I get carried away on whims sometimes, and the current whim I can’t shake is the prospect of buying a travel trailer. This travel trailer would serve three purposes: an extra bedroom for when relatives visit, a secondary source of income on AirBnB and a place to sleep on vacations — vacations that may or may not take place in Pascagoula, Mississippi, where you can buy a cleared lot within walking distance to the beach for less than $10,000. That’s another one of my whims: buying a second property at such an unbelievable price that it makes me look like a genius in the eyes of family and friends.
The lot, like the travel trailer, could be a moneymaker. I could rent it out on AirBnB to people who want a place close to the beach to park their RV. Plus, land appreciates in value (not as quickly as real estate, but still), so the purchase of the land itself would be an investment, not just an indulgence. It’s like putting money in the stock market, except by putting money in land I also have a place to park a travel trailer I haven’t bought yet within a couple blocks of a white sand beach in the deep South so the wife and kid and I can soak in the rays and say to ourselves, ah, now isn’t this the life?
Will this dream ever come true? Probably not. But perhaps. I still haven’t sold my wife on the idea of buying property in Mississippi. If anything, she’d like a piece of land on Florida’s Emerald Coast, where the water is, you know, emerald. In Mississippi, it’s murky, like the Atlantic. But hey, at least the sand is white. And it’s hard to beat $10,000 for a cleared lot. We could trick out the travel trailer to make it functional off-the-grid, complete with solar panels and a holding tank and some kind of water pumping device (I don’t know how these things work) so that all we’d have to do is park the thing on the lot and commence with beach vacation bliss.
Do you see why I get so caught up in these crazy whims? It’s the possibilities, man, the possibilities. Thinking of the next big thing is exhilarating. Life is too short to sit around for long. I could wake up tomorrow, walk into my front yard and be attacked by a rabid bobcat. It could rip out my throat, and whammo bammo, I’m dead. And what do I have to show for it? There’s no time, or reason, to wait. A bobcat could gut me and I’d be left for dead. Tomorrow. Later this afternoon. Right now. There’s no time like the present.
I could wake up tomorrow, walk into my front yard and be attacked by a rabid bobcat. It could rip out my throat, and whammo bammo, I’m dead. And what do I have to show for it?
This past year, if nothing else, has confirmed the frailty and fleetingness of life. The isolation and death caused by the pandemic has proven how quickly everything we thought of as stable can be tossed into the wind like a handful of sugar packets. The bobcat lurks. Life on a grand scale can change like that, and most of the time we’re powerless to stop it. This past year was also a struggle on a personal level. My son, who was born in January, was diagnosed prenatally with an ultra-rare genetic disorder and suffered a hypoxic brain injury during birth that could have long-lasting implications. He’s here now, and adorable, but the stress of his genetic diagnosis and him living in the NICU for six weeks, plus the brain injury, have aged my wife and me at least a decade. On top of the pandemic and our son’s issues, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with multiple systems atrophy, a terrible illness with no cure that will essentially shut down her body. She’s only 65, but doctors aren’t expecting her to make it to 70. This is a tragic prospect. She was so looking forward to being a grammy to her first grandson. Now she won’t get to know him for very long at all. It’s awful.
I know I’m not the only one who suffers. I know many people out there have similar stories. Stories much worse than mine, even. I’m merely hoping to share my suffering so that others may see some of themselves in it. I’m also highlighting my strife as a way to work through it, to prove to myself that as soon as life feels grounded, some malignant gardener comes along and uproots everything. It’s easy to fall into the delusion that the life we’re living now will be the life we always lead. But things change little-by-little, or sometimes all at once, until the life we’re living is unrecognizable from the one we thought would never change. Some people take this realization lying down, meaning they fold in on themselves and collapse under the ceaseless uprooting, until they’re buried under the silt. Others thrash about, either digging themselves out before they’re buried too deep or refusing to be buried altogether.
When I think of this, I recall an artist I interviewed named Kevin Harrison, a Charleston-based guy who told the malignant gardener to get bent. Harrison had a great life in Charleston, a wife and two kids, when he decided to sell his house and move to Barcelona after his wife landed a job there. Many of us dream about adventuring on this grand scale, but how many of us have the gall to do it? Especially with two kids. After living in Barcelona for a while, soaking in the European lifestyle along the Mediterranean, Harrison and his family took another huge leap and moved to a small fishing village on the Irish Sea. What a great experience that must’ve been, not only for Harrison and his wife, but also for their kids, who had an opportunity to live in two vastly different cultures during their formative years. I’m sure it’ll stay with them for the rest of their lives.
While we’re on the topic of parenting: parenting a newborn is hard. (I’m jumping around a bit, but stay with me). You go into it with this idea that you’ll be able to master it, that you’ll have a plan and stick to it. But the baby has other ideas. Always has other ideas. You can plan and schedule ‘til the cows come home, but the baby cares not for these constructs and will do whatever he wants. This leaves you feeling like your life is spiraling out of control, like all the things that brought you comfort and stability in the past are now out the window, never to return. If a baby needs to poop as soon as you put on a new diaper, then that’s exactly what the baby is going to do. And if he needs to poop again, right after you put on another diaper, so be it. There’s nothing to be done as a parent other than to accept the fact that you’re at the mercy of this tiny human. As one of the nurses in the NICU told us, it’s a baby’s world, we’re just living in it. Say goodbye to the warmness of routine. And your sanity. Our baby is only three months old, and I know it’s not going to get easier any time soon.
