Tuesday, April 26, 2011

BLJ: Big Life Journey (or Through the Fog)

An essay in three parts.

1. It happens often enough that we hear some trite phrase that compares life to a journey. Not trite because it's untrue, and surely not because it doesn't fit whatever context in which we may find it, but only because we've heard this comparison a million times before. But have we ever really considered the truth of it?

I'm sure everyone has, to some extent, though not all have pondered it long. I know many who've peeked above the rim of everyday life and been thoroughly frightened permanently back below, and a few who've been traumatized by their first glimpse beyond the daily grind, and therefore are loathe to ever look again. I don't blame anyone in either of these camps, and I both pity and envy anyone who's never had need to consider those forces behind the life that is projected, as if onto a screen, before their faces.

I've spent many thousands of words and hours considering my own journey, but like everyone else, my view is skewed because it's impossible to see it objectively since, well, I'm still on it. It happens often that I (we all?) am more able to say definitively what I'd do in any situation presented to another human on his/her own journey, but for some reason find myself stymied by my own, even simpler, circumstances.

So because there really is no other choice, I just keep on moving, making each decision with the wisdom at hand, and hoping I always see it as the good choice I believed it to be at the time. This happens to everyone... right? I know this is true of many whom I have surrounded myself with for years, but for some reason all of us, every one, believe we are the only people dealing with this or that trouble at any particular time. And because we either don't want to bother anyone else, or we're too embarassed by our inability to handle something (or the fact that we have to deal with it in the first place), or a bad memory of trusting the wrong person, or some other stupid reason, we fail to reach out to those who may be able to help, and thereby create for ourselves a perpetual lonliness.

2. When I drive from Detroit to Milwaukee, a trip of roughly 370 miles, I do so with such severe limitations I am surprised sometimes that I even get into the car. For one thing, when I'm driving, I can only see a few miles ahead on a flat, straight, relatively empty road, or less than 1% of the total distance. Wouldn't it be preferable if I could see the destination before starting the trip? Usually the road goes up and down hills, is curved, and is crowded, and this of course limits visibility even more.

If I happen to see trouble ahead, it's usually a good enough distance away that I can avoid a collision or any other bad news. It isn't always far ahead: sometimes it appears right in front of me, and I have to make a quick decision. And it isn't always apparent what the trouble is: sometimes I just see the orange barrels or slowed traffic and know something bad is up the road without actually knowing what it is or what to do about it.

What's worse, if I make the drive at night (which is most often the case), I have a maximum visibility of only a couple hundred feet with good headlights (or about 0.01% of the total distance), which is not much further than the minimum stopping distance at highway speeds with good tires and road conditions. If there is something ahead of me that would stop or slow me down, I don't know it's there until I very quickly need to make a decision about how to handle it, and though the roads are typically less crowded at night, I still have the other factors to make the situation even more complicated.

To make matters worse, there are occasions when conditions aren't favorable for travel. It's inevitable that there will be rain, or fog, or snow, or ice, or mud. I can also count on the chance that something from someone else's vehicle will fly into my path, or hit my windshield, or be left on the road for me to avoid. With other cars out there, this is just a given. Though it's many long years ago, I still remember the minor panic I felt when I realized that, although my driver training was complete and I was fully licensed and such, I would eventually have to contend with less-than-ideal travel conditions.

Why on earth would I want to even consider such a trip? First and foremost, because of the people I'm travelling to visit. A close second is that I've been a passenger on the trip enough times to believe I can do it on my own. (Still, the first solo attempt was nerve-racking.) Also, I have maps to guide me: I know which route is the most reliable. What's more, I have experience that will help me make decisions when something goes wrong, even with only seconds before disaster strikes. And finally, I know my vehicle is up to the trip: it's been maintained well enough that I don't have to worry much about the transmission, battery, tires, etc.

3. Every day when I get out of bed, shower, dress, breakfast, drive, work, lunch, work, drive, school, cook/help with dinner, do/help with homework, give kisses and hugs goodnight, rinse, and repeat, I'm on that Big Life Journey, and it's not much different than when I'm on westbound I-94. But beyond that basic similarity, things get very, very different.

