“…It’s a mess. And we’re all part of it looking at the bigger picture. So in reality it’s just one big mess in a frame…”
The sun sits on the horizon some minutes past 6, shining the last of its grace over the suburban land. Darkness is looming. Clumps of cotton cloud part to give way to what little sunshine is left, their defined outlines casting sharp beams above them that fade into the heavens. The atmosphere is tranquil… a bit windy, but tranquil. I’m sitted atop a rock that is jutting level out of a sloping patch of ground, my frame on the edge, hanging my feet over casually above a six-foot fall with my heels meeting rock in rhythm to a classic, clearly offbeat, tune. Alongside me to my left sits a twelve-year-old. I stumbled upon him moments ago while taking my occasional walk across the ‘suburban fields’. His arms wrapped inside long striped sleeves are folded above his knees and his long face rests on a slender neck. He is scrawny, and short. Properly short, for his age. The kind of short short people his age call short. We sit there in silence for a moment or two from our conversation – one not easy to have with someone so ‘unexplored’ in life. What does he know? What would he know? Apart from first, second and third class levers ringing fresh from his Science classes, algebra and Math class decimals, the adventures of Zacchaeus and Order of Adjectives, to name a few in his elementary education, shouldn’t be much more. I did think he was like any other boy his age. Any other normal boy; reckless, wrecking, unreclusive. Turns out I was wrong. He was all that, don’t get me wrong. But he was more than just that. He knew a lot. For a little guy his age, he knew quite a chunk about this being. He stares straight into the vastness of the skies, lost in thought. Or maybe just trying to get rid of a song stuck inside his head too. Oldies, most likely. He says he like them. He listens to them a lot. In his watery eyes I spot a twinkle in the side of his eye. He’s young.
“I don’t understand why it has to be this hard.” He breaks the silence after what felt much longer than it really was, interrupting my ‘soul-train’ of thought.
“What is? Levers?”
He makes a disgruntled chuckle. “Well, there’s that. That whole pivot-effort stuff is confusing… I bet you don’t even know what class a crowbar is in.”
“First?” My answer betrays my apprehension. Either way, I reason he probably expects an easy answer. After all, a crowbar sounds like a first. He looks up at me unmistakably impressed.
“Pff! The answer was basically in how I asked!”
“Didn’t stop you from asking, did it?”
“But you know what I mean, dummy… I meant life.” He adds before I have a chance to comment on his mild snub. “Living. Surviving.”
“You haven’t even made it to your teens and you think you have it hard?”
“Name one thing you’ve been through that I haven’t.”
Name one thing. Name ONE thing! What insult! Which half should I start with? Well, for twelve-year-old starters, there’s thirteen – a confused age where you really are a child but a piece of paper says you’re a teenager. You can finally ‘break out of your shell’ and do just-broken-out-of-the-shell stuff with the excuse of being a ‘normal’ teen, whatever that means. It’s that time of the life. You join high school on fourteen and live out your four years through to eighteen in unfamiliar ground if you’re ‘lucky’ enough to board, while encountering society filtered for your age. Society on PG13, shy of X-rated; that’s for campus life. Campus where mental breakdowns are accompanied by excessive highs and lows. Campus where you realise it was never as ye old mantra ‘go to college, graduate with a First Class – (not levers) – get a job, earn like crazy, DON’T get married but have kids, die at 100’ goes. Name a better scam. I’ll wait. So, yes. That’s more than one thing. But for his question I decide to sit it out. He assumes not much and continues.
“I find it hard. And I don’t know why. I can’t explain why. Or maybe it’s just me. Over-thinking. I think a lot, you know.”
“No, I don’t, actually.”
“I do. I think about a lot of things. I think about the future. How I’ll turn out … Where I’ll live … What I’ll spend my days doing. And if I’ll meet a girl who won’t find me overly weird. And actually be convinced she likes me, like likes likes me. And whether I’ll enjoy my 50s, after the kids are out… things like that. Oh! And how many kids I’ll have, to start with…that’s important too. These thoughts, these… these questions… linger. And I don’t think it’s okay for a person my age to have all these running around inside his head.”
“Well,” I start. “… the thing about life is that you have to take it in baby steps before finding your feet to keep you from tripping.”
“Makes no sense… you’ll need the feet for the steps. And the tripping.”
His rebuttal, – naive, guileless rebuttal – actually makes sense. Damn kid actually got a point.
“Well … babies’ steps are more of knees and palms, if you’re going for the literal. But that’s the best way I can put it.”
“The same way you’d put the cereal in before the milk?”
“Yea , I guess. Though some people prefer it the other way around.”
“Like the milk first then the cereal?”
“Like the milk first then the cereal.”
“Who does that?” He dons a quizzical look.
“Lots of people do that. I do that!”
“So what do you do with those flakes at the top that stay dry?”
“I have a spoon. I use the spoon.”
“Can forks work?”
“It’ll do half the task. It’s no good with the milk though.”
