It’s the Road that’s Aging, not the Journey.

Things look different from different viewpoints, as we all discovered a few decades ago seeing our planet for the first time from space. A similar phenomenon arises in how we view the journey of our own lives. In the beginning life seems inconceivably long, like the trajectory of an arrow loosed into the night sky. Closer to life’s end, our days may feel more like waves lapping across a sandbar at high tide. Cycles can be seen as cycles once we have experienced them before. Endings don’t seem so final when we know that something new will arise in their place. And relationships become more understandable when we know them from both sides.

Last week I went for an annual eye exam, after which I ordered replacement lenses for my ten-year old computer glasses. In previous years I have sprung for new bifocals, whether I needed them or not, because our vision insurance pays for new $500 glasses–with UV protection, anti-glare, anti-scratch, to mention a few features. This year I departed from that tradition. I ordered inexpensive replacement lenses for an old pair of computer glasses, because their focal resolution has migrated out from an intended 3-4 feet so much that I have accidentally driven with them.

This loosening of old inertias feels like down shifting on a mountain road, and to actually buy what you can use feels like finding a lost key.

Isn’t it strange how we can spend so many years being guided by the expectations of others, including the voices that we’ve internalized?

But perhaps I am not giving my younger selves enough credit. In my 20’s, living in Montreal, I never developed any career. My first job, after graduating in Economics and Math, was a rare plum in terms of its prospects for advancement, but after a few months, a friend suggested we drive to South America and a month later we were running out of money in New Orleans, belatedly realizing that we couldn’t work legally in the U.S. [However we did work for a few weeks as busboys in Mobile, Alabama, and I still remember being taken by two other busboys to an all-black bar where several bands were playing in a sprawling warren of dark rooms. And I can also still feel the hostile looks our presence occasioned until our hosts would explain, “They’re from Canada.”]

Driving several thousand miles diagonally across the continent–not stopping or eating so that we could devote our last $50 to buying gas (we paid $0.18/gal in Texas)–we arrived in Vancouver and immediately found work in a downtown car wash. [I guess we weren’t the only people running on empty, because they paid anyone who needed it at lunch time for their morning hours).

My Montreal friend and I then went different ways. I worked on a supply boat out of Vancouver that made weekly trips northwards into the inlets that wind among the Rocky Mountain foothills, bringing staples to logging camps and other small communities. I still get a thrill reliving how it felt clinging to the gunnel at the bow of our 60 foot boat as it plunged down the face of 30 foot waves—that suddenly caught us the moment we sailed into the open Pacific from behind Vancouver Island. And I still feel the deep, mysterious silence of sitting by myself in the wheelhouse late at night, floating in a gigantic bowl of surrounding mountains; only able to discern the channel by watching a picture being drawn and redrawn on the face of the radar screen.

Writing this, I realize why I enjoyed writing my memoir (“The Flying Caterpillar”) a few years ago. I’m even wondering if I could write another one. Surely it’s not strictly required that I have to die and live again in order to write another autobiography. Couldn’t I just pursue a different narrative arc and, like the pinging radar screen in that wheelhouse some fifty years ago, explore the changing terrain of this present journey?

For instance, I still don’t fully understand that sense of restlessness which shadowed me for so many years. Who was that person? Why did he give up his first job and the career path it offered? [And later that year, I was devastated when my college girlfriend–who apparently didn’t appreciate being stuck in time while I explored a wider world–moved to France and married a man whom I heard looked remarkably like me.]

The way we view the decisions and omissions of our earlier years shifts from life cycle to life cycle. In recent times, I am inclined to feel that whatever happened back then provided a timely prelude to what followed. Even when regret and remorse threaten to disturb my peace of mind, if I look back honestly, I can see a person who was doing the best he knew how. And whatever resolutions to early troubles eventually arose, I doubt that they could have come to be if those earlier versions of myself had not kept walking in the rains of time.

I had coffee with an old workmate last week and she observed that she thinks people are basically good. We were talking about how fiction can reach people by telling an engaging human story in which unpleasant truths can arise naturally. This perspective is inviting me to reconsider what a character-based novel about the dangers of GMO’s might look like.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping that the drift of my own life story can turn a few more pages in my journal, like the unwritten manuscript of leaves that is patiently waiting to fly upon the winds of another autumn.

4 comments to “It’s the Road that’s Aging, not the Journey.”
  1. I like the ideas you’re floating…I think it’s a good thing to have something to look forward to, better perhaps when it hasn’t taken shape, while it’s still fluid and slippery. While it can seem unsettling not to have something definite, it can also be exhilarating and sparkling with open possibilities. There on that edge, between the sure and unsure, is where creativity flourishes…

  2. I always appreciate your feedback, David. It helps me to feel less adrift on some kind of early morning sea with no horizon. That’s a current dilema for me: to experience an openness of possibility, but to also find an application for loose-floating energy and aspiration. That may be a state of mind where it’s good to have something to do: do the dishes, feed the animals . . . But when you mention “creativity”, I find myself wanting to work on creating something . . .and the fluid, slipping away state of mind doesn’t feel steady enough to apply itself, or even recognize a believable opportunity to do so . . .

  3. I’m intrigued by the restlessness of which you speak. Recently, I’ve discovered Alain de Botton’s book, The Art of Travel, which addresses the subject. Throughout the history of art, works devoted to exploring faraway and exotic lands waxed and waned. The latest issue of New Philosopher’s cover story is “Why Do You Travel?”

    At a different period of my life, I traveled similarly to how you describe your adventures above. Perhaps it is the neverending road of possibilities, perspectives and experiences? One wants to experience as much life as one can? Nevertheless, I agree with you and David: creativity flourishes on the edge.

  4. Hi Erin,
    Your comment opens up the possibility that I could learn more about the human impulses behind the urge to travel–which I’m glad to learn we have both experiend. My O’Connor childhood friend has sailed half way around the world and–as seems in the nature of certain Irish people–loves to travel in space and his exploration of the world.

    For my part, I have travelled in two different ways. I was married to a psychiastrist whose love of travel took me many places I would never have othe wise reached (3 months in Peru, six months in Europe, weeks in the mideast, India, Pakistan, Ladalk . . .). That was a rare opportunity, but the travelling I initiated on my own (which came out of a sense of claustophobia and stagnation I was feeling in my life in Montreal) nourished me far more deeply. When I was sleeping in a cemetary in the Maritime provinces, digging ditches in a British Columbia open pit copper mine, pitching bales on Alberta farms–I felt like a caged bird who had flown the coop of highrise office buildings where I couldn’t see a window and couldn’t see any future for myself . . . BTW I write more about that flight to freedom in my memoire, “The Flying Caterpillar” . . .

Leave a Reply