Life, I am wont to say, is a first draft. In my case, I have just about filled the page. There is precious little blank space left. Somewhere near the bottom, the typescript ends as abruptly as the Mayan calendar. We’re reduced to margins now. I’m writing on borrowed time. I’ve got the paper turned sideways and am scrawling with a pen that refuses to yield its ink into a side margin. To get the most out of the space, my letters take on microfilm dimensions. The margin soon exceeds its carrying capacity, and next thing I’m exploiting openings in the typescript – line breaks, paragraph endings. Squiggly arrows now connect my disparate narrative, first this way, then that way.
Soon enough, I will run out of space. Soon enough, I will set down my pen.
We never get to write a second draft. No do-overs, no going back. What’s there is there. The best we can do is read and review with an aware mind. If we’re lucky, we may divine a sense of meaning and purpose, some indication that there was more to our short time here than a mere series of accidents.
If I think that is all there is to life, a friend tells me, then I haven’t been paying attention. What she is suggesting is that if you live with your eyes open, you will catch glimpses into how our lives are mysteriously entangled. My default belief lies squarely in the randomness camp, but the crazy events in my life are laying serious challenge to that notion.
I’m driving into Connecticut, mother of my childhood memories, cruising along at 60 MPH, taking a photo through the windshield in my car. Don’t do this at home. As acts of folly go, statistically this ranks with photographing marine life from inside a shark cage acquired at a garage sale
The object of my attention is the Merritt Parkway. Some of my earliest memories involve this stretch of road. Back before seat belts became standard issue, mom and dad would dump my older sister and I (baby brother came later) into the back of our Ford ranch wagon (or something earlier dating from the Spanish-American War), and head into New York City. In those days, the drive shaft ran down the length of the car and formed a hump through the center of the back floor. It was standing on this hump, hands braced on the back of the bench front seat, that I got to take in almost the exact same view, albeit in the other direction, I am now enjoying from the driver’s seat more than 60 years later.
I take in the canopied thoroughfare and the bridges out of a Hollywood movie set. The Parkway – together with its New York counterpart, the Hutchinson River Parkway, which the Merritt runs into – is totally unique in the realm of humankind. We are talking about a strip of wooded Eden running through one of the most densely populated sections of country and into and back out of one of the world’s great cities.
But you would never know it, driving this byway. Way way back, motorists actually picnicked by the side of the road. Even the pit stops are out-of-world experiences. I content myself with driving past, but can’t help but wonder if they contain the same hot chocolate machines. I taste piping hot sweetness. I may have begun my journey back in California five months and five thousand miles earlier, traveling through seventeen states, but it is here, into my eighteenth, that my journey takes on a new dimension, one with a new starting point.
Check out the picture below …
My quest begins here, an innocent boy, in a state of wonder, unbroken by the brickbats life would later hurl my way. Earlier in the day, my family would have been traveling down the same parkway that I am now traveling up. Same Hollywood bridges, same forest canopy. But my older sister and I are looking ahead. We’re on the lookout for buildings, really tall ones, the redwoods of urban architecture. Now, here I am, standing on the observation deck of one.
Other family photos from the era show me at places like the Bronx Zoo and the circus. In one of them, my mom is actually engaging with me, showing some warmth, not looking as if she is auditioning for the role of absolute zero on the Kelvin scale in some sequel to Frozen. There she is, in close physical proximity, pointing to something in the distance (a circus trapeze artist, perhaps?).
We are off the Merritt Parkway now. Once into New Haven County, the Merritt morphs into the Wilbur Cross, scenic in its own right, but, shorn of its leafy canopy, just another byway. In the town of Meriden, roughly in the state’s center, the Wilbur Cross becomes the Berlin Turnpike. We are now on a commercial strip straight out of the fifties and sixties. This is owing to the opening of I-91 in 1965, which would allow five decades of human intercourse to completely bypass this thoroughfare, thus leaving it practically in its original state, complete with rustic motels and billboards, minus a drive-in or two.
I’m headed toward Newington, outside Hartford, for dinner with an old friend and a bed for the night. Back up a bit …
For weeks, I had been pondering: When I got to Meriden, would I turn off the Wilbur Cross? Perhaps check out the house I grew up in? Maybe veer off into nearby Southington and visit my mother’s grave? I wasn’t there when she died a few years before. I last saw her a few years before that, soon before she descended into dementia. Should I try to find closure of sorts? Ceremony? Ritual? An act of remembrance where her remains lie beneath the oaks?
The exit looms. No, I decide. Ritual without the right intent not only lacks meaning, it borders on desecration. Better to let her – and my memories of her – lie undisturbed.
Next morning, I’m heading out from my friend’s. My nemesis, Google Maps, takes me to the Berlin Turnpike. Suddenly, this sight greets me. Suddenly, ancient memories overpower me.
