Going Out of Your Way to Be Who You Are

1377506_10101142418271513_254848920_nAnytime anybody pulls you down
Anytime anybody says you’re not allowed
Just remember you are not alone
In the aftermath

– Adam Lambert

For the last few years, I have forced myself to think outside of the box in which I was cultivated, to step out of my particular epistemology and evaluate the world through eyes other than my own. I have attempted to take stock of the nature of things as objectively as one individual is able (which, I believe, is merely a question of degree, since my objectivity is another man’s subjectivity). I have altered my vocabulary, I have shifted my view from the reality of heaven to the ideal of earth, and I have held all presuppositions guilty until proven innocent. And, in doing so, I have discovered some important truths about myself, my self, and what and who I am. Not all of them are pleasant, not all are foreign, not all are new. The status quo has, in some significant ways, been maintained, but it has also been questioned and called to account. But I am in the end refreshed–just as confused about certain things as I was when I started, but now more comfortable with that confusion than before. I know now (forgive the tautology) that there are certain things that I know, and certain things I will (and can) never know. That is as clear as I can be, and I am okay with it.

All along the way, I heard voices. It is truly amazing how persistently people will fight against those who search for understanding (even those who search for understanding merely of themselves), and the extent to which we fear a clearer view, lest it force us to remove some of those obstructions we have set up for ourselves. A friend once told me he listened to the radio at night because he feared the silence. This is natural, for silence is where truth resides–in silentio veritas. So the voices insist, filling up the quiet of contemplation with the noise of obfuscation, confident that volume makes right, or at least may serve to overwhelm the senses of awakening conviction.

We’ve all heard these voices. They come from all sides, friends, family, co-workers, even the occasional complete stranger. People who truly believe they have our best interests at heart, never realizing that their own interest is what they really seek to protect. Because if I change–if you change–more importantly, if we change–then they are faced with a standing challenge to the worldview they inhabit. Meaning, they protest, will be destroyed: there must be either conformity or chaos–there is no middle road. “If he gets up, we’ll all get up. It’ll be anarchy!”

What do the voices say? What do they whisper in our ears even when their echoes have died away? “You’re abandoning your principles.” But principles are not made only to be adopted; they are also made to be discarded. The act itself of re-evaluation, of deconstruction, entails principled thought: the person of principle is required by her very nature to set aside systems that have failed, beliefs that mislead or do harm. In doing so, she is not abandoning her convictions, she is living up to them. The pragmatist may pretend to see the emperor’s new suit, but only the fool goes out to buy one for himself.

“Don’t leave us behind–we made you who you are, and your acquiescence justifies our existence.” When the puppet cuts his strings, has Geppetto failed? Or has his work been fully realized at last? The creation of life is the formulation of dynamic possibility, of an option for better or worse. It is change waiting to happen, the ultimate journey from points A to B. As such, it predicates movement, growth, adaptation, and yes, even evolution. If I am at sixty-five who I was at thirteen, something has gone terribly wrong. If I remain nothing but the sum of my ancestors’ wisdom, am I really me, do I really exist, have I truly lived? Descartes might express an opinion on this subject–non cogito, ergo nullus sum. I think not, therefore I am rendered obsolete. We may stand on the shoulders of giants, but we walk on our own two feet.

In the final analysis, a little anarchy sometimes does a world of good. Sometimes meaning must be destroyed to make way for a new and a better. History is the tale of the destruction of truth in the interests of deeper understanding. It is also the tale of the voices, lifted in unison to bury the cries of the voyager and the musings of genius. Witness Galileo and the Catholic Church–those who would displace our egocentric universe are never safe from the weight of existing prejudice or the workings of fear on the human self-image. But be not silent. Do not, as Dylan Thomas urges, go gently into prescribed senescence. Don’t be afraid of sounding foolish, for the true fool is he who makes no sound at all.

