Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Man Walking in the Desert

I have, for obvious reasons, been thinking way too much about mortality over the past few weeks, and since I really can't stop, I've decided to indulge myself. Some people probably think that I already indulge myself far too much on a number of fronts, but fuck them.

The death of your same-gender parent is as close as you're likely to come to a rehearsal for your own death. It's also the beginning of the end. We all know, intellectually, that we have to die eventually, but I, at least, never had an emotional appreciation of that reality until, oh, about two weeks ago. On the one hand, you can look at being born as the first step of the inevitable march towards death, which means that the process is already well underway. And on the other, I'm planning to be around and happy for another forty or more years, which means the end is nothing like imminent. But it's the acceptance that it's going to happen sometime that marks the beginning of the journey.

And that's probably a good thing. If you weren't forced to acknowledge the impermanence of life until you were about to die, you'd miss out on doing all of those things that you're much more likely to do when you realize that your days are numbered. At the same time, when you've got such a long way yet to go, there's no pressure to grieve your own eventual demise.

Most of the talk about men losing their fathers comes from the tedious, inaccurate, and shallow discussion of the so-called midlife crisis. To the extent such a thing exists, it appears to be a largely heterosexual phenomenon, and I suspect that it has more to do with a sudden explosion of disposable income (because of entering a higher level of management and/or no longer having children in college) and boredom (because of entering a higher level of management and/or no longer having children in college). In any case, I can assure you, for so many reasons, that there is neither a young wife nor a bright red sports car in my future.

All the same, the transition from the end of the beginning to the beginning of the end is a big deal, and there should be ways to deal with it. I'm thinking that the impending death of my father is a sort of chopping away of my roots and that the best way to acknowledge/repair/celebrate that situation might be some solitary wandering. Some time alone in the unknown.

Solitary perambulation as a rite of passage appears to be a largely male phenomenon, and it certainly goes beyond midlife. It's probably more common at the beginning or end of adolescence, but in any case, it's widespread. One of the best known examples comes from the fourth chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew:
Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.
And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.
And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.
But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.
Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,
And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;
And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.
Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.

Or, more succinctly, from the first chapter of Mark:
And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.
And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.

(Do you get the idea that Matthew was the sort of disciple who was always calling meetings and telling people what to do where maybe Mark just went and quietly did things? People probably saw Matthew coming with that look in his eyes and suddenly remembered that they had a dental appointment across town.)

I realize that the Biblical example is not relevant, on a number of levels, but it was what I remembered. I could never bring myself to read Kerouac. I certainly have no intention of fasting for forty days. No wonder Jesus thought the devil was speaking to him. Eat a sandwich, dude.

I spent some time walking in the desert this past January, and for at least some of it, I was alone. It was a profound experience, though mostly just because Joshua Tree (where we were) is so profoundly beautiful and moving and big. I imagine that I would experience it much differently now or in another year or so, and there's a particular stretch of seldom-traveled road in the park that would make a highly appropriate base for the beginning of a solitary ramble, but I don't think I'd go there for that purpose. For one thing, I reckon Joshua Tree is exceptionally harsh in the summer and autumn, and it seems to me that the autumn after the death of one's father is the right time to make the journey. For another, the literal wandering in the wilderness is something whose time may have passed.

For a twenty-first century American approaching middle age, the voyage of choice is likely the solitary road trip. Nowhere is an American more simultaneously just like every other American yet completely alone than when he's driving. The highways that join us together also very effectively isolate us. They are both a cause of and a metaphor for the way we live now.

I imagine that the solitary road trip is a common enough event, but I'm surprised that it isn't explicitly codified into our culture and institutions. It's bad enought that we've given up all the visible signs of mourning. It strikes me as odd, and cruel, that employers don't have policies giving a month (or, hell, I'll settle for two weeks) of paid post-mourning leave for any employee whose same-gender parent dies. Or perhaps for the earlier or later of the death of that parent or when the employee reaches the summer of his fiftieth year. It is surely a lost opportunity that automotive dealerships don't offer short-term leases on well-equipped pick-up trucks to be acquired specifically for, and disposed of after, the midlife ramble. In a more sensible world, we would take off our black armbands only when we were ready to put on the black leather jacket that we had acquired specifically for our travels and that we would put away when the travel was done. Or, for the very fortunate, the jacket that our father had passed down to us and that we would, in turn, pass along to the next generation. People would see a solitary man emerging from his vehicle at a gas station and would know to tell him, "I am sorry for your loss."

These traditions don't, obviously, exist, and I have no real interest in engineering new rituals for the population at large. (I will leave that to the New Age types. Do New Age types still exist?) But I recognize that such traditions would be valuable, and I'm certainly willing to adapt the substance that would underlie them to my own needs. Next year, I think. I have the means to take a couple of weeks off and even, if I really feel like it, to temporarily acquire a pick-up truck. I would set off some September afternoon with a general direction (southwest? northwest? west?) but no fixed destination in mind. I would feel the solace of the open highway. I would spend time alone with my thoughts. I would cross bridges as I come to them.

1 comment:

  1. T,
    Loss of a Dad demands vanquishing of many emotional landmarks.
    May it be peaceful for both.

    Strength and sympathy to you.