Against Roles

I believe it was Buddha who said, “The mind is a hummingbird on crack.” But I might be wrong. I pondered this while sitting on the floor, my back against the wood-paneled wall of a large cabin in the woods near the Russian River, the room full of other recovering alcoholics and drug addicts; the sum of us closing our eyes in silence, focusing our attention on our breathing.

At least, that was the goal. My attention, however, wavered from the ache of my lower back to the bright sun and hills outside the window. I peeked and saw in the distance several hawks circling over a lush, green meadow. I focused my attention again, urging it to follow the hawks’ graceful, easy circles. It skittered instead out of reach and flew over to my friend Ski who sat next to me, and my eyes scanned his face, taking for a moment a snapshot of the soft, boy-like expression that appeared when his eyes closed.

I am his friend, but this is not enough. At least, that’s what I tell myself. I also tell myself that friendship itself is a beautiful gift, one to be grateful for, but then my mind pictures him naked, which I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to do with friends. At least, not very often. It wasn’t my intention to share a tiny room with him in the lodge up here for the weekend, but after my original roommate backed out, Ski asked me to stay with him. Because I am his friend, I said yes.

The room is small and cool, shaded by trees, furnished with two twin beds separated by a low nightstand. It’s the stage for my Oscar-nominated performance this weekend as Friend. I wear the appropriately neutral face, look away often, offer jokes and platonic backslaps. But I’m the understudy, the Wisecracking Friend who dreams of playing the Lover. As Ski pores over his Anatomy textbook, I type away like an artist rendering a sketch, glancing up to note his posture, the shadows across his face. Your typing sounds like bugs hitting the windshield of a car on the highway, he says.


Unpredictable rages swept through my childhood home, taking hold of my brother and I, shaking us about and tossing us down. Kids are smart, and they’ll learn what works and what doesn’t. Being Really Good staved off some of the anger, kept me floating below radar. I became the Favorite Student, the Quiet Son, the Avoider of Confrontation.

I carried these roles into adulthood and incorporated others into my repertoire; offering up the Competent Co-worker, the Compassionate Friend, the Sensitive Poet. I have been nothing if not Earnest. I rarely rock the boat.


Friend and Lover sit uneasily together during a group meeting where Ski and I are sunk in a low couch near the fireplace. People around us describe out loud their challenges and joys. Ski kneads the back of my head after I have worked on a kink in his neck. My eyes close at the sensation. The group facilitator suggests an exercise; write out on paper your ideal lover; what he looks like, what he’s wearing, where you meet, where you make love, what you do in that moment of heat together. The mind flies again to the man at my side, wondering what he would write. Later, a friend approaches me. He had watched Ski and I together on the couch, and says “When did you two become lovers?”


Friend is becoming claustrophobic. I lace up my shoes and go for a run on the trails that wind through the woods. Sadness wants to take me now that I am alone, but I keep crossing paths with groups of Outward Bound hikers, and so I put on the Runner Who Looks Like He Knows Where He’s Going. Each time I attempt to lose them, I come across another group. It’s the middle of the woods and I’m never alone.

I’m tired of roles, of the disparate splintering of myself. Who are you when you’re alone? Isn’t that the question to be asking? I’d like to walk through life with one personality, an integrated whole.


After dinner I duck into the small, dark chapel that stands alone off the trail. A single candle flickers on the altar; the room smells of vanilla and dust. I sit in a pew near the front, closing my eyes and focusing my attention on my breath. Instead I think of the small chapel in Minneapolis where I’d take my mother early on Sunday mornings after her diagnosis. Her partner stayed home. “God is not my favorite person right now,” she’d say. My mom grew frail and her body withered under the ALS; I would put my arm around her tiny shoulders when she’d cry. The hymns made her cry, and the communion made her cry. She cried when people greeted her. “You’re a good son,” they’d tell me.

In the chapel I open my eyes and the darkness has abated somewhat, now that I’ve sat here for awhile. Outside I hear laughter as people leave dinner together.


Down the trail, in another cabin, my friend Jake is shooting speed, alone. I remember my own dark, small days with drugs. Before 12-step retreats and before Ski; before Friend or Lover was even a choice. I imagine Jake sitting on the edge of his bed while people walk down the hallway outside his room. He will not join them because they carry something beyond his reach. He hears, like I do, their laughter.


The muscles that controlled my mother’s speech failed within six months of her diagnosis. Unlike most people with ALS, she also developed dementia. The person who was my mother became someone else; someone who needed care, someone quiet, someone who could no longer hear my problems without becoming agitated. She remained sweet and generous, however, and at restaurants she’d insist on picking up the tab.

She did not offer the wise advice we expect of the dying. But if she had, I’d like to think she would have told me to stop putting off the important things; that time is a brief and rare gift. She died shortly after her fifty-fifth birthday.


The mind wants to solve; it lingers over the heart for awhile, pokes and prods, whispers encouragement. Eventually it gives up and moves on to other things. The heart lags behind. Can we choose which of the two we follow, if they both reside within us? Don’t we follow both?

As long as other people roam the earth, we will wear roles. The Competent Professional, the Distant Lover, the Betrayed Sister. Someone will walk into the room and we will shift slightly or completely, we will turn to them a different face than the one we wear when alone, and we will do it every time.


Over the weekend three different people ask if Ski and I are boyfriends. I hesitate each time, as if there was an answer besides “no”. I want to tell them the truth, I want to take a poll, I want to be told what to do.

A retreat. What a lousy word. I am no further away from my problems than before. My mind flits this way and that; every thirty seconds I’ve made a different decision. My mother’s voice urges me on, but then I realize it’s only my own voice trying hers on, thinking it can convince me if disguised. But I will probably wait, like I do, till the heart’s ready to move. As if I had a choice.

Special Appendix for Campfire Readers Only

In the car on the way home, I play him CD’s and think how to word it.
“I’m going crazy here.”
“You know, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, but…”
“Would you believe that three people asked me if we were boyfriends this weekend?”
I say none of these and point to cows instead. Later, at great risk, I test him by pulling out Hedwig.
“Put that in,” he says, “I love that.”
He even has favorite songs, and we sing along, each of us looking in different directions. For a moment I look down at his forearm next to mine, and I imagine taking his hand, squeezing his knee, doing something besides nothing.

Nearing my house, my favorite song, “Wicked Little Town” (as sung by Hedwig) comes on and, unprompted, he reaches over and turns up the volume.

And if you’ve got no other choice,
you know you can follow my voice
through the dark turns and noise
of this wicked little town

Surely I am too sentimental, surely I am an exasperating case of inertia. You’re right, of course. Be the voice of reason, and tell me to act. I’ll be your doomed poet, your freak, your star-crossed lover.

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