Where the Walkabout Ends

**Last night, I participated in a gathering in which the subject of human mortality was raised. In response, I’m re-posting something I wrote for another of my blogs in May of 2014. If, as was ventured last night, our thoughts on death illustrate our attitude toward living, then here you have both, as I see them…

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

– Shel Silverstein

We’re all winding down the clock, working our way into Thomas’ “good night,” whether or not we rage in the process. And when the time comes that my plug needs pulling, I feel I should have the right to decide when and how it’s pulled.

This is a tough subject, a very loaded topic on which people tend to cultivate strong (and often stubborn) opinions, so I’ll try and tread carefully. It is also an issue which may fit awkwardly for some into the walkabout mentality, in which every day is an adventure, and every experience a treasure. So allow me to explain.

For me, the walkabout is about knowing my self, who I am both in the absence and the presence of others. It is about continual becoming. It is about, simply, being Me.

Every adventure along the way points toward one goal: the evolution of identity. As long as I am able to self-identify, that evolution goes on: each new day in the walkabout unveils a new piece, a new aspect, of who I am, who I can be. But there may come a time when all that is gone; sooner or later, the Vance-ness will begin to slip, I will begin to forget, either through age or infirmity, or both. The prospect of losing myself, of un-becoming, terrifies me–I cannot lie–unlike anything else. It is the ultimate threat, and it hangs over us all, sword to our Damocles.

The early Zen masters were renowned for their willingness to accede to the exigencies of mortality. Countless hagiographies end with the master “deciding to die,” meditating one last time, and then just going. This theme is meant to convey the true nature of Self-hood; as Seung Sahn taught, the original face has no life and no death, and the Dharma body does not disappear with the disappearance of the physical body. The Zen masters understood that their final breath was not the final movement in their symphony.

Interestingly, this is a key tenet, in one form or another, of most world religions: death is not the end. And yet…we fight, so hard. We confuse persistence with existence and the heartbeat with the mind (and the soul). My heart is not Me; remove it, hook it up to a battery, run a current through it, and it’ll go right on pumping. Put it in someone else, and it will serve them just as well. I am more than that, more than a machine with interchangeable parts. I am Mind; I am soul (whatever that construct may represent). I am my relationships, my emotions, my thoughts, my actions. I am my memories. Take those things away, and I am not me. Not anymore.

I have watched one grandmother descend into extreme senescence, another into perceived obsolescence, and my paternal grandfather into such a desperate state of cancer-related physical degradation as to be almost unrecognizable. From my very core, my being screamed out at the injustice of it, and at the notion of one day being myself in their shoes. No one should have to suffer the half-life of outliving himself.

One day, I will reach the pavement’s end. One day, my walkabout will be all walked out, and it will be time to face the weeds beyond. I do not fear that day, because in my Mind I know that meaning and mortality are not as inextricably intertwined as we sometimes assume them to be. Whether we believe in heaven, reincarnation, or none of the above, our essence resides as much in others as it does in ourselves, and we will go on in their hearts, minds, and memories. Like the argon in the breath of Alexander the Great, lodged still in unsuspecting lungs around the globe, I will linger. No, I do not fear death.

What I fear is the misapprehension of life, the desperate confusion of husk with heart. I fear no longer being myself. I fear the day the walkabout ends, and I (or others) insist that it has not. I fear the prospect of clinging to something that no longer exists: my Self. For Vance is more than a pulse; more than artificially pumped oxygen. Vance is me, and when he goes, so do I.

To those I leave behind on that day, whoever they may be, I say:

Look into my eyes, and see what you can see.
See if it’s really me
in there. And if it’s not,
hard as it may be, say goodbye,
heave a sigh, have your cry,
then let me fly, for I am
Free.

The Beggar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe approached me
slowly,
cautiously,
eyes downcast, and
in the mirror,
I approached him–

future, present, past colliding
in that moment of
connection,
resurrection and reversal.
All is universal, in the pause between
two heartbeats, when one meets
another, and that other is

oneself. He approached me,
eyes downcast,
and when at last he raised them,
I saw they were my own.

Disclaimer

I feel it necessary to address the tendency of people today to take offence at pretty much anything. It seems that everything from a sonnet to a sneeze must these days be accompanied with a declaration of the issuer’s non-participation in the opinion thus expressed. “The views I express in my own words in no way reflect my own views or opinions, and anything in my views or opinions which resembles my own views or opinions must be taken as nothing more than pure coincidence.”

If I like vanilla, but you like chocolate, you take offence. If I am a Republican and you are a Democrat, you take offence. If I’m a dog person and you are a cat person, you take offence. If you’re in the street and I hit you with my car…well, a pattern emerges. I mean, seriously, people–is there no end to the cycle of indignation?

