April 22, 2005

This Old Jim

Thirteen years ago, at the lowest point in my life, I was in a treatment center. Every morning at the community meeting each person was required to stand and say an affirmation for the day. After the first day another patient, John, a veteran of several weeks, said, “Jim, I have an affirmation for you.” “What is it?” “I’m good enough the way I am.”

I liked it. I repeated it over and over. It was what I needed. It fit. “Thanks, John!”

At the meeting the next day I rose and my mind was blank. I just could not remember that phrase I had been given so I blurted out something else. After the meeting I went to John and asked him to repeat it. This time I said it repeatedly all day. “I’m good enough the way I am.”

For the next two days, the same thing happened. I stood and could not retrieve the phrase. I returned to John for the words and worked hard to remember them. But I could not remember them. Finally, I wrote the sentence down. At the meeting on the fourth day, I rose and read my affirmation, “I’m good enough the way I am.”

I was unable to make that phrase a part of me because I did not believe the words. In my mind I was not good enough the way I was. I could have given you a whole list of reasons. Or maybe you could have just looked at the mess that was my life and known the truth about me.

So I have spent the years since trying to improve myself – trying to create a me that is acceptable to me. Like the houses that are rebuilt on “This Old House,” “This Old Jim” has been under reconstruction. Let’s make Jim newer, stronger and updated. Get rid of his old plumbing and wiring. Put in some new windows and skylights so that he will be lighter and brighter.

How many hours of therapy does it take? How many retreats and workshops? I guarantee that I have already done many more than the average required.

Have you ever lived in the middle of house renovations? If you have you know how wearing they can be. I am tired. I am tired of being under construction. I am tired of trying to get to somewhere else. It is time to live. I just want to live my life.

At what age do you say that this is who I am and I am okay? “I’m good enough the way I am.” How about age 85? Well, certainly by then. How about 75? I am not sure. What about 65? Maybe. 55? Why not? Why not just grab today how I am? Why would I wait another thirty years?

I have given up the reconstruction. What I see is what I get. And it is okay. Please note that I did not say, “What you see is what you get” What YOU see is not important to me. Your approval is not required. That is part of the letting go.

I am no saner today than I was last week, last month or last year. But I am more at peace. I am not searching, grasping and holding on. I am not looking for the next thing to fix a part of me. I am relaxing into what is – reality as is.

I have stopped the fight. The king has not returned triumphant. He realized that the fight was not worth it. Instead he has settled into the forest with his Queen and they are planting gardens and taking naps. He is breathing easier.

April 17, 2005

All Gone to Look For America

by Simon and Garfunkel
’let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together’
’I’ve got some real estate here in my bag’
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies
And we walked off to look for America

’Kathy,’ I said as we boarded a greyhound in Pittsburgh
’Michigan seems like a dream to me now’
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I’ve gone to look for America

Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said ’be careful his bowtie is really a camera’

’toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat’
’we smoked the last one an hour ago’
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field

’Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all gone to look for America
All gone to look for America
All gone to look for America

The song “America” has been rolling around in my brain since 1968. It has taken up space not casually like many other songs from that era, but it has occupied the space reserved for “unfinished business.” It haunts me. When I sing it to myself, dark and melancholy feelings rush to the surface.

About nine months ago I started to get restless. In my journal I was writing about the need to let go and to create more open space in my life. I had no idea why. I just knew that I had to do it. Now I had a pretty lean schedule to start with. I had more open space than most people. But I wanted more. So I began to give up some responsibilities and cut back on some commitments. I knew that if I created an opening in my life, something would fill it.

I had been threatening to take a road trip for many years – just jump into my car and go. In May I became energized to do it and I headed for Charlottesville, Virginia, the home of Thomas Jefferson. I stayed in a cabin in a campground and pretty much lived out of my car. I loved the “on the road” lifestyle.

