“So here is us, on the raggedy edge. Don’t push me. And I won’t push you.” –Captain Mal Reynalds, Serenity
“Years go by will I still be waiting/ for somebody else to understand…” Tori Amos’ Silent All These Years (That song came up in the restaurant just as I started to write this post, I’m not kidding.)
As everyone who has ever played on a merry-go-round can attest…you sometimes want to be on the edge. The center of the merry-go-round is where you go for stability. Being at the center of all that is, you rest comfortably while everything and everyone else around you seems to scrape and scramble to keep up, you rest passively…the merry-go-round having to move exceptionally fast to make you start feeling wobbly or nautious. Most of the time, it can’t go that fast (unless you have an uncle who’s not much older than you, and he has a friend who shares his enjoyment in torturing younger kids, then they might work hard and spin the damned thing hard enough to still make you sick…but I digress). You can stand and twirl for a good long while in the center of a merry-go-round…but that’s not where the fun is. The fun is on the edge, holding on for dear life as centrifugal force and nausea (same thing really) work in tandem to send you flying off to the four winds. Those who hold on for a long while before succumbing are remembered in certain circles, for a certain time, as strong, brave, durable, heroic. Those who are thrown off early can still gain legendary status depending on how far and how well they fall…especially if there’s nothing but rocks and hard earth to catch them. The edge, our outer limits, is where the action is at; out on the outer rim, the frontier, there be danger, there be chaos, the stuff of myth and legend.
It’s also where the ride ends. Usually.
This is the story of the only fist fight I have ever almost been involved with. To be clear: It is not the only physical altercation I’ve ever been in. There were plenty of those in elementary school, but you can’t really call those fights because that would imply that there was some sort of struggle. But in actuality, I was afraid of getting in trouble for fighting, so I allowed a series of bullies to hit me about the head and torso many many times between 2nd and 5th grade. I loved school (I’m lying). In 5th grade I took a martial arts class, and it was there that I was taught “The greatest gift you can be given in life is life itself,” and after a brief run at trying to play bully myself…I realized I couldn’t stand the thought of doing to others what had been done to me. So my experience with violence as a young person had to do with moving from victim to “wounded healer,” for lack of a better term.
But this is the story of an actual FIGHT…that almost happened.
Junior year of high school, there was a dance in our cafeteria. As I have travelled around the country and worked with various teens, I have come to realize that Buena High School, between 1996 and 2000, had an inordinate number of dances. Most places, it seems, will throw a junior and senior prom, possibly a homecoming dance, and that’s it. At Buena, there was a period of time in which every Friday night that a sports team played a home game, there would be a dance after the game.
They weren’t fancy, just a dimly lit cafeteria and a decent DJ spinning tunes for 30-40 teens who lived in Sierra Vista, AZ…land of 6 movie theater screens, no coffee houses, and despair. The idea to throw these frequent dances was a pretty decent one: throw a dance after the game, boost attendance for sporting events, and trap teenagers on the outskirts of town at the high school for a Friday night, so they’re less likely to drink and drive and die. Solid plan. Unfortunately, more often than not, kids would primarily show up drunk, and then just have no way of getting home…so they would be generally annoying and abusive and then go have sex in the parking lot.
On one particular night such as this, my friends and I had nothing better to do, went to the dance looking for a few laughs, and a large man who bore more resemblance to a Rhinoceros than a high school student shoved my friend across the room. I’m not being dramatic. Jeremy, dancing in the style best known to white high school males (jumping up and down) projected himself into the air, arms waving in a way that would indicate “I’m having so much fun!” and was suddenly shoved by the Rhino in midair, flying backwards into the wall a solid six or seven feet behind him. I had been across the room, and I saw it happen, in slow motion somehow, Jeremy looking like a rag doll in the hands of a child prone to tantrums, flying hopelessly through the air. Before I knew what was really going on, I found myself running across the room and standing directly between Jeremy and the Rhino, who was standing over him fuming. Apparently, wherever this guy was from, Jeremy’s playful dancing somehow threatened his life…or you would have to think so based on the rage he was exhibiting at a kid who had seriously just been minding his own business. The air around the large angry guy…it didn’t just smell like alcohol…it smelled like he was producing alcohol through his pores, like it was his natural musk.
OK, so this large angry guy was drunk, and all of us were teenage boys living in a working class small town. To tell the rest of this story without using profanity would be disingenuous. However, as a minister I feel compelled to refrain from putting things on the internet that read like a Quentin Tarantino movie. So I’m going to use a phrase here, a euphemism to help tell this story…”Monster Stumper.” I’m just going to let you read into that any way you desire.
So I says to the guy, “Back off!”
“Stump you, monster stumper!” said the Rhino, throwing his weight in my general direction.
He had friends of his own, and while I had never seen this guy before in my life, I knew the people in his cohort. One of them was a Nice Guy who I liked a lot. The others were unimpressive “class clown” types who I had run into at various times in my 15 years living in the same small town. I knew them from Little League, Scouts, band, and other activities that none of us took part in as teenagers. They stopped participating because it wasn’t cool. I stopped participating because they didn’t quit soon enough.