Herbert Spencer said it best, and I leave you in his capable hands:

“Whoever hesitates to utter that which he thinks the highest truth, lest it should be too much in advance of the time, may reassure himself by looking at his acts from an impersonal point of view. Let him remember that opinion is the agency through which character adapts external arrangements to itself, and that his opinion rightly forms part of this agency–is a unit of force constituting with other such units, the general power which works out social changes; and he will perceive that he may properly give utterance to his innermost conviction: leaving it to produce what effect it may. It is not for nothing that he has in him these sympathies with some principles and repugnance to others. He, with all his capacities, and aspirations, and beliefs, is not an accident but a product of the time. While he is a descendant of the past he is a parent of the future; and his thoughts are as children born to him, which he may not carelessly let die. Like every other man he may properly consider himself as one of the myriad agencies through whom works the Unknown Cause; and when the Unknown Cause produces in him a certain belief, he is thereby authorized to profess and act out that belief….Not as adventitious therefore will the wise man regard the faith which is in him. The highest truth he sees he will fearlessly utter; knowing that, let what may come of it, he is thus playing his right part in the world–knowing that if he can effect the change he aims at–well; if not–well also; though not so well.” (First Principles, 1862)

Wrong Way Down the Highway of Life, pt. 1

Our faithful companion…

Such a peaceful, sunny day! Windows down, the green of the summer grass reflecting off the chrome of the car’s hood, a gentle breeze blowing slantwise across the cab, refreshing, invigorating. The low chirp of cheerful little birds wafting through the cool air. And in the rearview, a crowd of cursing, angry construction workers pursuing the automobile across the lawn at top speed…

In the summer of 2006, I finally was able to capture and hold a dream I had been chasing since the day I first cracked open a copy of A Tale of Two Cities. It was a project fifteen years in the making. I hopped across the pond. I visited the Jolly Old. I went to the UK.

But going, you see, was not enough. Although we’ve been back once since then, at the time I was fairly convinced the trip was a one-shot deal, and I wasn’t therefore content with seeing a part of the island. Instead, we decided to see all of it. In two and a half weeks. I also wasn’t content with letting others show it to me. Tours are stifling–look over here, look over there, die of repetitive stress injury to the neck. So, instead of package deals, instead of piling onto a lorry or a train with a bunch of hurried sightseers, we went for the car rental, and set out to conquer the British Isles.

It was at this point that I discovered MapQuest UK. The next step was clear: If driving in the Isles would be fun, then taking the scenic route would be AWESOME!! So, where’s that “Avoid Highways” button? British back roads, here we come!

Little tip for those of you who are adventurous enough to pull this sort of stunt but haven’t as of yet been able to. Consider jetlag. Suffice it to say, I did not. After crawling from a plane at 6:15 in the morning, following a nine-hour flight during which I did not sleep at all, and having waded through a two-hundred person pile-up in Immigration, I stood bleary-eyed in front of the counter of the airport Enterprise, regaled with stories of Yanks who thought driving in England would be a good idea and, upon trying it, decided very quickly that it was not. One lady, the clerk said, brought her vehicle back after having made it once around the Gatwick complex, slapped the keys down, and staggered from the establishment looking like she’d seen a ghost. Or at least the possibility of becoming one.

I am not one to be easily deterred from a challenge. Also, I am not one to kiss fifteen non-refundable hotel reservations goodbye, which is exactly what we’d have to do if we gave up the car. So, morality tales not withstanding, off we went.

The clerk’s stories began to come true about fifteen seconds after we pulled out of the rental lot. It was here, you understand, that we first encountered the circular devil, the whirling dervish of traffic management. It was here we came face to face with the roundabout. Now, you may snicker and raise your eyebrows at this. You may wonder how much of a threat a simple traffic circle could be. Bite your tongue and mind your manners. It will kill you if you let down your guard.

What those who have never experienced this particular level of hell fail to understand is that a brush with this type of monstrosity (which has brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins spread throughout the UK countryside) involves a suspension of the laws of physics. Observe the photo above. If I want to reach the South Terminal, for instance–which is to my immediate right–I must make a sharp left. Nothing is straight ahead–directions in the UK often require the inquirer to “go straight,” but I’m not entirely sure they’ve understood the concept. What they really mean is: “Go straight, once you’ve driven in circles for a nice good while.” “See that lovely pub right there across the way? Establish synchronous orbit, and you can’t miss it!”

Of course, when need of clear wits and brave heart arose, I went Neanderthal. Cro Magnon man took the wheel. And somehow, having evaded collision with on-circling traffic, we found ourselves safely out of the flow and headed gracefully away from averted disaster. Into a restricted area. With barbed wire and those little red revolving security lights you see in old episodes of MacGyver. Perfect. Two hours after setting foot on British soil, American idiot deported for trespassing. Oh, the headlines we will make.

