The Departure Gate
I was out of work, had no prospects, and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I had carelessly (or intentionally) overestimated my long term financial situation. It was the year I first took a shot at guiding myself with my own feelings and instinct.
I stepped off the straight and narrow, made a plan with plenty of room for waywardness and surprise, and hit the trail. I wasn’t seeking envy or greatness, but to prove to whatever spirits were watching that there is value in questioning convention and a secret sweetness in closing doors behind you. I was raised being told repeatedly that I lived in the ‘Land of Opportunity’. It was time for America to put up or shut up.
My pursuit of contentment relied on sourcing the inward call to self-awareness we all possess. And supposedly defy at our own risk. Simply put, I learned to trust my gut. It’s important here to recognize the guidance of my wife in her loving support of my whims and for teaching me the value of intuition. And if It sounds like I felt I was more enlightened or together than everyone else, it’s not arrogance. It’s because that was the story I had to tell myself in order to turn my rut into a groove.
All For Nothing
Sensitized by the failed values and intentions of parents, peers and heroes, it became obvious that trading control of my life and wishes for someone else’s standards of success was ridiculous. Add that to a resolute appreciation for finite mortality, and it made going somewhat rogue and being eccentric was more logic than impulse.
Along with that, and quite importantly, I sought the mentorship of my own counsel. Carl Jung suggested that the opportunities for personal growth arise from allowing your unconscious mind to strike up conversation with your consciousness and trust the answers that drop into your imagination. I further read that to do this you need to step completely away from the source of your discomfort and to exercise ‘creative idleness’ to give space for the dream to flourish. Good news: Idleness of any kind was right up my alley.
The same cautious sensibility that told me that I was free to be anything I wished also informed me I was free to do nothing. I contemplated the vast difference between work and working-for-wages and how this ‘nothing’ thing could lead to something remarkable if reframed and attended to properly.
Snowgrass Flat, Summer, 1997
The sun hung above the Goat Rocks as I strolled into the large meadow below the peaks. I was alone and a mile high in a scene out of Sound of Music. I stopped and watched the drizzling edge of a large snowfield watering newly sprouted grass and wildflowers as it retreated in the summer sunlight. The down-slope breeze blew across the land and filled my lungs with rebirth and promise. (As the Sound of Music Orchestra played “Climb Every Mountain” :))
Finding a boulder to rest upon after the morning hike, I spent an hour in solitary wonder watching frosted spring melt into alpine summer. I imagined that it was a day just like this one that some wayward explorer named this glorious spot Snowgrass Flat. Perhaps he had walked off his job too. I further imagined that my good fortune at choosing this high valley and allowing it to inspire and hearten me was a sign that God and nature approved of my recent decision to step out of myself.
A day later, camping on the shore of the Cispus River, I took out a large left handed lined legal pad and arranged the assortment of possibilities and dreams into some sort of architectural drawing of my castle in the sky. On the list were these: To turn weekdays into weekends, to hike and jog, to get fit, to sip cold beer in the warm sun, and to hire out my dental talents as needed (for others, but on my terms). To preserve and upgrade our sixty year old house and the surrounding land. To question my fixed ideas and unbalanced values. To wander and to write.
I learned early and well that a person could either choose obligation to society’s standards and the bidding of others, or they could master their own fate. One could compete, or one could create. Make a living or make a life. Dollars or sense. The year I turned eighteen was the year the discipline-laden fables of the Roman Catholic Church crashed against the ‘if it feels good, do it’ flower power of the sixties. A mind-altering explosion of psychedelia and holy incense. I grabbed the best of both cultures and set off to find a secret passage to self-discovery. It helped that I was spoiled, superficial, frugal, and self-centered. This made the journey possible and (eventually) showed me how much I had to learn.
Food For Thought
My dad would tell us kids at the dinner table that we should enjoy the good food and comfortable lifestyle that came to our family because when we were grown and on our own it wasn’t likely to last. Whether that was a derisive challenge or a caution about how far the children of the depression had miraculously come was unclear. When he paid for college for his four kids and never asked anything more of us, I guess it meant he was cheering us on to proving him incorrect.
I have struggled as much as anybody. Struggle is essential to the release of the authentic highest self. So say all the celebrated teachers going back centuries, though I had harbored denial about whether or why that has to be so. One must suffer ‘the dark night of the soul’, and so on. My experience was not so much hitting rock bottom in a single existential splat, but a more evenly paced series of sucky downfalls and doubts over a couple decades. Which continues on to this day, God bless me.
I leave you and the world’s offspring with this legacy of parental advice from one who has only parented his own inner child:
Who are you? What do you want? Get out there and fall full face down in the mud. Suck at something. Then shine. That’s how we learn.
This afternoon just before pushing the ‘publish’ button on this essay, I attended the memorial of a dental colleague and past friend of my father’s. In fact, the three of us shared the same clinic building back in my early years. He was a wonderful guy. One of the few fellows that didn’t abandon dad when he suffered through his troubled final years. At the service much was made of Tom’s love of life and family, his days as a sports star and fan, and warm tales of his support, caring and positive regard for his friends and relations. We heard how much he’ll be missed and that his life should be a guide for others. In a full hour of stories, memories and reflections, there was no mention – not one – of his life as a dentist.