LET IT NEVER BE SAID that I victimize myself with self-fulfilling prophecy. I was anticipating this year as a downer, on account of the cycle I have come to know, but it's coming on like a fresh wind on a clear seascape, and I feel like I've gotta get myself out in it . . . out on the road!
My inner nature is responding to springtime as I wish it had last year, when I pushed myself into an over-committed, top-heavy venture abroad, largely because I was so sure it would be my last good opportunity for awhile. So much for certitudes about the way life works. It is a bit embarrassing to get a come-uppance at 70, but better to be open to such lessons than living in a frozen mold of "what I already know." In fact, it's rather enlightening, for I keep getting these glimpses of how, in trying to understand the past, we only succeed in limiting the future.
I'm not really clear on where this present sense of vitality is coming from. Spring plays a part, to be sure, but I am also on a new regimen of treat-ment for that old intestinal problem. Not that it's been hounding me at any serious level, but in more of a nagging way that had come to seem normal. I was told, twenty years ago, that my colitis is actually Crohn's Disease, which is said to be incurable and recurrent, and I've always been satisfied that it remained in remission. But I'm in the hands of a new doctor, now, and she's applying some tricks that seem to be ridding me of a low-grade systemic toxicity that I guess I had simply become accustomed to.
There has also been some breathing space on the housing front. A mix of good and bad developments I won't go into here, but momentarily sufficient to put me clear of its attendant hassles. I learned long ago, however, that such hassles are at least as much a consequence of where one's head is at, as anything situa-tional. And where one's head is at is governed by things like season and cycle, and by the simple factor -- maybe more than we'll ever know -- of whether one is "being oneself."
Now, there is something that a whole book could be written about: being oneself. It's something we lose track of at a fairly young age, taken over by all sorts of conditioning and programming that steers us toward society's current version of propriety and responsible adulthood. I'm not suggesting that none of that is valid or necessary -- but far too much of it is arbitrary and overly prescriptive in its demands. The changing social scene that anyone over 40 has lived through should be all the proof necessary, of how pointlessly constricting a given generation's fixation on "what's right" can be.
There is a lady in my apartment house who hasn't spoken a pleasant word to me in three years, because I inadvertently and audibly said "shit!" one day, at an empty mailbox, unaware that she had softly walked up behind me. "Watch your language!" she scolded, and has never forgiven me for it. It seems unreal, but that's what early conditioning does. I cannot believe that there isn't an open, loving spirit locked up somewhere within that fearful, righteous facade, but forever subject to the rules she has to live by.
That illustration makes the point, but it hardly scratches the surface of the syndrome and might misleadingly suggest that we aren't, each of us, hooked by it, in one form or another, at some personally agonizing level.
I DON'T HAVE TO LOOK FAR for my own barbed hook . . . probably the most intractable agony of my life had its origin in the fixational link between love and marriage that was impressed on me as a child. I think Hollywood gave it to me -- the twinned notions that a single love is the only decent entitlement for any one person, and marriage offers us its most wholesome, most proper fulfillment.
The past few decades have seen that particular fiction considerably demystified, though it is still the reigning gospel, subscribed to by most who have even taken their liberties with it. But these, at least, have opened themselves to a fresh realm of possibilities, and brought the great variety of human emotional response out of the closet of Victorian and puritanical stigma that has stifled so many lives.
I'd better make sure you understand that I'm talking about love, not sex. Not meaning to separate the two, or even make the unnecessary observation that it's possible (and all too common) to have one without the other, but just to maintain the distinction, emphasizing that sex is a performance thing, with choice and values centrally involved, while love is a feeling thing, no better subject to intent or predisposing values than the feeling of hunger. Granted, there are many degrees of love that might be differently considered, differently responded to, but there is no directly obvious "action mode" for love -- not sex, and not marriage. There are, instead, a huge variety of possible responses.
Not even sex, itself, is a one-mode response, for intimacy can range from holding hands, all the way through sharing nights in bed, without ever being -- or ever becoming -- conjugal. But no less is any such variant an expression of sexual affection . . . and capable of being its entire fulfillment when it is also an expression of love.