Nice Guy ran up between me and the Rhino, “Whoa, whoa, Brian chill out, man.”
I glared, “Get the stump out of here, he’s pushing people for no reason.”
Rhino retorted, “I will stump you up, monster stumper.”
What? Did you think this was going to be a Dickensian battle of wits?
“You’re drunk,” I pointed out, “do something, I dare you, you’ll get stumping arrested, monster stumper.”
Nice Guy seemed to think he had to insert his body between me and the Rhino (he may have been right…I probably should thank him sometime), but even though he was putting hands on his friend, trying to restrain him, he was still yelling at me, “Brian, seriously, calm down.”
“I’M NOT DOING ANYTHING! Get him the stump out of here before he gets arrested. I’m serious, what the hell were you thinking bringing him here like THIS? Get him out of here before he actually hurts somebody.”
Apparently…I was to be listened to. Nice Guy and his friends started pulling their own personal hulk across the room, heading for the door.
But just as they were leaving, something else caught my attention: two of the unimpressive clowns had decided to not go with their friends, but to stay behind instead. They looked at me….menacingly? I’m sure that’s what they were going for, to look menacing…but really they looked ridiculous. And a bit tipsy themselves.
One of them…the one I liked the least, to be perfectly honest….began punching his right fist into his left palm and said to me, “It’s on the boards, monster stumper.”
“It’s on the boards.” Those were his exact words. As I write this, I am no closer to understanding what this phrase means, 16 full years later, than I was on that night.
His friend elaborated, “It’s on, monster stumper, let’s go!”
There’s really only 2 things you need to know about me from this time in my life: 1) I had recently been in a series of traumatic accidents; my mom and I were in a car crash on our way to school one morning, and not too long after that…there was a skiing incident. Those events had resulted in a lot of unexplainable rage, altering my generally calm and understanding self into someone who could over-react and lash out. The stress of having my life threatened by forces beyond my control had planted a secret anger in me that I wouldn’t understand for years to come. At the time…I just knew I didn’t like life, and I didn’t like where I lived or the people I had to be around all the time. Which all plays into fact #2) For months I had been looking for opportunities to smash things. Glass bottles, fruits and vegetables, a window one time…and that night I had a distinct desire to add the faces of these two clowns to my list of smashed things.
My exact words were, “Ah, Hell no!” and I charged at them.
My actual meaning was somewhat more detailed, and had I the time, I would have explained further, “Your giant friend was actually intimidating because he was more drunk than a human should possibly be and he outweighs me by several hundred pounds. But the two of you seem to be drunk yourselves and I think I could literally juggle your frail looking, boney selves without breaking a sweat. And either way, I’ve been hit before by guys who were better at it than you are. Now you can either run, or you can let me shove your head into this cafeteria floor, but those are really the only two ways this is going to go.”
And I charged at them. I can’t be sure, but in my memory of it…they flinched…possibly just from the shock of seeing the quiet, non-athletic, nice kid they’d known for years actually make a move. But that’s where it ended. My friends–Jeremy, who had gotten back on his feet, and Dean who had been standing right by my side the whole time–grabbed me, and the adult chaperones had finally decided to take an interest, descending on our little corner of the room, waving flash lights and yelling, “Hey, knock it off, what the hell’s going on here? Anymore of this, the dance is over! Now cut it out!” The clowns slinked away, my friends and I checked in on each other, and my days as a fighter were over. I retired with a perfect losing streak of 0 and 13.
This is one of those lessons I think I still learn…over and over throughout my life. When we’re pushed to the edge, out to the edge of reason, or the boundary of what we can know or understand, to the outer limit of what we can accept, to the brink of our own humanity, where our patience and compassion and good will gets frayed to the point of breaking…we all get desperate. We cling to what we know, we scrape and scrap to keep from being thrown into total free fall…and we crumble under the strain of forces both real and imagined…curling up and hoping it will all pass soon…that the ride will just stop.
What we are slower to do is the one thing that will actually save us: Find our center. Leave behind the excitement of the frontier for the integral spot from which we can gain perspective, get rooted, reconnect with Who we are…and Whose we are. When we get centered, we remember why we are on the path we’re on, and we recommit to the promises that have helped to get us there. Sometimes we are able to get there on our own, able to venture out to the edge, maintain control, and retreat back to center when necessary. There is the rare occasion when we stop what we’re doing, we breathe deep, and we meditate or something…and we clammer back to center. But in my experience, when we forget ourselves and lose our footing, it’s primarily our community, our friends and family, who we rely on to drag us back to center…sometimes kicking and screaming expletives. It’s only from that place that we can see…the world seems to be spinning as it always has, and I’m just fine.
There’s a story about a band of rebels who fought a war against a government that would seek to control and oppress them. They lost the war, and they retreated to the edge of the universe as they knew it, where they could live their lives in relative peace, as they saw fit. Life was more difficult and challenging out on the edge than for those who lived comfortably within the confines of the conquering regime. But despite the desperate and violent situations they found themselves in again and again, they lived in Serenity, relying on one another to bring them back when they lost their way…and serving other desperate losers as they went.
May it be so with me. And with you.