Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Gratitude: Matthew Bednarz

When I was five years old, I joined the Cub Scouts. My mom was a den mother, which officially meant that she joined the thirty-plus fathers in the "troop" to which I belonged. But my mom wasn't alone as a woman among men: she was joined by five other mothers who played the same role for their sons: women all who exhibited great strength, powerful love, and voices that refused to bend.

I could write a lot about these den mothers--Mrs. Reynolds, Mrs. Armstrong, Mrs. Dlugolenski, Mrs. Wahl, Mrs. Panos, and Mrs. Bednarz--but their full story will have to yield until another day. Today's words are focused, instead, on one of their sons, a guy who quickly became my best friend.

Matt and I at the Grand Canyon, 2007

Matthew Bednarz is one of those extremely rare people who actually has loads of wisdom and love. He's the kind of person who can read the subtext in life. He's able to bring out its humor, joy, and worth--and he's been doing that for me ever since we were in the Cub Scouts at age five.

We rose, together, through the ranks of John F. Kennedy Elementary School and what I remember most about Matt is his incredible ability to make others laugh. But Matt was unique in that he didn't make people laugh at other people--instead, Matt just made people laugh. Anybody. Everybody. Matt could find the humor in any situation, whether it was discussing the small cartons of chocolate milk or the onset of puberty and the realization of girls. Matt's quick wit was evident to all of us, and my stomach often ached with joy whenever I was with him for more than five minutes (which was often).

But Matt's humor was only the beginning. because his ability to make people laugh was grounded in something even more rare: his wisdom about people and the world around him. Matt was able to see the good in everybody--and I mean everybody. he would talk with anyone, share with anyone, listen to anyone.

And Matt could write (can write). His stories, in elementary school, always evidenced something that made the rest of us say,. "Isn't Matt our age? How can he write like that?" And we'd listen to him read something he wrote or talk about a story or movie idea of his, and we'd elbow one another and think, Damn, that's really, really, really awesome the way that only fifth-graders can.

We both had Mr. Robert Looney as our teacher in fifth grade--a man who deserves a medal and his own tribute for the inspiration and joy he shared with us--and that year Matt and I were encouraged to write wildly creative and free stories. So, we did so. What we'd once penned as "Voyagers" in the second and third grades became even zanier and more twisted now. And all the while, Matt was visualizing how to film things, how to bring stories to life in a way that no one else I knew even talked about.

On weekends, Matt would hoist the large VHS camcorder onto his shoulder, pass out scripts to his other Cub Scout friends (now we'd moved on from the scouts but still got together regularly), and he'd guide us in his own self-written, self-produced, self-directed, self-edited movies. (They were, of course, always awesome). Whether it was a movie about Mars Bar and Almond Joy--anthropomorphized into mafia-esque men at battle for power--or the nuances of young love, Matt's movies always had one central message: life can be hard, crazy, unexpected, painful, weird, confusing--but it's always, always worth living 9and living to the fullest).

As we entered high school,. the characters in Matt's movies and stories grew more complex--and the stakes within the scripts were raised--but that central message remained: that life, for all its horror and pain, is still worth it. Life is still amazing, even if it's nearly impossible to see it that way sometimes. The characters in Matt's stories and movies--like Matt himself--always chose to fight on, to embody courage towards whatever they faced.

And in this regard, they always succeeded, because they always kept on going.

When Jennifer and I moved to Flagstaff in 2006, after I'd left high school teaching to go back to school for a couple of years, Matt flew out to visit and spend five days with us. We saw a lot, talked a lot, did a lot. But what I remember most about that trip was a single moment: we were outside Jen and I's little campus apartment, and the unequaled Ponderosa Pines surrounded us. I looked up at Matt, and it was like I could still still the five-year old friend with whom I played kick ball, whose jokes I laughed at till my stomach revolted against me, whose generosity of spirit, warmth, and creativity had grabbed hold of me and inspired me even then. And I looked at Matt, and it was like the 21 years that had passed from our Cub Scout days until then hadn't changed a thing.

Not at all.

Instead, we were both five-year olds, still, albeit with harrier faces, a few more battle scars. But we still saw that thing inside one another that only a friend who's known you since you were five even can see: your character arc. Your journey. Every protagonist needs to face incredible odds in order for his story to become beautiful.

In this manner, Matthew Bednarz becomes even more than an incredible protagonist. because his story isn't only about him and the odds he's had to face. Instead, it's about me, too, and every other person on whom he's had a remarkable impact through his laughter, his wisdom, his creativity, and his love.

Today, I say happy birthday to my best friend and a guy whose character arc is, to me, amazing. I'm grateful  that you've let me be a part of it for so long. And I look forward to the stories still to be told, the movies still to be made, the laughter still to be had. I love you, friend.