Still, the dream is out there, this undying urge to move to Barcelona or [insert idyllic foreign locale here]. This dream that one day I’ll figure it all out and we’ll be able to live wild and free, as a family. That’s really what this current travel trailer whim is all about: living a unique life, doing something interesting, within the context of domestication. I want my son to have unique experiences, and I want my wife and I to feel like we still have some youthful spunk left in us, spunk that mostly drained away during last year’s difficulties. Perhaps the travel trailer thing is also a reaction to feeling like I’ve lost control. It’s a way to wrest back autonomy and shout to the universe “I’m not dead yet!” (I’m only 32). Maybe I’m entering a sort of premature midlife crisis.
I’ll concede that this is probably true. Maybe it’ll blow over. Maybe I should wait it out, to see if this is just a careless whim or a purchase that I truly want to make. But that’s such a boring approach to take. Ah, see: I’m all twisted up! Torn between excitement and responsibility. I don’t know what to do with myself. Sometimes life is as easy as a spring breeze. Other times it’s a Midwestern tornado, lifting barns and cows and other crap off the ground and hurling them through the air like twigs. Right now, life is that tornado. Or, if not a tornado, at least a really bad thunderstorm.
I don’t know. In the past, I’ve written a lot about being young, about being in your 20s and feeling like the world is wide open. Now a page has turned. I’m 32 (like I’ve said) and can longer pretend that I’m young. While I’m not completely world-wearied (there’s still a lot of living to do), I’ve begun to see how life crumbles. I’m not on the downward slope yet, but I’m about to crest the hill, catching glimpses of the destruction down in the valley. People are getting sick and dying. Dreams are being denied. I’m bogged down by the weight of it all, reminded at every turn of mortality. I’m living in a Nick Cave song
I’m prone to getting existentially sad out of nowhere. I could be looking at a sunset or just eating dinner when all of a sudden I’m reminded that my body will wither and die like a tomato off the vine. With that thought, my heart drops and sometimes it takes the rest of the day to pull it back up to where it needs to be. I lose sight of illumination and my soul becomes too heavy to carry. This depression lasts a few hours, max, and usually abates on its own. I’ve grown used to its recurrence. A sort of Hello, darkness, my old friend type of situation.
Talk of mortal dread reminds me of a Sufjan Stevens lyric. (I’m once again jumping around, but stay with me). “What’s left is only bittersweet/For the rest of my life/Admitting the best is behind me.” Those words appear on his album, Carrie and Lowell, a gut-wrenching record about mental illness and death that has spoken to me on a deep level as of late. Stevens was 39 when he recorded that album, which is about par for the course considering the general tone of the thing. While his earlier works confronted sadness as a kind of abstract construct, every line on Carrie and Lowell is filled with genuine horror and longing. Unlike Stevens, I’m not totally completely convinced that the best is behind me. But there are certainly some things I’ll never get back, that I’ll never be able to experience again. I can’t name these things specifically, because I don’t know what they are, but I know on a base level that they’ve been rendered impossible by the slog of time.
But here again, I’m reminded about Harrison and his boundless optimism. We were chatting at the end of our interview and he asked me how old I was. I told him, and he beamed with excitement: “Oh man, that’s just when things start to get good!” He’s in the 50s, by the way. I was taken aback by his buoyant positivity because it didn’t feel like things were getting good. It felt like so many things were ending. Vitality. Adventure. Those old tropes. His comment highlighted the importance of perspective, about not getting so caught up in our own muddled thoughts (which tend toward the negative) that we become blind to the countless perspectives on a given situation. Here I was, in my early 30s, convinced that most of the best was behind me, and along comes this 50-year-old artist telling me that my life is going to get better? I was stunned, confused. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized he was right. Yes, getting older has its pratfalls. The deterioration of our physical bodies, and watching those around us waste away, is awful. Our minds must die, too, some sooner than others, and that’s perhaps even more terrible than our bones decaying. We try to sugarcoat it, but atrophy sucks, plain and simple.
Yet with age also comes solidification, a settling in that was absent at earlier stages of life. I’m not striving to impress others by pretending to be someone I’m not. I can sometimes stand on my front porch and look at the scenery and feel like I don’t need anything more. I see a universe of possibilities in my son’s eyes and want to do right by him. I know, now more than ever, about what’s important, because I spent years actively pursuing what wasn’t. I stray often, like a man devolving into a monkey, drifting into immature thinking and being lost in a tornado of confusion. But unlike, say, 10 years ago, I’m able to rediscover the right path without veering so far off course that I lose my identity. Maybe that’s the best part about being in your 30s: I’m self-aware enough to reel myself back in before I break the line and float aimlessly out to sea.
I walk, because walking is as good for the soul and mind as it is for the body. It’s early morning. I make a cup of coffee and walk up a gravel road that runs alongside a mountain creek. It’s spring and everything that was naked a couple of months ago is now green and alive. But the tops of the mountains are still gray with winter death. I don’t ignore this, but I don’t let it drag me down, either. The road isn’t long, but it is uphill so I breathe heavily. I swirl the coffee as my thighs burn. A groundhog, munching on grass, sees me and disappears into the creekside vegetation.
The tops of the mountains are still gray with winter death. I don’t ignore this, but I don’t let it drag me down, either.
It’s cool and overcast. It starts to drizzle. I’m heading toward a small graveyard just up the way. Only 15 or so gravestones. The people buried there belong to families that have lived in this valley for hundreds of years. I reach the graveyard and turn around. Laid out before me is a beautiful mountain vista. Birds are chirping. A donkey is chewing cud in the distance. I take a couple of breaths and concentrate on the glow before my soul drops. A familiar descension. I kick the dirt that I’ll one day be buried under and walk down the road, not quite the same person I was when I came up here, but not all that different, either. I move, because I know movement is for now, movement is for the living.
Reflections on bloodlines and fatherhood.
Ask anyone about Bill and the first thing they’ll mention is his white t-shirt. It’s the only shirt he ever wore.
I spent my last night in Italy eating a DiGiornio at a small table in a rustic cottage.