Nor does it require even that. I once loved a lady of 84 (when I was 50), whose love in return I only sensed when she darted a glance at me in the midst of a social gathering ostensibly in her honor but rather obviously unconcerned about her. She could no longer speak, having suffered a stroke some while before, but that momentary glance was so articulate, and so expressively . . . intimate, that the recall of it brings on a smile, even today. And where does one draw the line, in defining sex appeal?
Perhaps if we recognized all our options of expression and response, we would not be so stingy with love, and perforce so starved of it. Nor so jealous at seeing it expressed elsewhere by those whom we try to reserve to ourselves.
I KNOW ALL THIS NOW. But in my twenties, and in love for the first time (not counting an earlier infatuation), there was no other possible thing to do about it than get married. I don't really think, today, that the two of us could have found for ourselves a more crippling handicap -- notwithstanding the really valuable inner discovery that I owe to her. We were simply an impossible team, which should have been clear from the start -- but, you know, we loved each other, and the movies said . . . .
It resulted in fifteen difficult years of "being not myself," before I managed to break the bondage and get on with the life I really wanted to live. But the break was not a clean one, and never entirely definitive. I suppose you could say that having broken the bond-age, I was left with two new handicaps: the bond, and my age. The bond was the love that remained, with no suitable framework for its expression, and an almost insurmount-able barrier of bitterness, for that. When the culture fosters only one acceptable framework for love, there is only a harvest of recrimination and sorrow if that one cannot contain it.
The age handicap should not be hard to understand. Fifteen years distant from a self that had by now become a stranger, I could not simply step into those shoes, but had to find that person within me. Long before marriage, I knew I had a gypsy spirit, and that freedom was a rock-bottom necessity for me. But I was surrounded by cultural acquiescence to the notion that we outgrow those early passions.
Today, I say, "bullshit!" We don't "outgrow" them, we painfully squash them, bury them, barricade ourselves against them, in the doing of what is expected of us -- at least those of us for whom such passions have revealed themselves as the essence of our being.
If allowed any freedom at all for the realization of it, youngsters "know who they are." Groanups (as it should really be spelled, from a child's perspective) put a lot of effort, much of it unconsciously, into steering them toward more "suitable" channels. It usually works -- to the extent, at least, that a lot of conflict is set up in the kids. I think I was reasonably luckier than most, in that these early yearnings were not entirely blocked. I was into city-wide exploration as young as ten or eleven, and by sixteen I was already hitch-hiking out of state, with parental permission.
I was seventeen when the song "Don't Fence Me In" came along, and it went immediately to the top of my alltime hit-parade. The songs we like say a lot more about how we see ourselves, than about our taste in music, and I liked the range-riding image. Two years before that, in fact, I might just as easily have known myself by my fascination with the lyrics . . . I've got spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle, as I go riding merrily along, and they sing 'Oh, ain't ya glad you're single'. . . Of course, what does one know at fifteen? Certainly not enough to recognize the cultural conditioning, let alone what it means to challenge it.
The dreams that took me over in high school were not about a career and family, but about adventure. I wasn't going to get stuck in a humdrum middle-class life, I was headed for South America, or the mid-Caribbean, where there were magical discoveries to be made. I took classes in radio and aeronautics, for a practical grounding, and learned to type so I could earn my way by writing. I had it all figured out.
But somewhere along the way, I lost it. College was a more fulfilling social scene, and brought a relationship into the picture, which kind of threw me off course. But the critical moment of decision had come earlier, in the summer of 1946, when I was about to leave school and link up with a Texas fellow for an open-ended bicycle expedition, through and on beyond Mexico. As fate would have it, I also got a coveted appointment, that summer, to be Feature Editor on the college weekly, and I had to choose -- one or the other. I guess that was the actual point of derailment. It would be 24 years before a bicycle adventure of any similar magnitude would spark that old spirit in me.
WHEN THAT NEXT OPPORTUNITY finally came along, it seemed to me that I had grown old. I was all of 43, but by then used to wearing a suit and tie, not jeans . . . used to thinking in terms of income and obligation, not freedom and adventure . . . used to a world of automobiles, not bicycles and hitch-hiking. In fact, as I went into that Seattle winter of self-imposed exile (still in the job world, but away and alone, because I had a lot of inner stuff to turn over, calling for an uninterrupted solitude) . . . I felt sure that a VW van was what I needed for real freedom. But that got displaced by the vision of a long, solo bike trip across Canada.