I long for a forum in which honest debate is not only welcomed but encouraged, where opposing viewpoints are taken as helpful contributions rather than personal attacks. Where the conversation proceeds along lines other than: “You suck!” “No, you suck!” A forum in which we can tell each other the ever-lovin’ truth, for Pete’s sake!

Orthodoxy is the refuge of complacency and intellectual cowardice. Answers are to be found not in constant, rote agreement, but in the midst of sharp disagreement; not in the isolation and segregation of the like-minded, but in the collision of disparate worldviews; not in unanimity of opinion, but in unanimity of purpose.

In any case, the answers are not what define us. What defines us is how we deal with the questions.

But you didn’t hear that from me…

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Tea and Sympathy

Tea goes well with sympathy
(or else you could not spell it),
and also with sincerity,
or else you could not sell it.

The world as seen
through jaded eyes
is just a pack of faded lies,
a long list of belated tries by
moral midgets cut to size.

When media’s the meaning-maker;
when life resides in pepper-shakers
and spoutless teapots fill the papers:
then all of life’s become the taper
atop the crumbs of maddened bakers.

Tea and sympathy will mix,
no matter how you frame it;
but tea may also leave a stain–
and, really, who can blame it?

Walkabout

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Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
 
– Dylan Thomas
 

Okay, enough with the “wise old Indian,” Grasshopper bullshit…

This Saturday, I will “celebrate” my 36th birthday. (If one more 50-year-old jackass tells me it’s “not a big deal,” I’m throwing down.) And here I am, to paraphrase a rather asinine song, stuck in the middle with me. I have no earthly idea where to go or what to do. I spout inane philosophical drivel again and again–generally the same drivel again and again–like I have a clue what the hell I’m talking about. As it turns out, this is not a Shaolin temple, and I am not Kwai Chang Caine. So, this is me being real: I’m completely clueless about most of everything, and I use great big words and half-baked, grandiose ideas to comfort myself in my hour of ignorance.

There was a time when I thought I knew what was going on, when I thought I knew what my calling was, where my life was headed. I had a mission, for cryin’ out loud! I was set to save the world (and its soul) or die trying. So I left my theater program (which I was quite enjoying, by the way) and jumped into ministry school–because what else does a good little former missionary kid do, right? In other words, I set aside any actual chance at a marketable resume to chase ghosts and fairy tales. By the time I realized what I was chasing, it was too late: I had eight years of ministry under my belt, and absolutely no practical skill-set at all. Imagine spending your whole life preparing to hunt the elusive Jabberwocky, only to discover the damn thing never existed in the first place. Then imagine yourself at a job interview or filling out a job application: “Well, no, I have no experience in customer service or management, but I can hunt mythical creatures like a son of a bitch!”

Here I am, at the midpoint of my life, at a mother of a crossroads, without an inkling. I have become so enmeshed in the “daily grind” that I seem to exist in an endless cycle of work, eat, sleep. And that doesn’t cut it for me, see. Before, when I believed that my time here on Earth was simply a prelude to the “real life” up there in the sky somewhere, just getting through the day didn’t bother me so much. I mean, this world’s not my home, right? Wrong! It most certainly is, and my mortgage is running out (as is everyone’s, day by day by day). There has to be something more to this life than clock-watching. There HAS to be! If not, then why the hell bother?

Having invested so much time in a hollow pursuit, and now that that pursuit has been revealed as hollow, I am adrift, caught up in the undertow known as anomie. As Adrian Monk would say, it’s a gift and a curse. The death of the nomos, the governing worldview, the meta-legitimation, can be a liberating experience, allowing you to see the world again as if for the first time. But it is also a traumatic one, forcing you to face that world for the first time alone, on no pre-structured terms, with no one to blame but yourself. It is exhilarating; it is devastating. It is wondrous; it is loneliness redefined.

I have no doubt that there is a bigger picture out there somewhere. I just don’t know how I fit into it, what part I’m meant to play on the somewhat poorly-lit stage of human life. Until I’ve found an answer to this question (an answer; the answer may be beyond me, beyond all of us), the uncertainty and perpetual lack of equilibrium will continue to wear me down until I eat myself alive from the inside out. I’ve said in former posts–like the self-deluded ass that I am–that I’m content to be none other than who I am. Which is all well and good, except for one teensy, little problem: I haven’t the foggiest idea what that means. I don’t know who I am anymore. And not knowing is killing me, slowly. I’m edging my way toward the day I wake up and just don’t care anymore. And I refuse to let that happen…

So, I’m going walkabout. For those of you who don’t know, the walkabout is a commonly referenced though unconfirmed ritual in Australian aboriginal culture, in which a man removes himself from the regular routine of life and sets out across the wilderness to experience himself in solitude, a process similar to the Native American vision quest. On the sci-fi television show Babylon 5, Dr. Stephen Franklin, an adherent of the fictional religion of Foundationalism, adds an intriguing detail: the man on walkabout is actually in search of himself, having lost his own identity in the midst of the hectic demands of everyday living. He walks until he meets himself, and when he finally does, he sits down and has a long talk with himself, in an attempt to rediscover the identity he has lost.

