it connects us to something bigger than self.  Joy gives us a sense of that elusive meaning, unity and clarity in life that Camus claims is futile to pursue.  Filled with joy, our entire being vibrates with purpose. It says,

THIS IS WHY I AM. THIS IS WHO I AM. I AM HERE AND EVERYWHERE, NOW AND FOREVER.

I felt joy the first time I was alone in the wilderness with Tree in Rifle, Colorado. He whispered, “I love you”.  I felt it after rafting Lava Falls on the Colorado river in the Grand Canyon. He got down on one knee, eyes wide, wet, and wild green — more honest and vulnerable than any eyes I’ve ever seen – and he proposed.  And then I felt it again in front of the big rock at Playa el Tunco, El Salvador, when we married. More recently, I felt it when I was pregnant walking along the shore break in Huanchaco with Tree, Kiki and Mango. We were like a symphony making music in the sand. And, finally,  I felt the most joy of all the day Soleil was born.  She is my sun, the light of my life,  “the first miracle of every day” (Thank you Cyndi Morrell for such a lovely line).

Joy tips the scale in life’s favor.  It is what makes the struggle enough to fill man’s heart. 

In my experience, I have had to have a high degree of honesty and integrity in my life to feel joy. I also had to be doing something that expressed my soul’s intention on this planet, which is namely to connect with nature, animals and people as deeply and frequently as possible.  Admittedly, fulfilling my soul’s intention has not always been easy. In fact, I have had to”revolt,” as Camus would say, against societal convention to live a life that is authentic to me.

I don’t know why the joy in Jody’s life didn’t penetrate his core and fill his heart. He certainly had reason to feel joy in his life.  He deeply loved his wife, believed in the good of his business, and felt rewarded helping others and giving back to the planet, which he did in both the business and personal sphere.  I suspect that something was gobbling his joy up like a parasite before it had a chance to feed his soul, but I can’t say for sure what kind of demon was festering in his heart.  I can’t say because I didn’t dig deep enough. I didn’t ask those uncomfortable questions that would reveal those uncomfortable answers. I didn’t want to offend him. That wasn’t my place, I thought.  Sure, I understand why I failed him, and I know from reading the posts on his Facebook wall that many of his friends feel the same way, all of us guilty of being too polite, but that doesn’t make any of us–the living–feel less shitty about what we lost. Grief so often comes wed with a thinly veiled bride of regret.

On the way to Puerto Inca, we stopped to see the Nazca lines.  Below is the lookout tower alongside the road where we got an oblique view of some of the lines.  (The best way to see the lines is by air, but we didn’t want to fork over the $150, and besides that, I hate small planes.  The very good, direct view aerial shots a couple photos below are borrowed from the internet).

The Nazca Lines were created in the time of the Nazca Indians, who flourished in the area from 200 BC to about 600 AD. Graves and ruins of their civilization have been found near the lines.

Theories of the Nazca Lines mainly attempt to explain why these remarkable drawings were created and what they mean, but some theories seek to address the “how” question as well. Especially in the earlier years of study, it was difficult for many anthropologists to believe that the ancient Nazca peoples could have created the Lines without help from a more advanced society – or, perhaps, species (Read: Aliens).

From the beginning of time, man has been searching for meaning in life and has imbued meaning in symbols in an attempt to create it.  So, the Nazca lines are symbols of something that were clearly important to the Nazca, but who knows what because the code is lost.  Now they are merely remnants of an ancient society, a past mystery. Were the Nazca helped by aliens? Maybe. Maybe not.  To me, that’s not the most interesting lesson. What gets me is the thought that if we all vanished today,  if we were no longer here to impart meaning in our modern symbols that create value in our own society, then, to future societies, our expensive cars, billboards, designer jeans, million dollar mansions and magazines would probably resonate as much as these finger drawings in the dirt done by E.T.

Symbols don’t bring joy.  Nature, people, and animals do. Yes, when I write something and it is well received, I feel something akin to joy, but it’s because I believe I’ve touched people that I feel fulfilled. We imbue meaning in symbols, but do they bring meaning to our lives? Do they bring us true joy? Are they enough to make us want to push that rock up the hill?  I don’t think so.  And yet we build so many expectations up in our life that are centered around these illusions, these symbols, these vital lies. Perhaps we feel we need to make a certain amount of money, be attractive in that cookie-cutter model way, have a particular title or degree of success, all by a certain age, in order to meet our expectations for ourselves. And, the irony is that the goal is not to connect, find clarity, or feel unity, but rather to set ourselves apart from our brothers and sisters and sequester ourselves in comfort apart from nature.