“I feel like a fork and life’s the milk…”
“Oooh, that’s deep!”
I hesitate. “Why?”
He sighs. “All the signs.”
He stretches his legs out in front of him and rests his back on the earth, staring into the darkening hue of the sky above him. He looks unsettled.
“Tell me what’s on your mind. Why the tears?”
He raises his arm to his face at this and brushes his sleeve against his eyes.
I point at his now sodden hem. “Those tears.”
“Erm…exhausted, I guess.”
He presses his eyes tightly against each other as if trying to get through saying something. He’s nervy. After a deep breath, he eases up and gets the words out.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Okay.” He sits up and takes a deep breath. “… If you were given the option of going back in time to as far back as you will to relive some part of your past that has been unreconciled, would you take the chance and turn back the clock to change things?”
“If …” he cuts me short, “… it meant turning back just your time. No one else’s. Just yours.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean this. Let’s say, whatever happened happened five years ago. Whatever went down did so then. Would you be willing to give up the present and go back in time to change it if it meant restarting your life from then? But here’s the catch; you can go, but you can’t come back. You’ll have to live life from that point on because life can’t ‘assume’ it’s own course. The other catch; the world wouldn’t be affected by your upset of time. No one’s life would change as much. The memories you made in your last five years would be memories shared with other people in your place over those five years. Somewhat like painting a guise over your existence. Your mates right now would be five years older than you and might never know who you were to them. You might, but they wouldn’t. On the bright side though, you’d be able to change your present past knowing then what you know now. Would you?”
“How bad or big is whatever happened?” I ask.
“Pretty bad and, pretty big.”
“In that case, …. I don’t think I would. I mean, … I don’t think it’s worth the price to pay. Sure, stuff has happened to me in my life. Sure, I had a hard time going through them. But … doesn’t going through something mean that it has to have an end at some point?”
“I guess. But … not everything does have an end. Not everything that you’d want to have an end has an end. Look around. Yeah, you’d argue that time heals all wounds and yeah, you just gotta see it through and yeah, be brave and all that threadbare talk. But some of us have been going through tunnels that leave us worse with every chip in the dig. Like hacking your way going both ways… you hack, it hacks … and it sucks!”
At this his voice cracks. His tears resurface, roll down over his cheeks and fall into the parched earth. He hesitates for a second and heaves. “I guess I would. Go back. I think the price is cheaper than living without the means. I don’t know though, I’m still figuring it out.”
The sun is nearly all the way set. The breeze presses colder on our skin. A heavy mood descends under the clouds.
“How old are you?” His question catches me off guard.
“Have your life figured out?”
“You’ve got like five years left, you know.”
“Nah, that’s just what everyone says.”
He stares at me skeptically before going on to ‘explain’.
“Twenty in Roman is XX. It’s common knowledge that most conventional games have three lives. You die when all Xs get crossed out. It’s more or less true for reality… you have 3 Xs and that’s it.” A smile spreads across his face, his look showing satisfaction with his contribution to human knowledge and discovery.
“But that’s 30.”
“The extra 5 years are for those who need an extra 5 years.”
“And what happens to them if they haven’t figured it out by the third strike?”
He sniggers. “Pick up more lives, I guess,” grinning.
“I’ll be sure to pick up some on the way. For all we know I might end up needing them my whole life before I ‘figure it out.’” This cracks him up.
“You get depressed?” He shoots.
“Yea. Depressed… do you get depressed? When you realise you’re running out of time? And lives?”
“First of all, I’m not running out of time! Or lives! I have this one…” I pause for a moment. “I get stressed out, if that’s what you mean. But that’s inevitable. Why, do you?”
He squirms nervously.
“I don’t know. I guess, I don’t know. I don’t really know what depression is. But I feel something’s not fine.”
“What do you feel?”
“Like I can’t run. Like it’s with me everywhere I go.”
“Is it what you’d go back in time to fix?”
“It’s the ONLY thing I’d go back to fix!” He sobs lightly. “I screwed up. And now I’ve got to deal. I try to watch myself but that doesn’t go well, ’cause I burn out every time I try. ”
“In my words, depression is … basically, an overly stressed state when life sucks. When everything about it genuinely sucks. The waking up in the morning and thinking how hard getting through the day’s going to be. If you do have a choice, you’ll rather stay in bed and even then you’ll still have to wake up at some point and ‘face the day’. If you don’t have the choice to make, you most probably won’t be all that hopeful. You’ve learned not to be. If life ever taught you anything, it’s that it owes you nothing and can therefore be a ‘complete schmuck’. It taught you, and you being the faithful student of life that you are, you learned. You set your bar so high for your mood to get turned around making it borderline impossible to simply have a good day and enjoy what comes. Whoosh, there goes spontaneity! The day trudges along, making it seem like a weekday in its literal sense. So time does you a favor and brings it to a close. And you get home – or wherever you’re getting to. And you slump onto whatever surface is closest. And you breathe out, a deep, burdened breath. And you drown in this visceral relief of making it. Like MAMA I MADE IT! BE PROUD! IMMEASURABLY! And the relief is justified because you feel you barely made it through. You still made it, though. But tomorrow’s another day, another mental struggle. Another inevitability. And another one will come after that. And another. And another….”