All the gobbledygook I’ve been posting on this blog over the last couple of years has been written for the sole purpose of figuring out who I am, here in the ashes of Grand Design. Along the way I have encountered many wonderful people, and some of them I now number among my friends. I have enjoyed trading thoughts and commentary, and it has been a pleasure to share a little bit of me with them. With you. But at the end of the day, I write for me. Please understand that I mean no offense by this; you have no idea how much your support and forbearance have meant to me; if I told you how much, it would probably just scare you all off. At the end of the day, though, I write for an audience of one: myself. This blog has been something of an escape valve for me, the place I go to let off the steam that builds up throughout days of meaningless monotony–here’s a book to catalog; oh, here’s another; yes, and for the sake of variety, here’s another one! I write to dump the inner boiler, to give the inner voices something to do besides scream inside my head.

But the farther down the road I get, the less I get out of good old Toad. Or rather, the less time Toad has to figure out what the hell he’s after. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not leaving the Toad behind–but he needs something to add a little flesh to his bones, a little fiber to bolster his diet, if you will. So, I’m going walkabout. Well, drive-about, really. As much as I’d like to do the whole Michael Landon, Highway to Heaven thing–grab a rucksack and an army jacket and hit the shoulder–it’s really not practical. So, drive-about, then.

I have always identified with the back roads, the roads less traveled. I am convinced that somewhere out there, down some two-lane to nowhere (and everywhere) my self is lurking, lying in wait to spring itself on me when I least expect it. That moment of recognition is what I’m out to find.

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In a few days, I’ll be climbing into the trusty Dustmobile II (every good road trip car deserves a name) and heading off to who knows where. Beyond that, the plan is fluid, and simple: Just drive. Move. If there’s a byway, I’ll take it. If something intrigues me, I’ll stop and take a closer look. And I’ll be back when I’m back. With any luck, I’ll get just lost enough to find myself again.

Until then, this is my last post. I’m turning the cell phone off (except for when I call to let my wife, who is understanding enough to sponsor this bit of lunacy, know that I’m still alive), and I’m going off the grid. I’m headed…somewhere. North, south, east, west–yep, one of those, almost certainly. Or perhaps, all four.

I leave you with an old Irish blessing that I just made up: May the face you see in the mirror every morning be a face that makes your heart smile…

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Climb

How far we fall to
Reach
The summit…

Summoning thoughts
Of bruises prior, the pain of all those
Passing hours, payments made
Against regret. A debt the growth of which
Is staggering; a nagging sense of
Nothing
Lasting ever longer and longer. Were I
But stronger, I might reach out and
Grasp the edge, flex whatever inner muscle,
Atrophied, huddles dormant deep within; stretch the sinews
Once again; bend the will, tame the spirit.

Above, silhouette
Traced in sunlight, eyes alight
With fire and passion, second sight–
Looking toward the future past. At last
We meet,
Myself and I. Another lunge, another
Try!

And then…Surprise!
My face looks back with other eyes;
My fingers on another’s hand.
And there we stand, united, one–
You will not fall; I am not done. We
Climb together (On belay!) beyond the
Laws of physics, beyond the pull
Of isolation. Crazed striations, granite lifelines
Set in stone, a map to somewhere yet
Unknown. Say the word:
You will be heard.

How far we fall to
Reach
The summit
And into one another
Plummet.

Who Am I?

Dude! I’ve got plans up in this joint!

(I say this on the off-chance anyone’s taken the time to ask themselves: “I wonder what his plans are?” I’m sure there are quite a few of you who have been on pins and needles, anxiously gripping the edges of your seats, fretting away the sleepless nights about it.)

Anywho…

It occurs to me that most of what I’ve written, while it may address obliquely the question of who I am, never really gets to the heart of the matter. You see, to me, identity is less about the grand “WHAT I BELIEVE” (add impressive echo here) than it is about the little things, the experiences I’ve had that have brought me to whatever place I am now. Because, quite frankly, the “WHAT I BELIEVE” is largely dependent on those experiences. They are the reason why I believe what I believe.

