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 good, right? 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.
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