I had a great time in Virginia learning all about Thomas Jefferson. I had never been interested in history much, but now I could not get enough. All my life I had lamented the fact that I was not a very curious person. But now my curiosity about many things just started to flow. Something shifted.

And that is how I stumbled onto my obsession: RV’s. I was not looking for an obsession. But I love my obsession and it loves me. For many years I have had a fantasy of owning a small motorhome. I wanted something not much bigger than a car. I did not want a big monster to drive and I did not want to tow anything. I was sure that anything towed would fall off on the highway due to my mechanical incompetence.

This fantasy was about hitting the road. The line “all gone to look for America” was running through my head for almost forty years. The fantasy was about freedom, travel and adventure. It would build upon my experiences hiking and backpacking.

After the Virginia trip I began to research RV’s. I learned way more than you would want to know. I narrowed down my choices and visited two dealers to actually go inside an RV and drive one for the first time. It was not long before I bought an old RV on ebay.

You must understand that I did not do this in my spare time. It took all of my time. I began waking up every day at 4 AM to hit the computer. I became obsessed. A writer, Dan Koeppel, recently said that an obsession “is like an oil spill. It covers everything up and eventually becomes all you can see.” That was me.

An obsession is fine and great if you do not have a life – if you do not have work, family or friends. It is so energizing! My focus could go on an on for hours and days. However, I was unable to be in relationship during this time. I could not be present to anything that did not have to do with RV’s. I tried, but everything else just paled in comparison. RV’s were just so much fun! There was so much to learn! There was always more! My wife said that living with me was “challenging.” She was being overly kind.

My first trip with my new motorhome, “Rosie,” was a great adventure. I picked it up at the airport in Chicago and drove off with little instruction. I made all the mistakes of a na├»ve buyer. At my first campground water gushed out the back. No, it is not supposed to do that. The vehicle needed, and still needs, lots of repair. It is nothing that $1,000 a day cannot cure. Oh well, money is meant for fun, right? And I am having fun!

On my trip back home I visited old friends that I had not seen in years. I stayed in campgrounds under the full moon with the fireflies dazzling. I visited wonderful Frank Lloyd Wright houses. I was off “to look for America.”

The song was released in April, 1968, during my last few months of high school. I was preparing for the first big adventure of my life – going off to college. I would be moving eight hundred miles away from home. I wanted to enter into the world after high school with courage. I wanted to be brave like the young couple in the song traveling across the country. I wanted to taste freedom.

I remember the high of the first few months of college. I sucked in the newness and the freedom. But after awhile, the euphoria gave way to sadness and depression. The album was played often on our turntables and eight tracks. “Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping. I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why”. My college years were lost and lonely too. These were supposed to be the best years of my life. And yet I was “empty and aching.” And I had no clue about why. In fact it would be twenty four years before I found out why.

My first year college roommate and I lost track of each other after graduation. On my trip back from Chicago we reconnected and I learned that immediately after college he took off for a couple of years “to look for America” by thumb and VW Bug. I asked him why he did it? “Because I was unhappy.” I had no idea that he was so unhappy. We lived together, both unhappy, and yet did not know that about each other.

After college I did not hit the road. I stayed on the straight and narrow path: graduate school, profession, marriage and family. My roommate eventually got on the same path, but much later. He married at age thirty seven and now has small children.

As I was leaving his house in my RV, he said, “Jim, I’m jealous.” He also wanted to explore the back roads.

“But you already did this,” I said.

“Yeah, I guess you are doing the same thing that I did. We just did it in a different sequence.”

But the sequence matters. I am not off “to look for America” because I am unhappy. I see my now sudden urge for travel and adventure as an add-on to my life. I am not lost. I am able to do this now because I feel secure in my foundation at home. I am moving forward with great energy.

And yet there is still a melancholy stream coming to me from that song. The eighteen year old in me still hears, “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” So perhaps there is also a part of me that is still looking for something, still “looking for America.” Only time on the road will tell.