It was the old me pushing its way through tons of cultural detritus, a small voice that argued against that notion of being now too old for such things. The old songs had all but been forgotten, and they seemed now only to emphasize my age, though they cheered me through many a lonely night. But I needed new songs, and I had to write them myself. Some of them plaintive, some outright sad, and some that resonate, even yet, with that inner sense I'd never lost, of life's adventurous possibilities.
Here, below, are a few verses of a tuneless one written shortly before that Canadian bikeride.
TWO WILD WHEELS
Just give me two wild wheels
And show me the way to the edge of town.
Tell them I couldn't wait
Till the autumn of my life
When the leaves turn brown,
And the wind is a cold, sharp knife.
Life is now;
Spring is here this very morn,
And will not pause
For my foolish delay
--My desperate fear of being born--
To hide and wait a later day.
Not for me,
The well-trod route,
A faceless path within the crowd.
I'll leave routine upon the shelf,
To learn what I am all about,
And dare to be myself.
I want but two wild wheels
To follow the unmapped trails
And find the far edge of life
Where God and I can talk alone.
Where dogma fails,
And I can touch the great unknown.
It was an unimagined rejuvenation, that bikeride! I hadn't any athletic background at all, but before that trip was done I felt myself in the same league as George Blanda, who was making headlines as a football quarterback at age 43. There is nothing unusual, these days, about middle-aged guys on bicycles, but it wasn't a common sight in those years, and least of all anyone my age on a cross-country solo adventure.
Or my style. No helmet, but a touch of that western imagery . . . there's a full-page photo of me (and bike) in Bicycling! Magazine, August 1970 issue, as part of a series I wrote for them chronicling the adventure, and a broad-brim, cowboy hat sits cockily on my head -- totally impractical for what I was doing, but an indispensable part of my gear.
At the end of that magazine series, a summary paragraph brings out the flavor of what it was all about for me, as I made that tentative first break with my generation. After writing about some of the people I met along the way, I close with . . ."...on the long lonely days between people, I met myself. I was often asked what I thought about as I pedaled in solitude along the endless highways, and the answer is that you don't think at all, you experience. You absorb the clouds, the bumps in the road, the endless variety of birds, the helpful and adverse winds, and you simply relate them to yourself -- you don't think about them. The facade that used to be yourself gradually falls away and you become real. You're exuberant, you're exhausted, you're famished, and they're honest feelings and you don't much care how you look or what anyone thinks of you. For this short span of total freedom, you are yourself."
That was an unrealized preliminary declaration of independence. It had taken me all the middle years of my life to realize that I didn't have to be doing what everyone else was doing. If I was seen by anyone as having failed to "grow up," that was their problem, not mine. My problem was only that I had accepted their judgement of what maturity was all about.
But because I could not make the "return trip" to who I really was without abandoning that only framework for love that I knew, my complete break was delayed for another year, as I tried to see if some effective compromise was possible. In the end, it was only clear to me that the flowing, liquid beauty of water, and the crystalline brightness of ice, make nothing but slush, of any effort to blend them. I would cheat myself of any blessing at all, were I to try and have the best of both.
Within the week that I made the difficult break, in August of 1971, I found myself out on the seaside rocks of San Francisco's isolated headland known as Land's End, and my begrudging muse let me have these few brief lines of an unfinished song . . .I wanna be footloose
I wanna be fancy-free
I wanna go where my dreams and inspirations will lead me
I just wanna be myself
-- just for me, and not anyone else . . .
STARTING OUT ALL OVER AGAIN at age 44, forsworn against anything that hinted of commercialism, was going to put me through all sorts of interesting hoops. I'd have my adventure, all right -- in the very process of seeing how I could handle it.
One of the earliest shapes it took was a return to hitch-hiking, something I hadn't done since my days in college. It wasn't undertaken for the adventure of it, but because I lived a few months in a place called Canyon, where public transportation didn't go. But once I overcame the middle-aged embarrassment, I found it as intriguing as it had ever been, and richly symbolic of what I was now doing with my life.