This whole blogging thing doesn’t really do much for me unless I can really share with others the person that I am, without code names, without censorship, without obfuscation (which is, by the way, one of my favorite words to say). I take the time to write because, as I was reminded recently by a friend’s post, I crave connection: I want to know people. This is, incidentally, why I suck at networking–my interest in others lies in discovering who they are, not in discovering what they can do for me. I find that often the people who could do the most for me, be it professionally or personally, turn out to be the least interesting people to know. And vice-versa. It’s also why people who are good networkers want nothing to do with me: I seriously doubt that I will ever be in a position to do anything for anyone, either professionally or personally, but I like to think I’m a pretty fun guy to hang out with. (Of course, that may just be a latent narcissistic streak of which I am blissfully unaware…)

What’s more (and this is intended as a commentary on no one but myself), I’ve learned the hard way that if I have something to say that I’m not willing to own, I’m probably not ready to say it yet. Nor is it generally really worth saying. I try to live life according to the following philosophy, couched in Shakespearian parlance: “‘Tis better to hold up thine head and be cudgelled in thy face, than to remain unbruised through keeping it hid.” In other words, as Martin Luther would have put it, sin boldly; if you are to stick your foot in your mouth, do it with pride. Leave a Sam-shaped hole in the wall, for cryin’ out loud!

All this to say, I want you to know me: not just what I think or feel, but where all that thinky-feely stuff comes from. I want to give you a face to go with all the cockamamie ideas. (Feel free to use it as a dart-board; at least this way you’ll get some sporting fun out of the experience!)

So, first things first: Lo! here I am:

148499_10100741148544263_1419274769_nThat’s “Jack Kerouac” me, to the left there. Generally, I find myself somewhat un-photogenic, but then, generally, that’s probably mainly my fault. Because I’m also an irredeemable goofball. If you really want to know ME, you need to see this (below):

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Or this…

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Or perhaps even this…

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If you’re sufficiently scared, we’ll move on…

You see, I’m not afraid to look like an idiot. I’ve spent far too much of my life standing on ceremony, minding that “image” thing everyone keeps talking about. I’m not afraid to admit that, as standards of beauty go, I’m no Mona Lisa. But then, if you stop to think about it, by our standards of beauty, the Mona Lisa is no Mona Lisa, either. Which is, really, what makes the Mona Lisa beautiful in the first place, isn’t it…?

I’ve got flaws and blemishes coming out my ears (in some cases, literally). But in those flaws and blemishes, I am ME, the individual no one else can be. Which brings me to the most important fact anyone can ever learn about me: I AM A TOAD! And I’m damn proud of it.

My goal in life is to fit no one’s bill but my own. I was born to break the mold (as were we all), and I am bound and determined to live that way, too. I want to be nobody else but who I am, because who I am is like nobody else.

(And here’s a secret: I only buy all that stuff I just said about individuality most of the time. The rest of the time, I’m one more insecure face in a giant, frightened crowd. Which is to say, I may talk a big line, but when you come down to it, I keep my head down as much as anyone else. But don’t tell–it’s a secret…)

Which brings me back from my constant urge to digress to the reason I started writing this post in the first place: Who I am. I am a scared, lonely, overgrown little boy who for a few minutes each day (if I’m lucky) manages to break free from the anchor-weight of living long enough to glimpse the breadth and depth of life. I am a boat tossed on a sea of uncertainty, hopeful of someday reaching the shore. I am a mystery shrouded in a riddle wrapped in an enigma coated in cliché. I am, in short, one of you. And you are more of me. And as such, I want to touch and be touched; I want to know and be known; I want to love and be loved. Don’t we all?

But I have to do this as myself. I cannot do it as Everyman, because I am not every man. To quote one of my favorite Sting songs, “the mask I wear is one.” I am, at the end of the day, the only person I can be, which is myself. And this mystifies me, too. As much as I want to understand and know others, I want to understand and know myself even more, and after nearly 36 years of trying, I’m convinced that our selves are the hardest people to fathom that any of us will ever meet. So, back to my plans: I want to share me with you in order to decipher my self. Where I came from, those moments in life that define us in silence, without us even being aware that they’ve passed: all those events, encounters, characters that have cast shadows across my path and brought me to the place I am today.

Because the greatest, most important truth of all is this: I am one, but I am many. I am the sum not just of my parts, but of everyone else’s as well. In order, then, to truly undertand myself, I have to understand you. And him. And her. And them. In the end, “me” and “we” are mutually inexclusive. We are all pieces of a whole. without any of which pieces the whole cannot be…well…whole. Nosce te ipsum? First nosce illos ipsi.

So, listen, O bloggers, and you shall hear of all the little things that brought me here. And perhaps, when all is said and done, we will effect a parting of the waters and a meeting of the minds…