I never understood the meaning behind a sun salutation, a ritualistic set of yoga movements. I went through the movements in countless yoga classes with a distracted mind, much like the rest of life, forgetting that, like the sun, some things burn bright and disappear unnoticed. That is, until sleeping in the desert.
Our Thanksgiving break didn't have turkey, stuffing, or bickering family members. Instead Dave and I were mountain biking among campfires and mile high red desert cliffs. The sun was strong enough to break through the frigid mornings but our breath was still visible long after our coffee was drank. Our first morning we woke up to icicles on the tent as we struggled to open our eyes to the dark morning. Having slept with the sun, we had been in the tent for twelve hours and couldn't stand it any longer. On the count of three we scrambled out of our warm bags, threw on the running shoes and dashed out of the campsite with yelps like hyenas stepping on hot coals. The air was so cold! We raced up to a rocky outlook, ran and hopped down rocks, and raced our dog, Moose, around the sand and cactus plants. From across the dirt road we saw the blessing of the sun inch over the sky high rock wall and flood over our tent. Still in the dark on the opposite side of the road, we looked at one another and took off racing for the sun. One step into the light and I felt the warmth wash over me. The dark menacing rocks now glowed orange and yellow and the blue of the sky popped only like morning sky can. Together we reached our hands to the sky, centered them to our hearts and down to the earth in my first sincere sun salutation. After a frigid night I fully understood my dependence on the gift of the sun - all its warmth and all the beauty it has to show me. My hands and feet felt the rocks and sand beneath me as I lifted my head in thanks to a gift I had become so unthankful for. Our coffee had never tasted better, a laugh never felt so great, the sky never looked so beautiful.
And then I got the phone call.
We were far back in a desert canyon with spotty cell service, just the way we like it. After not looking at my phone for awhile I noticed I had several messages reading "Call me ASAP." I panicked and my mind flashed back to that March, sitting in my Minneapolis living room when I got the call.
"It's not good," he said.
"Jared....he passed away yesterday. A train...a train..."
We hopped in the car and flew silently out of the canyon. I thought, of course this is probably just a false alarm. It's probably just two friends arguing over a song lyric or some movie trivia question. I watched the clouds drift pleasantly over the rocks miles above me, feeling protected in the narrow walls. It really is a gorgeous day, I thought.
"It's Dustin...he...he..." she couldn't finish her sentence.
"What? Just tell me!"
It was Thanksgiving day. I pictured my mom setting the table and my dad checking the temperature of the turkey. They were having guests. Where would they put the dogs?
"Last night he shot himself."
The clouds stopped. Really stopped. I asked questions, she answered. I said, 'We went to prom together,' she said, 'I know,' and I wondered about my parents' dinner guest who didn't like dogs.
"His roommate found him."
They'll bark if they're left alone.
"No note, no answers."
They'll really hate it. They'll scratch the door. So where will they go?
"I mean, we knew he was upset, but..."
They need attention too!
"Was there anything we could have done?"
Where will the dogs go?!
I swerved in and out of the lines on the way back to solitude and isolation, Dave having to bring me back to the task at hand: staying alive.
Staying alive. Is it really that black and white? Alive and dead? Dustin flipped a switch, as insignificant as entering the kitchen and hitting the lights a thousand times. On. Off. On. Off. On. Off. I couldn't shake the image of a light switch. It haunted me, the amount of control we all have to flip the switch.
I don't even remember the rest of the day. Did we mountain bike? Did I like it? Did we make jokes and forget about it? Did I cry? But I vividly remember the sun erasing itself over the jagged silhouette of cliffs, and sucking the warmth away with it.
Dave quietly built a campfire, clinking the logs together as the familiar cricks and snaps of the burning kindling started up like an old engine. He said nothing, letting the fire tell the first story. We held our beers like security blankets and let our gaze comfortably lose focus in the flames. I'm sure he expected me to talk about Dustin, about the pain, or about losing two friends in eight months.
I broke the silence. "That summer in Jackson Hole changed my life." Even I didn't know where this was going. "I tasted my first sip of alcohol. I got a tattoo. I climbed a mountain to the top." Out of the corner of my eye I saw the fire's reflection dance on Dave's cheek as he turned to look at me. "I could do anything. Seriously, I felt invincible. There's no way I'd be who I am without that summer: the hiking, climbing, discovering new things. Do you ever think of where you'd be if certain events in your life never happened?"
It was a lofty, philosophical question for someone I had spent almost every day with for the last five years. We knew everything about each other and our conversations were moment-driven, usually about dog walking or what happened at work.
He answered quicker than I expected. "I think about life in the church." I watched him fall back into memories I would never know as he told me about questions he has growing up, people who had influenced him, and mistakes he made along the way.
With the fading of the sun came one star after the next, forming familiar shapes around a welcoming moon. Our conversations and memories spun a web around the flames from religion to philosophy to politics to arguing over which is actually the North star. The desert night introduced me to a new person that night, a person with whom I would worship the sun with the next morning and many mornings after, who would remind me that even something as insignificant as the light of morning can remind us of the fragility of life. On. Off. On. Off. On.