“Flipped out” doesn’t quite cover it. I lost the capacity for non-profane speech. At that moment, I could have rivaled the saltiest dog on the Seven Seas (in everything but coherence). Back to the roundabout, post haste! If when you were a kid you ever tried to leap onto a moving merry-go-round without losing an arm or a tooth, you may actually know how I felt at this moment. Car after car flashing past, Tammy hoping for the best (and expecting the worst), and me in the driver’s seat, between bouts of Tourette, counting the intervals and attempting to establish some sort of rhythm, as if I was preparing to insert us, car and all, into a pick-up game of double dutch. This time was all or nothing–no mulligans. Either we made it out of the airport, or we took the car back and gave it up as a lost cause.

Another traveler’s tip: Pick an outlet before entering the stream. The key to roundabout survival is having an exit strategy. Also, discard etiquette. There’s plenty of time to be polite once you’ve stopped being afraid. The second time through, we knew where we were headed, and we didn’t so much care how we got there, so long as we did. Birds (and I do not mean the feathered kind) were flying as we scooted around the circle to our artery of choice, but somehow we did it. Not only were we headed away from circular chaos, we were also actually headed in the right direction.

But not to worry. The fun was far from over. This is the point at which I realized that back roads in the UK are not what they are in the US. Remember my brilliant idea of mapping out the scenic route through England? Turns out almost all routes (including some of the “major” highways) are scenic. And most of them are narrow enough to render the question of lanes a moot point. There aren’t lanes; there is simply a lane, and you share it with oncoming traffic as best you can (which in many cases means you aim, close your eyes tight, and pray). Now, this became second nature the longer I did it, but that first morning I was barely conscious, and driving in a straight line was more of a challenge than usual. Look at that cute little house with the quaint thatched roof! And the neat little hedgerow in front of it! And look how the side mirror is ripping its way through the neat little hedgerow as we go! How delightful!

Once again, panic ensued. The one thought in my mind was to slip out of these by-lanes into something a bit more comfortable. We soon discovered, however, that broader streets serve only to invite the parallel parker. Soon after this, we discovered why side mirrors are collapsible. As we sped down the street, accompanied by the steady staccato of fiberglass on fiberglass, envisioning another two weeks of rampant destruction, England seemed a less and less welcoming place. I thought wildly of ditching the car and disappearing quietly into the underbrush, leaving people to survey the damage, scratch their heads, and wonder aloud, “Who WAS that masked mangler?”

By now, the highways I had made such an effort to avoid were my sole reason for being. I couldn’t help thinking that the longer I wandered around wreaking havoc, the more likely I was to end up before a modern-day Star Chamber. So we stopped at a gas station to ask for directions to a fairly major thoroughfare which, according to our map, ran through the middle of the town we were in. Not unlike asking someone in Joplin, Mo., if they knew how to get to I-44, or someone from Waco where to find I-35. Or anyone, how to find their own front yard. And the attendant had no clue. Never heard of it. This is apparently a universal failing in the Isles. We learned quickly not to ask directions, as blundering would almost always get you where you wanted to be more efficiently than waiting for inquirees to call in a dozen more people who also had no clue.

Side note: rest stops. If you are one who carries the misfortune of a small bladder, pack a Ziploc. A big one. From time to time, you will stumble across the British equivalent of a truck stop. If you see one, for God’s sake take advantage of it. Because exiting the roadway is not the same proposition there as here. Consider the fact that all exits involve the dreaded roundabout, and few of them were designed for ease of interpretation. You may end up driving madly in circles forever, all the while in sight of where you’re trying to go, completely unable to get there. And if you do, you may never get back to the highway you were on–at least not without travelling miles in the wrong direction first. So, drink little and carry a big bucket. It may be your only hope.

Finally, we found ourselves on a four-lane, divided highway. The left side of the four-lane divided highway, of course, but counterintuitive beats cataleptic any day of the week. After that first day, instead of forcing its hand I let the scenic route reveal itself as we went. And by the middle of the second day, I felt I’d been driving British pavement my whole life. In retrospect, it is the most fun I have had in my life. I will never go back to the UK without renting a car and hitting the road (and perhaps a few hedgerows and sideview mirrors).

In any case, it wasn’t long after leaving behind the tiny village lanes that we arrived at the first stop of our tour. Naturally, this wasn’t before driving ten miles out of our way to find a roundabout to make up for missing a turn, but all our pain disappeared as we crested a hill oustide Amesbury and saw below us the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge. The Sundial of the Gods. In my life, I have never felt more like cheering, weeping, and donning a druidic robe, all at the same time. It is truly a breathtaking sight. Oddly, the closer you get, the less impressive it becomes, but from the overlooking hilltop, the sensation of glimpsing beyond the centuries is overwhelming. The historian in me could barely breathe. And the irritations of the day fell away. I knew, after fearing the nightmare, that my lifelong dream was coming true.