“And I’m deep?”
I titter. “You asked. Relate to some of that?”
“Yea, maybe.” (Pause.) “Wanna know why you found me sitting on this rock?”
“Hm–mmm…,” I urge him on.
“Simple reason, I wasn’t hiding.”
Not the answer I expected, admittedly. He asks again.
“Wanna know why I’m sitting on this rock?”
I manage an apprehensive “Hm–mmm….” expecting any kind of response at this point. A grunt couldn’t surprise me.
“It’s kind of like society – the ground. This ground in particular. It seems to be moving toward some goal because, it’s sloping. Then there’s this rock. This big, old, grey rock that I relate with. It stands out, but not because it’s big, or old, or grey. It stands out because it’s level, and it stays that way. No ambition, nor content. It’s not like it has a choice, anyway. It’s not like it can move. It’s fixed to some shi –” (He senses my unease at his choice of word. If anything it makes him mean it even more.) “ – shit it can’t see, so it doesn’t know how to get itself free. It can crack, and it does, but it can’t break. It is what it is but it’s humbled by its limitations. But IT’S A ROCK ! It’s fine…it should be fine. Everyone expects it to be fine. After all, it looks ok. Maybe it’s just not. (His eyes turn misty.)
“Maybe sloping is worse than staying level. Maybe level means security. Stable.”
“Is everyone level?”
“Everyone is on a level. How they get from there is up to them.”
“I hate that. And the whole idea behind it. Stratification killed humanity, or whatever it is that made us human.”
“What makes us, or made us, human?” I ask.
“The simple things. Care. Compassion. Love unconditional. Helping old grandmas cross the road. Seeing beggars back on their feet. We hardly have that now. What we have instead is the privileged, the unprivileged and the underprivileged – levels. It’s turned into a game with prejudiced rules and the worst bit is, you don’t need to look at the scoreboard to know who’s winning. Every ‘level’ has its people, and its people are different from ‘other people’. And the differences don’t seem to sit well with most. It’s like everyone has these preconceived notions of what ‘the others’ ought to be like and ought to act like and expect them to fall within this scope of their reality. You ask me, I think it’s damn selfish! We claim society is messed up speaking from our own individual perspectives yet we’re part of the mess looking at the bigger picture. So in reality it’s just one big mess in a frame and the blame is enough to go round. The other day I saw a cripple crawling on the muddy streets of Nairobi while it rained. Dragging himself over the wet mucky tiles trying to get to wherever he needed to get to to get through the night. His palms were stained with deep shades of brown, his clothes were tattered and moth-eaten but despite all this, his eyes looked hopeful. For better days. You’d imagine all the things he’s been through and be awestruck and that’s all it would be – imagining. And it got me thinking how unfair it must be. That we live in a world where there are some of us that lack. It was never a level playing field to begin with. We realized this and still got the audacity to judge. We judged what we couldn’t understand, and still do. We judge before we know. Like… do you know what autism is?”
He didn’t give me a chance to answer.
“It’s a neurological disorder. Doesn’t affect intelligence though. Autistics are smart. Like, really smart. But society keeps its distance. Labels them. Makes memes instead. ‘Miss me with that autism!’ They get trapped in their own bodies, unable to express themselves. To live a full life because no one offered them an opportunity to, what with all of us conveniently ‘blind’ on call. As far as intellect and talent goes, they’ve got it. Not like anyone cares, yea? A few do. A few good people exist. I’m not autistic but I know how it feels not to have a voice and feel trapped.”
“You talk to someone?”
“I’m talking to you right now.”
“Yes,” I add, “but have you been talking to anyone else before the half hour ago we met?”
He looks down. “I have, but they don’t understand. So I talk to myself.”
His twelve-year-old innocence glistens.
“Pray. Get your knees a lil dirty. You’re talking to the wrong people.”
“I do. But … do you think He listens listens?”
“He does. You just don’t see it.”
“So you believe He exists somewhere out there?”
“I believe He exists if you let Him. He lives, whether He exists to you or not.”
“I talk to Him as though He were here. Not like prayer closing your eyes. More like prayer talking and conversing with your eyes open. Like He’s sitted right across me, and we talk, though it’s usually a one-way. Some nights I cry myself to sleep and wake up the next morning hoping my prayers inspired the faintest of changes…”
“Give it time.”
“How much time?”
The sun is well sunk below the horizon now, spreading a red hue in it’s wake that blends well with the violet in its trail. The wind carries on in its grand tour with untold purpose. It’s all neutral. A good neutral. We watch in silence for a moment or two from our conversation – one not easy to have with someone so ‘unexplored’ in life. And the last thing he says to me; “I picked up a life this evening.”