Asphalt. Concrete. Cinder block. Metal.

We were playing a high school basketball game on a campus that felt more like a prison. I didn’t want to be there. I kept looking over my shoulder and wondering who might shank any one of us if we scored against the home team.

How did we end up here? Who is this team? Why haven’t we played them before? How’d they end up on our schedule?

The school lacked any green space, favoring only hard-top courts for tennis or racquetball. Some might think the grounds were modern but it fell short of that adjective, instead landing among “cold,” unwelcoming” and “austere.” I wish I could tell you that what the school lacked in warmth it made up in the people — students and teachers alike — that walked its halls. This wasn’t the case. They were simply living, breathing versions of the inanimate space.

I wish I could remember what the name of the high school was but, in a way, I’m glad I can’t. I remember not being able to leave fast enough once the game was over. I don’t know if we won or lost, and I don’t care. I felt badly for the students who had to show up every day, and I felt like the teachers must fancy themselves wardens versus educators. How depressing.

There are times from years past that I remember so vividly in some respects, and not at all in others. This particular memory left a mark which began as a bruise and quickly ended up as a permanently discolored area of my life. Nothing bad happened there, but it’s the kind of place that makes you suspect it held countless bad memories for others; they practically seeped out of the walls. I appreciate “modern” and “sparse” as adjectives and in design, but — to this day — if things are pushed too far (say, in the direction of said school’s appearance), it’s enough to shut me down. I really can’t explain it. I need trees and grass, softness and throw pillows. I need something that says “welcome,” and the campus instead said, “I can’t wait for you to get out of here.”

And, frankly, neither could I.

Driving home from our agency’s holiday party this evening, I was on a stretch of the freeway that was nothing but charcoal: light charcoal concrete walls surrounding a freeway that sat 40-50 feet lower than the city traffic above. Slightly darker charcoal that colored the freeway itself. Even darker charcoal that made up the night sky. Nothing was absolutely black or absolutely white, and there was nobody else around me. It felt like I was back on those school grounds, and I was immediately uneasy. Fortunately the freeway made it to higher ground, and roadside shrubbery was suddenly visible. It was a welcome sight, despite the fact that the night was damp and a chill was in the air. The point is that something aside from me was living — surviving, in fact — and that made my own existence seem that much more sure. Possible. Full of life.

Tonight I am thankful for the past that can have an effect on the present, because my surroundings back then contained the same things that still set my radar off to this day. Who’s around me? What do they want? Am I safe? If not, where’s my out? If I am, how do I know? Might sound more than a little paranoid, but I don’t think any one of us can be too careful in the world today. Whether it’s a gut feeling or an old memory of a prison-like school that makes us extra-cautious, listening to it can sometimes be the only that that allows us to live another day. We’ll never really now.

So here’s to listening.

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