This is my first McDonald’s, probably the only one in existence in central Connecticut back in the early 60s. Note the retro look. This is more or less what I ventured into when I ordered a 15-cent hamburger way way back, though I’m sure the arches were a lot closer together. The teenagers – in crisp paper hats – taking my order would address my 11-12-year-old self as “Sir.” All takeaway, no sit down.
This particular Mickey D’s also represents one of the rare opportunities I had to bond with my otherwise distant mother. Both her parents would die within months of each other. My mom would pick me up at my junior high in Meriden, and together we’d head up the Berlin Turnpike to Springfield, Massachusetts. I-91 was still under construction. A glorified road with traffic lights was how you headed north in your ’59 Ford Fairlane 500.
My mom would stop off at the Newington McDonald’s. I would jump out of the car, and return with our orders. Then we’d head up to Springfield, eating our burgers, my mom on her grim mission of mercy. Looking back, I like to think my presence steadied her. Who knows? What I do know is that those drives up to Springfield, munching 15-cent burgers together – just her, just me – afforded me one of those rare and precious moments of getting to know her.
Years before, at her 80th birthday party, I had searched in vain for a story I could relate to the gathering, you know, a special mom moment, some mom wisdom, some mom acts of love and affection. To my dismay, I came up empty. Instead, I told a story about how I almost killed my little brother by taking him tree-climbing with me. The gathering was too busy laughing at my recollection to notice that I wasn’t actually talking about my mother. I simply didn’t have a story to share.
Now, thanks a simple drive along ancient byways, I had at least one, maybe even two or three. Such is the nature of unexpected healing.
A few months later finds me on the other coast, on a beach along the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, where I have pitched my tent. Night is settling in. Eight thousand miles of uninterrupted surf is pounding against rock formations, which protrude from the water like ancient pyramids. Behind and over, the moon is working its evening magic. Ahead of me, in the distance, I make out the lights of a passing ship.
“My father would love it here,” I find myself saying.
Now where did that thought come from? I could only think. Nevertheless, I feel his presence, walking beside me, the two of us leaving two sets of footprints. Earlier, back east, I had encountered the ghost of my father on a Civil War battle site, along with a ghost of my earlier self. A lot of unresolved issues back there, but here, I experience a sense of release – if not a healing, then a sort of truce. Yes, he would have loved it here, I realize. Yes, we can share this, together.
More family road moments, these ones deliberate: A final beer with my brother outside San Diego, two days prior to taking off. A stay with my sister at her retirement village in central Florida, one that went surprisingly well, especially considering we hadn’t talked in three years. A joyful reunion with my daughter and son-in-law and four grandkids in New York City. A day with my nephew in Connecticut.
Then there are my other families – call them tribe – the ones we choose. My two main ones:
- My didgeridoo family, people drawn to a unique ancient instrument that acts as a type of wooden sorting hat. I’m guessing most of us are Hufflepuffs.
- My mental health family, defined by the wisdom and insight we picked up along the way. We may have started off identifying with a particular condition or disorder, but we’re way past that now.
What separates tribe from all the rest of everyone else is you never have to explain yourself to tribe. With tribe, you’re never an outsider. This is the key to a long life filled with happiness. Trust me, I can write a book on this. I think I did, actually, maybe only a chapter. On the road, I’m looking forward to strengthening my tribal ties, but I am also keeping myself open to new tribe. What kind of tribe? Easy. One with people who don’t bat an eyelash when you tell them that you’re living out of your car and sleeping in a tent while recovering from bypass surgery. Let me give you an example …
It’s the end of February. It’s only been a month since I’ve been on the road, and I’m learning as I’m going along. I’ve pitched my tent in the desert at Camp Verde, in central Arizona. I’m 3,500 feet up. Just me and the ground and the sky. The morning air feels like it was delivered fresh from a special place, so pure you can put it in a bottle and sell it. Don’t worry, some day someone will.
I’m taking a short walk, indulging in my clear crisp air bath, clad in at least four layers – two jersey-type garments and two fleecy jackets. The sun is well below the horizon, but it is already putting on a spectacular show, lighting up the bellies of some low lying clouds, painting them brilliant orange.
The fact that I’m up so early speaks volumes. It happened my first time camping out, in Joshua Tree in southern California, a few weeks before and there’s no stopping me now. Outdoors, there is no wall separating me from nature. Thus, there is no choice but for the two of us to sync up. I’m living on nature’s schedule, now. I’m new at this, but I’m sensing the formation of a major insight.
After breakfast, I head out to check out the Indian sites in the area. First to Montezuma’s Castle, cliff dwellings that have nothing to do with Montezuma. It’s all about the Anastazi, who dwelt here for about four centuries beginning in about 400 AD, then who mysteriously moved on, probably absorbed into other tribes, still present.
Afternoon finds me at a place called Montezuma’s (that name, again) Well. Walking in a short distance, I find yourself looking down into a spectacular sinkhole. To my left, is a tiny cliff dwelling. Down below is a jade pool. The water is not for drinking. A path winds down the cliff, taking me to more dwellings.
