Most of us will not have a chance to look out over our life’s topography and get it raked into place before we die. Most of us will die with unwritten letters, unspoken gratitude, unforgiven trespasses. Those things take determination, commitment. We don’t tend to things like that unless we really mean it about living a full and complete life. Easier to let opportunities for greatness run through our hands like powdery white sand. And how will they speak of you when you are gone?
Death in the Valley
I pulled my car into the breakdown lane and grabbed my video camera. A flock of birds above Highway 194 plunged and ascended as one unit, performing a sky ballet. When I first looked up, they were all white, soaring in perfect unison. Then they swooped down, rolled over, and turned silver in the early morning light. When they sailed off toward the mountains, their feathers turned black in the changing shadows. They returned and repeated the whole dance again. White to silver to black. Mesmerizing.
I had to record them. It was an unbelievable sight. Leaning up against my hood for stability, I turned on the video camera and zoomed in. Pavarotti blasted through the open windows, the desert breeze gave lift to the flock, and I was in my glory as a creature on earth …
I had just focused my lens on the birds when I heard the sound of metal crashing into metal, a horrific sound that lasted a split second before everything went black and absolutely silent. In one brief flash of light, I saw my camera, my car, and myself flying through the air. Then back to the empty void.
When I became conscious, I was underneath my car, lying prostrate and facing the rear wheel. I lifted my head enough to see my outstretched arms and feared immediately that I was paralyzed. I tried to wiggle my fingers and was amazed when they moved. Then I tried my feet and my toes. They moved too. I can get out of here, I thought. I just have to shimmy out.
I tried to drag my body forward but couldn’t move. I was under the exhaust system, impaled. The searing muffler burned through the flesh on my back and hip. I tried to dig my way out, but the hardscrabble desert land was impenetrable. I couldn’t make a scratch in the dry, hard dirt.
Then came the worry of what I’d made of my life. Did I have regrets? Was anything unfinished, unforgiven?
Preparing to Die
Floating in and out of consciousness, I knew I was about to experience my own death. A wave of sorrow rumbled through me when I thought of my mom hearing that I’d been killed in a terrible accident. Then came the worry of what I’d made of my life. Did I have regrets? Was anything unfinished, unforgiven? What about the trail I left behind? Had I contributed my gifts? Had I said thanks to everyone I was grateful for?
Yes, I thought. I did the best I could do. Flashing back to a childhood image of St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, I heard a voice in my head say, If there’s anyone to report to, I’ll be proud to report.
It was time to let go, but how could I do this? I wanted to live. Though barely conscious, I remember the anxiety. I was afraid, not so much of the unknown, but of the end of everything I knew. I remembered hearing about Native American elders who went to the mountaintop when their time had come, waiting for the moment, letting go, offering their bodies to the creatures who could use them. And Inuit elders doing the same: lying in a snow drift, braving the new, letting go, offering up.
If they could do it, I can do it, I thought. I closed my eyes, took one last breath, and whispered to no one, Here I come, before slipping into the silence and heading back to the Source. I was on my way home. As my soul departed through the soles of my feet, I heard the whoosh of its exit. Then the black void again. The spaciousness. Safety. No lights. No people. Just space and freedom and peace.
Then I heard the frantic voices, “Is anybody there? Is anybody alive?”
Coming to Life
Suddenly I reentered my body. Right in through the soles of my feet. Whoosh. I was back under the car again. The voices got nearer, “Is anybody there? Is anyone alive?”
I answered in a voice barely audible, “I’m here. I’m alive.”
I heard the sound of running feet coming toward me.
“Where are you?”
“Under the car, by the back tire.”
I looked up and saw their legs. Two men.
“Oh my God!” they cried out. “Wait there! We’ll go get help!”
If they left me, I knew I’d die. A strange, strong voice boomed through my body. “You are the help. Just lift up the car.”
“We can’t!” they shouted back. “We need help!”
“You are the help,” I cried again. “Lift up the car now.”
And in one miraculous moment, they became the gods they were capable of being. They put their hands under the fender, and on the count of three, lifted the car as if it were an eagle’s feather. Then two hands reached down to pull me out. They belonged to the man who had hit my car, who was bruised but able to walk. The four of us merged in that moment, melded into one movement, one miracle.
They called an ambulance and I never saw them again, though I lit candles for them and prayed for their well-being through my months of recovery.
The World in Our Hands
I’ve always felt the events of our lives happen in order to bring us insight, to ground our wisdom in the flesh and bone of us, readily accessible. And now, after skin graft surgery, after months of healing and therapy, after finally overcoming PTSD, I was left with the question, What wisdom did this yield? How was I a greater person because of it?
The gift, I decided, was twofold: First, it gave me the chance to assess my life as a whole to see whether I needed any midcourse corrections. Second, and most important, it taught me the great lesson: We are the help.
When those men approached the wreckage, the first thing they felt was their helplessness. They didn’t believe in their own powers and wanted to run off in search of help. They were caught in the story we’ve been told all our lives: Help is somewhere else, power and strength are somewhere else, the solutions are somewhere else, beyond us, outside of us. But when they heard that voice bellowing out from under the car, “You are the help,” something happened. Illusions dropped. Doubt disappeared. And in rushed a huge and mighty force, a new belief that rippled through their minds and muscles, giving them whatever strength they needed to do the impossible.
Whatever is needed at this time in history to right this world, to right our own personal and precious lives, we have these things within us. Science and technology will not save us. Government and religion will not save us. More information and faster computers will not save us. It’s our thoughts, our actions, our moral will that will save us.
Claiming Our Power
If I look at my life and find it lacking in adventure or challenge or joy, the solution to that is right inside me, dwelling as a potential, awaiting a decision, a decisive action. If I look at my business, my affiliations, my family and feel uninspired, unseen, or disconnected, the way to wholeness is inscribed on my heart, written on every cell, waiting for me to look within and learn from the silence.
No one becomes a visionary who does not first look within. And none of us can inspire another until we first learn how to inspire ourselves. Coming to grips with the power we have is a first step toward our true magnitude. Dropping our illusions (“we’re not strong enough to lift the car”) is the first step in thinking originally, living authentically, seizing our power. It takes courage. It calls for reflection. It means letting go of the mediocre to create the magnificent.
All those voices in your head—let them go like a bunch of balloons. Then remember those men coming upon the wreckage, thinking themselves powerless until they heard the voice rising up from below—“You are the help”—and then lifting that car without a thought.
This is us. This is what we’re capable of. “What you have seen me do, you, too, can do, and even more.”
Excerpted from Still on Fire: Field Notes from a Queer Mystic (Unity Books, 2021).