Trembling in My…Well, Pretty Much Everything

It’s a quiet night in El Bosque. The family gathers around the dinner table as the sun disappears behind the mountains ringing the city of San Jose. How was your day? What kind of fascinating, new language-related things did you learn today? And you, Vance? What kind of new chaos did you create at school today? Together, they tuck in to whatever delicious concoction Luisa the maid cooked up for them before heading home for the evening. And then things just get spooky…

In the distance, dogs begin to bark. At first, you can barely hear them, maybe several blocks away, but quickly it becomes clear that a wave is in motion. The noise grows louder: the end of the block joins the chorus, and steadily the din moves closer, closer, closer, until it sweeps past, and the animals on the other side of the house take up the song. It moves away into the darkness as quickly as it arrived, fading, receding, dying away completely at last, as if it had all been a figment of your imagination. And the tremor hits. Gently at first, then more adamantly, the house begins to vibrate, then shake. Glass rattles, the salt and pepper shakers perform a strange dance across the tabletop, and the family gathered around the table, unused to these events, casts fearful glances at one another, ready for the end to come, for the ceiling to come down and bury them all under a pile of crazed rubble. But before any of this even really registers, like the canine chorus before it the trembling has stopped, the earth is at rest again, and the seismic wave has moved on in the wake of its predecessor.

The first time this happened, it scared us all to death. By the last time, it had become old hat. I would say that during the year we spent in Costa Rica, we probably experienced a couple dozen minor temblores, probably no more than a 2.5 or so on the Richter. Frightened glances turned over time into raised eyebrows–here we go again. And every time, the animal choir offered up an eerie prelude. They could feel it coming, always.

One such experience stands out, though. The one time we broke 4.5 and things really got all shook up.

It happened in the middle of the morning, and all of us kids were at school. Sonlight Christian School, to be exact. The MK farm. While moms and dads spent their days studying Spanish at the Language Institute, we cooled our heels on math worksheets with little Bible verses in the top right hand corner, and pretended we, too, were language students. Not that it was a bad place. The teachers were quite nice, and they had a fairly decent library. But it was a strange place, unlike any other school I’d ever attended. It even ate summers. Instead of days of freedom, playing outside, watching cartoons, or reading books by the dozen, we continued the daily round, with slight curricular changes that made it feel not unlike a three-month long trip to Bible school. We did pottery, we made candles. There was even an ill-fated attempt to dissect a pre-cleaned fish (misunderstanding at the fish market) which amounted to an impromptu cooking lesson. Thus my Costa Rican “summer.” It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me that Sonlight was really a daycare, and I a free radical in need of a supervisory electron.

On the day in question, sometime between ten and noon (I say this because I really don’t remember the time, and this suits me as well as any), we were gathered for kiddie worship in the main hall of the school. Before long, the older students would be transferred to a new building back across the highway toward the language school, but for now we were still all crammed together in the original location, so the assemblies usually required a tight squeeze. About halfway through the session, the howling kicked in. Not too long after this, the neighborhood dogs started up, as well. There were a few newbies among us, but most of us recognized the signs and knew what was coming. Except this one was stronger than usual, to the point that even some of us old hands were shaken (no pun intended).

So were the teachers. One in particular: Miss Caroline. Fairly large, blonde woman. Quite friendly; also, apparently, a bit high-strung. The past is a mosaic of singular moments, images frozen in time that stay with us throughout our lives. On that day, Miss Caroline became one of mine. It very quickly became obvious that the adults in the room were far higher up the freak-out scale than were the children. As the building turned into a bouncy castle, Miss Caroline bounded into the center of the juvenile sardines, lifted both hands over her head, and began to belt out a quavering rendition of “God Is So Good.” Absolutely surreal. Rumbling, vibrating walls, clattering glass, whimpering kids, and a portly, middle-aged woman in the middle of it all, singing to beat the band.

I can hear her voice; I can see her face. Like it was all happening right now. I still can’t sing or hear that song without suddenly becoming a faintly oscillating third-grader, sitting on the floor of that hall, surrounded by missonary kids, acutely aware even then of the weirdness of the situation. The impressions left by the quake-cito have long since fallen away, lost in the shadows of past experience, but Miss Caroline is with me still. It’s like my own version of David Copperfield’s vision: “one face, shining on me like a Heavenly light by which I see all other objects, is above them and beyond them all.” One face, belting its song, standing like a crazed beacon in the midst of minor chaos, “pointing upward!”