Life As Roller Coaster

by Rachel Creager Ireland

He wanted to take the kids to a theme park, one where both of us had had lots of fun times in our early years, long before we met each other. Even in those days, my energy-conscious parents would shake their heads at the enormity of the rides, the thousands of people, the extent of lighting in the evening. “So much energy,” they’d say, these, the people who told me that in the future there would be wars fought over oil; who taught me to turn off lights when I wasn’t using them, because most of our electricity here in this part of Kansas comes from coal, which is a fossil fuel and finite, not to mention a major source of air pollution. It was wrong to waste such resources on frivolous entertainment. “So much energy,” and then I’d go on another roller coaster, loving the feel of careening down from those impossible heights, wind in my face, falling so fast I didn’t even need the big bar over my shoulders when the car spun a full loop. Loving that upside down feeling. Some people scream on roller coasters, I mostly just laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

Sometimes you just can’t argue with your partner. He wanted to do it, so I made my case (mostly that the price was far too high), and let go. It was happening whether I agreed or not, so I released my energy consumption guilt and decided to enjoy myself while there. I would practice non-judgement, simply taking everything in and appreciating being alive and in this world, all the more so for its supposed imminent demise.

Almost as soon as we walked through the entrance, I was delighted to see a zebra swallowtail butterfly. As an older park, the landscaping that was fresh and young forty years ago is now mature, and somewhere among all those acres and acres of begonias, cedars, and asphalt, there must be a paw paw tree, the only food larval zebra swallowtails partake of.

The lines were short, so we went on some rides and I laughed a lot. I tried not to see this place as a last gasp of a decadent society on its way down, like the fast-accelerating freefall of one of those coasters. Even if it is that, I get to be here. I have a front row seat, and it’s a spectacular show.

It was a hot day, so after a while we found ourselves in a little theater watching a musical show by some youthful performers, singing and dancing to British popular songs, mostly from the 1960s. For some reason there was a whole medley of Queen songs. None of these performers was yet born when I was in my tween years, singing those songs with the record into a hairbrush mike. The living room couch was a stage, in my imagination. What I wouldn’t have given, then, to be dancing and singing on a real stage, to a real audience. To dance that well, then rush offstage to change into the next glamorous costume. To be the girl that boy smiles at, when he nails the high notes at the end of “Somebody To Love.”

Later there were years when I’d have been above it; I’d have disdained performing someone else’s long-dead hits to a couple dozen old people on a nostalgia trip. If it wasn’t original, it was hardly worth calling music. It would be just another form of wage slavery, to have to slog through those songs five times a day, in costumes made of imitation glamor.

But it seems I’ve joined the ranks of the old people, like the ones at the local Senior Center who always make a point of telling me and the Mr. how much they enjoy the bluegrass and spiritual music we play for them once a month or so. I try to make up for not being very good by playing like I really mean it. I have no idea how many of them can actually hear us, and we often forget the words, or miss an entrance, but they’re an easy audience. They love it all.

I think in those disdainful years I thought it somehow elevated me to be critical, not to cheapen my approval by giving it too freely. But now that I’m “old,” I find it much more enjoyable to enjoy things. This moment is the only one I’ve got. So I figure, if you can’t be original, be professional and perform with excellence. Smile when you nail that high note, you deserve to be proud. If you’re not that good, do it with your whole heart, like you mean it. If you can’t put your heart into it, then, what the hell, just show up. At least, get up on the stage. If you can’t do that, take a day off and go watch butterflies. Get on a roller coaster. Get carried really high, and dropped really fast, and turned upside down, and laugh.