Time to break out the didgeridoo. When you feel the spirits of the land, you just feel it. No explanation. My ancient instrument is calling out to an ancient people. The cliffs around the sinkhole create an echo chamber effect. In nothing flat, I am in another world, untethered to time and space.
And this is when Becky and her three delightful kids walked into my life.
She, too, is on the road, together with her husband Rob and their brood. I explained the didgeridoo to her in terms of energy, frequency, and vibration. Nikola Tesla used those words in reference to understanding the universe. Of course, were Tesla alive today, he would be playing the didge.
When one of the kids asked when Tesla died, I explained that technically it happened some 70 years ago in his room in the New Yorker Hotel, but that perhaps he merely entered another dimension. This, of course, made perfect sense to the kids and their mother.
This is what tribe is all about. In my case, it just felt right bringing up Tesla, without wondering whether I was going to come across as weird. I’m guessing some four decades separated me and Becky, but the beauty of tribe is this doesn’t matter.
Later, our paths would recross near White Sands in New Mexico. I showed up to their site with three didgeridoos.
Later, dinner inside their RV. Excellent conversation with the grown-ups, Pokemon with the kids. Let’s call Becky and her gang part of my new road tribe.
Perhaps just plain tribe. As I would discover on the road, the qualifying labels represent strictly point of origin, how certain people came into my life. Staying connected goes a lot wider and deeper. In no time, the distinctions blur. We just are.
My friend Joanne easily crosses tribal lines. She came into my life about six years earlier as one of my more active readers. In no time, we had a long-distance friendship going. I’m not sure she knows what to do with me. You see, she gives me advice, and I actually follow it. She’s the one who came up with the title to my book series, “The Bipolar Expert Series.”
Some time before, a personal crisis resulted in her being unable to return to her well-paying position as an IT specialist on Wall Street. She downsized into a camper van and hit the road with her service dog, traveling cross-country between one family in Connecticut and another in Arizona, learning as she went along. It quickly turned into a way of life. A few years ago, anticipating my current financial crisis, Joanne suggested to me doing something similar. At the time, this was way beyond the realm of my comprehension. Now, here I am.
I like to say that our only purpose here on this earth is to make God laugh. God, in effect, sees the banana peel we are about to slip on. Now God is snorting out milk through his nostrils. Joanne is far too polite to do the same.
We happen to run into each other for the first time face-to-face in Tuscon. Several days later, she and I and her friend are camping out in eastern Arizona. I wish I could get a pic of the night sky over the desert. We’re sitting out in the open, sipping tea, gazing up into nature’s splendid canopy, mere specks amongst the specks. Then one of the specks breaks loose and bolts. It shines brilliantly for all of a second, only to extinguish into nothing. Such is our fate. No matter what, how you choose to parse our existence – reason for everything or a series of accidents – it all ends up the same. We will all return to the nothing from which we came. Our only crime is to never take up the challenge of breaking loose and daring to shine when presented with that rare opportunity we call life.
By rights, I should be occupying the same nothing as that burnt-out piece of space rock. Perhaps I am. Einstein got it wrong when he devoted the last three decades of his life in pursuit of his theory of everything. In hindsight, he should have been pursuing a theory of nothing. According to Einstein, nothing travels faster than the speed of light. Hence “nothing.”
Perhaps “nothing” should be in the title to this book. All I have right now is the subtitle: A Journey of Discovery, Healing, and Connection.
By now, you have got a sense of that. But now it dawns on me that what we are really talking about is the entanglements that bind “nothing.” In my case, it is if my late mother and father were still alive, with some kind of gravitational pull on my every thought and action. Likewise, it is as if Becky, whom I only just met, has always been in my life. Perhaps she has. Maybe she is here with me right now, in our the family station wagon, driving down the Merritt, looking forward to our outing in New York City.
Forgive me for going on like this. By rights I should be dead – this stuff is important. The year before, my heart nearly stopped beating. Later, on my first outpatient visit, my cardiologist asked me if I had any questions. “Only philosophical ones,” I replied. It just popped out. Of course, there are no answers, but I needed to be asking the questions.
Several months later, I would be packing my life into my ’99 VW Passatt. No fancy gear, no camper van. You go with what you’ve got. As I said in the beginning, life is a first draft, no do-overs. But now, through an improbable convergence of personal disasters, I am being granted that rare opportunity – you might want to call it once-in-a-lifetime – to review that draft with a new sense of awareness.
The time has come. For the last several months, I have been the guest of my good friend Warner and his family, occupying a leaky trailer on his ranch in rural east county, 40 or so miles out of San Diego. After days on end of bitter rain, today dawns bright and blue. I’ve said my goodbyes, made my last dumpster run. No more thinking. No more philosophizing. Time to close the lid of my trunk and go.