These expectations, driven by our egos, rob us of our joy in life.  They eat it right up, leaving our souls starved amongst a bounty of food.  As a society, too many of us are sick with stress, anxiety, angst, and depression. Our children are growing up alienated from the natural world. We are left with a feeling of incongruence, fragmentation, and disconnection from ourselves and the whole, and then we attempt to fill that widening chasm with consumerism, prescription drugs, television, alcohol, and affairs. We are not happy, but we should be. We can be. We deserve to be.

Jody wore symbols, or rather , tattoos.  He had amazing artwork on his body. I always admired it.  His most recent tattoo can be seen below. It says, I AM AWESOME.

I  love this tattoo.  It captures the brilliance of Jody so well, and Jody, a true Gen Xer, could pull it off.  Not many people have that kind of style. To the average person who didn’t know Jody, one might think, what an asshole. Who puts that on their wrist?  You see, the irony of our society is that we are incredibly narcissistic and do think that we are awesome (if you don’t believe me, look at any Facebook profile), or at least we want everyone else to think that we’re awesome, but we are supposed to pretend like we don’t, or at the very least thinly disguise our obsession with self, or rather, with our projected image.  In any case, we certainly aren’t supposed to tattoo THAT on our arm for everyone to see. That’s taking it too far.  But, Jody, a cultural savant, knew that and wore that badge of irony with the biggest shit-eating grin spread across his face.

More personally, it’s ironic that Jody was a mentor; he built people up, gave the best pep talks, told us all how awesome we were and made us believe it, but he himself obviously didn’t feel awesome underneath the bravado, at least not enough to not pull that trigger.  It’s ironic that he was remarkably self-aware, unafraid of being offensive, a herald of truth,  yet we didn’t know that he was suffering.  Did his desire to appear like he felt he was awesome prevent him from telling us that he didn’t?  Was the tattoo a subconscious plea shrouded in irony because he was too proud to tell us the truth? God this is frustrating.

And, yet, irony only works when there is a degree of truth to both sides of the coin. And the bigger truth is that Jody was awesome. We all are.  Not our images. Not our symbols. Not our facebook profiles. But, us. WE ARE AWESOME.  And our goal on this planet should be to spend as much time as possible connecting with that which is awesome in each of us.

—Stevie


Here is an awesome short film about Ecomom,
Jody’s business, done last November.  He convinced double-Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury winner (the only one ever), fellow Miamian Ondi Timoner to produce a mini-documentary about his vision for Ecomom.
Click here to watch

Years ago, when asked to submit  a short video about himself, Jody produced this piece of sheer postmodern genius: Click here to watch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Mamatuyas says:

    Oh, how I love you!

    • and I you. xo.

      • Laurie Sherman Eder says:

        Jody was my life from birth. I was 13 when he was born. Our closeness was so much, that he has destroyed my will. My children, whom I love, my son his godson, no one will touch me as he did. I am possible answers,. but nothing will change his death. Thank you so much for being a part of his life.

        • I am so sorry for your pain and loss Laurie. Jody was an absolutely amazing person. He left so many of us brokenhearted. I hope (someday) you can find peace in his passing and joy in remembrance.

  2. Andrew Byars says:

    Thank you for this.
    I have read it three times.
    It makes me feel better.

  3. Jody continues!

  4. Awesomeness; lovely, joyous, sad and heartfelt awesomeness

  5. oh Stevie.. your beautiful words will help us all the same way that Jody helped you. thanks to you and tree for sharing all of your experiences.. good and bad. it just gives me so much joy and hope. I long to see your beautiful face and hold your beautiful baby girl someday. I am so happy for you. I love you so much.

  6. I’m so sorry for your loss. What a beautifully written tribute to your friend and also a reminder to all of us to dig deeper. Thank goodness he convinced you to pull your head out and go back to Tree, it is sad he wasn’t able to find his own peace and joy. My heart breaks for his wife. I, too, have been blessed with great joy and peace in my marriage and life…. I wish everyone got to experience it for themselves.

  7. Madrigal Madri says:

    PURA VIDA amigos … My best always

  8. Audrey Kranz says:

    Best post to date, Stevie… Many true and inspiring words in there. And I’m so sorry for the heartbreaking loss of your friend.

