A few days ago as I was driving Kait to work, she asked me a perfectly ordinary question that shook me to my core and caused me to question almost everything about my life. We were talking about our ever-evolving plans for the future, about passion and motivation. We discussed our plans to train service dogs full time. Kait said that working with animals is not an option for her; she would be miserable if she had to stop. And then she asked me – quite sincerely – “Is there something in your life that you just have to do? Something that just compels you every day?” Keep in mind, this is my best friend – my partner in life of ten years, the person who probably knows me better than my own mother – essentially asking what makes me tick.
And I didn’t have an answer.
Maybe 10:45 in the morning was too early for contemplating such a question. Or maybe I’ve never had an answer. My whole life, I haven’t really known what to do with myself. I “lack focus.” I “daydream frequently.” This general lack of direction in my life is probably a big reason why the idea of walking across America took hold so quickly once it entered my mind. I may not know what to do with my entire life, but putting one foot in front of the other for nine months? I could wrap my head around that.
It has been said (by someone who is probably at least a little bit smarter than myself) that nobody who drops the rest of their life to walk across a continent is “happy.” I think another common denominator of people who just walk out on the whole damn game is that they do not have a personally satisfying answer to the question, “What do you want to do with your life?” Some of us have been lost since birth; others lose their way somewhere along the path. One day you look up from the sidewalk and you don’t recognize the streets that you’re living on, or the faces and voices of the people in your life, or the habits you’ve been taking for granted, or the lines and creases etching into your face, or the unfamiliar thoughts in your own head. And then your wife asks you, “What do you want to do with your life?” And so you ask yourself, but all you can come up with is, “Who’s asking the question?
Conner Oberst of Bright Eyes put it this way: “My compass spins, the wilderness remains.” Wilderness indeed, Conner. But where does that leave me? What drives me? What can I not live without? I meditated on these questions yesterday while catching up on a summer’s worth of weeding, pruning, and mulching in our backyard. The best I could do was to come up with a list of mundane things that I do almost every day; but that really doesn’t answer the question. I pondered on, catching myself every time I started to fall into egoistic, emotional traps of self-doubt and criticism, letting each wave of panic and existential anxiety wash over me and dissipate. I came back to a zen mantra that has been a point of reference for me as of late:
“From where have I come, and to where am I going?”
For me, this question has become a mental tool that helps me ground myself in the present moment, while simultaneously presenting an opportunity to re-frame my current location or predicament. The answer may be as simple as “I came from my house and I am going to work.” However, physical orientation in space and time is only one part of the answer. I am also coming and going to and from mental states, emotions, pockets of imaginative delight and wonder…the list goes on. The answer to the first half of the question – “From where have I come?” – is always predetermined; but the second half – “to where am I going?” – affords me the opportunity to define a personal trajectory that I may have overlooked. I am coming from frustrated and I am going to…where? Calm? Calm sounds good.
And then it occurred to me: Maybe I can’t define what drives me because I haven’t found it yet. Or maybe I once had it, but let it slip through my fingers among the currents of an ever-evolving world so cacophonous and profane that it drives men to madness. So now my question shifted from “What do I have in my life that means something?” to “What am I missing right now that motivates me?” I know the top of my list is travel. I crave new places, new sights, new experiences. I long for those moments where, quite suddenly, I find myself in a place unfamiliar. I long to document such times and places in my life. I long to share my experiences with my brothers and sisters, to stoke the vicarious fires of our collective consciousness. There was a time…
It has been more than a year since I have written here – to you – to us. In that time, not a single day has passed without me thinking about writing again. I think about writing this blog and a book and a couple of screenplays every single day. I often think of the people who hung on our words and images for a brief year of wonder and unknown possibility, riding along with us as we embarked on an experience that was just too vast to keep to ourselves. Every day, I think about the therapeutic way that writing can help me connect to and better understand myself, while I pretend to write to anybody else.
So what happened? Why did I stop writing? Why haven’t I bothered to post even a photo of my dog, just to let our friends know how we are?
As is often the case, the truth is both simple and complicated. Simply put: For much of the last two years of my life I was very depressed, and I was too ashamed of myself to share it with anyone.
It didn’t happen all at once. I was still glowing from the Walk for the first couple of months after we settled back into Louisville. I was sad that it was all over, but I was hopeful about the future. But the truth is that coming home from the walk was a full blown break-up with the most fulfilling way of life I have ever experienced. It is over. There is no going back. Every time you turn a page, the book will never be the same. It will never again be what it once was.
I struggled to find steady work that didn’t drive me crazy. Suddenly, I felt eclipsed by bills and responsibilities and the expectations of others. I spent many afternoons just kind of pacing around my house, tidying this or that, trying to figure out what I “should” be working on. I wanted to dig into the blog and keep writing, maybe start to pull the pieces together for a photo book about the experience; but it hurt too much to even look at the website, let alone roll up my sleeves and get to work on a tell-all memoir. My life suddenly felt too small to be worth sharing. I started neglecting my health and I knew I was doing it – and I kept doing it anyway. Week after week I worked a little and just sat on the couch, eating and applying for jobs and staring into the leering TV. I stopped sleeping regularly, unable to quiet my racing mind at night and then unable to motivate myself to move in the mornings. First a week passed, and then two, and now it’s almost 2015 and I haven’t written a real word in over a year and we are still rocketing around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour.
But hey, who’s counting? After all, it’s really only a matter of perspective. And so I try to calm myself, center myself, re-frame that which overwhelms me into a map that I can use to navigate my path through this life. I try to remember that I have been pretty blessed since birth in more ways than I can count. I have a loving family and a wife who inspires me every day. I have a job and I’m not hungry or crushed by a mountain of debt. All of my problems are manageable problems. From where have I come, and to where am I going? Today, I am coming from a sense of loss. Now, I am going to count my blessings.