That aspect only deepened as I got further into it, for I came to realize that hitch-hiking was like stepping through a mirror, from a world of barrier facades and social isolation into a sudden realm of personal exposure and necessary interaction with people of every un-expected sort. That might sound threatening, but it's only because we imbibe a daily diet of fear, from our media habit. I'm not saying there are no risks, but that the price we pay for clinging to our addictive terror is our common humanity. And that the simple act of making oneself openly vulnerable is like an entry into another world, and a restorative adventure of the highest order.
I embarked, also, on a series of self-taught lessons in how to put love into practice as a continually regenerative experience. Again, we don't learn this in the course of our ordinary social conditioning. We learn to focus all our potential for love into a single, prime relationship. Aside from how this feeds the general isolation that characterizes our entire society, it leaves us at great risk of one day finding ourselves emotionally stranded. If anything adverse should happen to that prime relationship, or to the love it began with, and we've known no other way, it can mean the end of all love -- the sort of emptiness that might easily explain my rigidly dour neighbor.
I did as well as I could, to preserve the love of the partnership I left behind, but working back from that onetime level of total commitment, toward a more enlightened but less involved platform, is probably the most difficult recovery an old love can essay. Ours had been a marriage with no infidelity, grounded in ten years of prior friendship, so the bond was about as tight as it could get . . . and the hurdle of change, an Olympian challenge. Two years into the effort, I wrote a rather sad 'song' for the one who shared that burden with me. Admittedly, it speaks more of closure than revisioning, but the process is uneven and this is where I was, on that occasion.
I CAME THROUGH THOSE YEARS of challenge, obviously, with as much a feeling of loss as gain. But it seemed, then -- and I'm still persuaded of it -- a necessary tradeoff, if life is not merely to settle at some bearable level of compromise . . . which, by my definition, is not life at all, but giving it up. Acceptable loss becomes a cleansing. The radical surgery of slicing my life in half, at that midway point, was as close as I could come to rewriting its script -- impossible of really doing, to be sure . . . desperately hazardous to be playing with at all . . . but in the very cathartic nature of it, guaranteed to lead one toward "being oneself."
At the center of my complexity, I found a light-hearted, carefree self that seemed to thrive best and respond most readily to life on the open road. It's hardly any wonder this inner being had dried up, faced with the dreary pre-occupations of a domestic and commercial life.
And that's what's tapping on me now . . . in this unusually vitalizing Springtime. One of the worrisome aspects of having reached my eighth decade is that I've also arrived at a time of sufficiency which, for its very measure of contentment, no longer prods me to get out on the road and take life in the rough. I even find myself, now and then, thinking that it's far too strenuous for an old codger like me!
Well, methinks it is time to set out and see about that. It's been six long years since the last time I hitched a decent stretch of roadway . . . far too long, sez I. "Too strenuous," indeed! The fact of it is that I've taken on the media madness of those around me. I need a shot of reality in my veins, a return to my own world, and off the fear-mongering nipple that sells products and keeps us in line. Hitting the road again is a prospect both scary and exciting, which is just what a good challenge should be.
So why should it be a challenge, after nearly 30 years and 10,000 miles of it under my belt? Because when we retreat from the edge of life whereat Providence becomes a tangible reality, we tend to lose our trust of it, overwhelmed by all the rationalism around us. We tend to see it as just a bit of luck, and lose that high sense of a zen Universe that was so richly a part of it.
I've got an airline ticket that will put me in southeast Arizona in a few weeks, to visit some friends I'm too long out of touch with. They live close to Wyatt Earp's old territory, and I've been reading up on him to put me in the mood. A few anticipated days, there, and then I'll head generally northward along the eastern edge of the Rockies, a route I've never hitched before. Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Denver, Cheyenne, and up into Montana, before I head for home. I'll pack a lightweight sleeping bag and a canteen, take as little else as possible, and see how the road gods favor me at 71.
Needless to say, I'll visit whomever I can, along the way . . . and you can see for yourselves, how well I still respond to the roadway life. For the rest, I'll let you know, next time around, how it all came out.
[You'll find a full report of the journey in Ripening Seasons #26]
The final song I have to share is a road song that conveys the zen quality of the experience, and has always been a favorite of mine. This one really has a melody, by the way, but I'm not into transcribing it for the web . . . I'm afraid you're going to have to use your imagination for that.
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