  9. Jiro Wiseman says:

    Love it!

  10. Candy Richey says:

    Stevie, that post transported me back to the separation of you and Tree. Wow. I remember when Jody snapped you out of your state and you took the step to see Tree. The risk was worth it. Life isn’t much without risks. Jody made an impact in your life as well as many others. His life continues through others. What a great testimony of the impact one person made. We are all connected in one way or another and too few see that.

  11. Caroline Eastburn says:

    Beautiful. My condolences for the loss of your friend, Stevie. RIP Jody.

  12. Jene Fielder says:

    My condolences Stevie and Tree..R.I.P. Jody

  13. Leah Markham says:

    beautiful writing stevie!!! and i am so sorry for losing one so dear, and in such a hard to understand way!! you have a very wise way of looking at the things of this life, and even better than that, a brilliant way of communicating them!! i do hope to read more from you, not just about travel (there are many blogs), but about your views and reflections, philosophies. your voice is quite unique!

  14. Karen Guancione says:

    Stevie, Sorry to hear about your dear friend. Here in a blizzard in the freezing Northeast USA was surprised and happy to feel real synchronicity when I read your post. Am working on a writing project and was tackling the subject of joy, meaning, symbols, etc. Hard to find the right words, be honest, heartfelt and not cliche. Had just read the “Joy” essay yesterday and was in the middle of writing about some of the same things you are reflecting on. So really appreciate what you just shared. It’s amazing what unites us all. Viva la Vida!

  15. liz Tompkins says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this for us all to read. I loved every word of it but there is one thing that left me wondering….. how was it that Tree decided that having a baby was something he would like to do after all? Maybe I missed that post.

    I am sorry for your loss and understand from my own experience with a loved one taking their life that there is no rational answer to an irrational act.
    Stay Happy!
    Liz

    • Hey Liz,

      Very good question. I’m actually working on a post that will tell that whole story. It should be coming up in the next month or so.

      Wishing you the best,

      Stevie

  16. Christian Argueta says:

    Stevie, please, please… don’t ever stop writing. You have a gift for it. Sorry to hear about Jody. Each of us have a path to walk, his was much too short. Be safe in your travels.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Dear Ones,

    Sol is indeed a beautiful baby! Your drive south brings me back some interesting memories of my drive from Lima to Tierra Del Fuego and on to Bueno Aires. I particularly remember the clear and beautiful night sky with a view of the Southern Cross.

    Ben

  18. Stevie & Tree, Soleil & Kiki Sorry for your loss of your friend Jody!!!! It’s a tragedy, as he cared for other! His own needs had to be overlooked! You give him honor by telling his story with your appreciation of his friendship! RIP Jody! His family and friends must be devastated! Take Care Love Cathy <3

  19. Once again….. Your post was food for MY soul. I could write on and on, but will keep it short and sweet.

    You and Tree and Soleil and your Sprinter Life blog has brightened many a day for me… I bet for countless others too!

    You have a voice which is exquisite: both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Heartwarming because it’s so very real. And heartbreaking because I feel like fewer and fewer people I know can or choose to live with such honesty. Perhaps myself included. Perhaps your friend Jody too – for all his wise words for his beloved friends. Life, with all its river-like qualities, can become quite a powerful force. There are eddies and holes one can get pinned in… and they take the lives of even the best. Yet we encourage ourselves and others to take the plunge… And we hope for the best.

    I’m sorry for your loss. It sounds like Jody was a dear friend and a dear soul. He will be missed by many and surely, though taken too soon, his impact will be felt and treasured for generations to come. Your tribute to him was really profound.

    Well done. Keep writing Stevie — you have a great gift. And you are living a life which celebrates it. Hug your little tribe and I will look forward to many more posts!!

    “I feel inspired by what I want to accomplish, not diminished by what I haven’t.”

    Amen sister!

    xoxo
    Jan

  20. Liz Ancona says:

    Thank you Stevie. your words touched my soul…..

  21. Sorry to hear about your loss Stevie.
    I can relate – my sister committed suicide after a party for my Dad’s 80th birthday – devastated all of us.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts – a good read.
    Best to you, Tree and Sol.
    John

    • Hey John,

      I’m so sorry to hear about your sister. Suicide is devastating. It produces so many conflicting feelings.
      My heart goes out to you and your family.

      Keep the adventure going! And please give our best to your brother too.