For one thing, I have only a vague idea of what my destination is, and I've certainly never been there before. Therefore, I have only ideas about what the best route is. Consequently, I sometimes find myself on a road I suddenly realize I've traveled before, which is not always a good thing. Also, visibility is limited to days, or weeks, or until the next paycheck, or the end of a lease. At best, I can see only 1-2% ahead of myself on a trip that I hope will take in excess of 80 or 90 years. And this road is nothing like I-94. Crappy Michigan road conditions aside, the routes available to me are never straight, never wide. Though some appear to be, it's usually only they're toll roads, and I'd therefore be forced into conventions and directions that might not always suit me--that may, in fact, be detrimental.

Troubles are common and cruel on the BLJ. I never go a day without the need to circumnavigate some pothole or debris, sometimes left there by someone else, more often thrown into my path by my own ignorance or stubbornness. Usually I can see things coming, but this doesn't always mean they're unavoidable. When I can't anticipate them, they seem to come out of nowhere, and I end up not only trying to drive and navigate but clean up the mess I've made. Sometimes it even happens that I find something's been behind me a good while, trying to get my attention, and I've been ignoring it, and that makes the cleanup a bitter task. It's rare that failing to avoid or deal with some such hindrance does not have consequences that affect other people's BLJs. It's also true that making a hard choice to take the right path for any given leg of the trip has potential to hurt others.

Also, it's rare that a dry, sunny day presents itself along the BLJ. I've spent a majority of my own in considerably bad weather. Some people would say this is a matter attitude, and I wouldn't argue with them. That translates into where you choose to be traveling. Unlike a real road trip, if you don't like the current road conditions, the BLJ lets you consciously choose to "relocate" to a place with better weather. This of course, is not easy, and learning how is a journey in itself. And, you do always have to start out from where you currently are, which makes it difficult to realize relocation is possible in the first place.

Finally, I am never sure of my vehicle's travel-readiness. Each morning, I risk some kind of breakdown. I have known issues with particular things, which I treat, but they all have root causes that have yet to be fully diagnosed. Also, many parts and systems are either wearing out for lack (or ignorance) of replacements, or are completely untested, and therefore I have no idea how much they can take. I fear situations that will push them beyond their limits, and I won't see the failure until it's screwed everything up and I'm mired in the conquences. That has happened more often than not, and typically I'm not the only person who ends up screwed or mired. In fact, thinking about it now, I realize that every known issue has been discovered by an unexpected breakdown, usually with accoutremental embarrassment and/or shame.

So, why would I choose to make the BLJ? First and foremost because of the person at the end of the journey: ME. To be more specific, it's not just one single journey, but many smaller ones; and it's not one single person that is the goal, it's just some improvement on the version that began that particular leg. A close second is the chance to make a difference in other people's journeys. Large or small, anything I can do to help someone along their way puts me further ahead in my own. It's about filling buckets. There are some people in particular for whom I strive to be a positive influence, whose BLJs are a main focus in my own. It is for them that I choose not to turn off onto a road I know will end abruptly, when that is my inclination.

I know so little about how to conduct the BLJ it's a wonder I even stay on board, but what I have learned, or what I think I've learned, is that there is no 'end' destination. There are desirable ends, yes, but no Milwaukee in this trip. I've also learned that reaching some desirable end will require a lot of circular travel: many roads will be taken again and again as a necessity; indeed, the sub-goal of any day's travel may be just to reach a familiar road. Finally, I think I've learned to take risks: to take roads that are unfamiliar, or even unpaved, because when taking these roads, like a path in the forest, the point is not to get somewhere, but the experience you have along the way. Usually you end up right where you began, but as a better version of who you were at the first step. Sometimes, you end up somewhere different, and having found that place--somewhere you never would have seen if you hadn't taken a risk--always makes dealing with some other leg of the trip that much easier.


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