  22. Anonymous says:

    A beautiful tribute to Jody and Kerri.

  23. Heather Matthews says:

    Once again Stevie, you have written something amazing. I am truly touched by your words of wisdom and your tribute to Jody.

  24. Mashoud Janjua says:

    Stevie,

    You possess a talent and mastery of a genius , whatever ‘genius’ means.
    Your utterances flow as if they were weighed on a jeweler’s scale and enough to sway the heart to feel vibes that are dormant at the best of times and at the worst of times.

    Perhaps I may share my perception of what may lead to elation in life and that would be to attempt to find and see ‘divinity’ in everything and everyone.

    Borrowing from Desiderata..” Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings”

    Can’t help myself…please give a little kiss to gorgeous Soleil as she sits on the beach and tell her it came from a strange land way up in Canada where the temp. this minute is minus 25 degrees Celcius and the snow storm in the N.E. is doing its usual thing…making snow mountains that look like sand dunes in the Sahara…

    Keep safe.
    mashoud

    • Hi Mashoud,

      It’s lovely hearing from you again. Thank you for taking the time to write such a beautiful comment. I haven’t read Desiderata in years, but I used to have a copy of it hanging by my bed, along with the prayer to St. Francis. I think I’ll go read them both online right now, actually. They are such a wonderful way to close down a day. And I will most certainly give Sol a little kiss and big squeeze for you! Take care. I look forward to your next comment. Or, rather, I hope to inspire you to leave one again very soon :)

      Stevie

  25. Wow Stevie – you can sure write !!!! (sorry about your friend…..)

  26. Tim Widmer says:

    You have a knack of touching our souls. Keep it up!

  27. Stevie, soul food was this read for me, beautiful. My condolences on your loss of your truly wonderful friend Jody. His insight during your breakup and how you realized how you were really feeling reminded me of similar situations in my life too, which is why I am now where I am and not where I was previously stuck in.

    Murph.

    • Hey Murph,

      Thanks for commenting. It’s nice to hear from you! And I”m happy to hear that you are still happy and fulfilled in your gypsy ways. Hopefully someday our paths will cross.

      Stevie

  28. Cindy Potter-Sherman says:

    This heart-wrenching tragedy has left me in this same inquiry; once again your words have resinated with my soul.

  29. Yhi,
    Want some shushi?

  30. gorgeous tribute Stevie..

  31. This is the most beautiful example of who Jody was. Oh how I wish everyone could read this and for sure see the little video. The one that shows what he wanted to do with Ecomom and the funny one truly shows another side of him. We are in awe of what a difference he has made in the world.

  32. Brenda de Klerk says:

    Awesome indeed….i love reading about your amazing experiences and your travels and life!!
    Lotsa white light to you all….

    Brenda

  33. Donna Clary says:

    Stevie…you should submit this article to a magazine of like minds??? You are a good writer and you do touch the soul. I have to go back and read it again and finally absorb those thoughts etc. Love the pics. Love ya…Donna

  34. Great Read!!

  35. great post – insightful and touching. thanks for sharing.

  36. Jeanine Alexander says:

    Stevie,
    I read this and cried. It was beautiful and sad. You are an amazing writer with a beautiful soul. I feel as if I get to know you a little more with reading these. I am truly, deeply sorry for your loss. It is a awful tragedy that we all wish we could prevent, wish that there is something we could have done or said that could have saved their souls. It is something that I know i can never grasp, the demons that some people face, especially those that put on a persona that we believe to be happy. I love you Cousin and i am sending hugs and kisses your way. I hope to some day meet you. But until then I really enjoy reading what you and Tree share.
    Love you,
    Jeanine

    • Hey sweet cousin,

      Thank you for your kind words of love and support. I know you have had up close and personal experience with the suffering of someone you love. You have walked with such grace through your loss. Sending you love always. And, yes, someday when I’m back east, we will finally hang out in person, or, you could always come to South America :)

  37. New reader here. I think I found your blog via Drive Nacho Drive or Home of the Highway. But either way, after reading this first entry, I’m going to read the rest. Beautiful stuff.

  38. I love this. Thank you.

  39. Beautiful. I live vicariously through your website for adventure (playing catch up today) but this post has truly touched me. Thank you for sharing the full range of your journey both through the extraordinary highs but also the life shaping lows. The journey is the destination…

    • You are very welcome. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate hearing back from people. It makes the experience of sharing so much more rewarding.

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