I’ve had to come to terms with a lot of things after my “holiday” in the USA. I use the quotation marks because I find that the concept, i.e. a break from your life that includes going to a place where the weather is better and engaging in some leisure activity, is pretty foreign to the psychological upheaval of returning to my homeland, seeing my oldest and dearest friends, examining my evolving identity, and generally feeling conflicted in my love for two countries, two cultures, two homes. Holiday? Vacation? This was hard work.
I should be clear on one thing, though. I love Glasgow, Scotland, the place I live in the hum drum day to day. Going away and coming back reminds me of what it is, and what my life would be missing if I left it. But as the point and title of the Milan Kundera novel suggests, Life is Elsewhere. I miss all these mundane things about America: summer nights, sound of cicadas, lighting lashing a hot sky, good corn, family, old friends who really know me, the list goes on. But it is my challenge to overcome this fundamental tendency: to appreciate my life in the here and in the now, to not pine away for the fantasy of The Other. So I end up living my life by stifling my unfiltered desire with reason. I know I want certain things, but I also meta-know that the want, if fulfullied, is not a want that will untimately make me happy.
I’m also learning that it is as important as anything to allow yourself to be on vacation when you are on vacation, to, as it were, allow The Other in while you can. Another context for the essential be here and now philosophy. I’ve in the past almost ruined my fleeting contact with my land of birth and old loved ones, because I start missing them before I even get to be with them. My mind goes straight to when I’ll not have them anymore, and that sucks because it ruins The Now. But this is life, right? You can’t worry all the time about when it’s all over, because then it’s already over. That has been a big part of my personal philosphy in a nutshell. Stop worrying, be realistic, be practical, don't let yourself want things because it'll ruin what you have.
And yet, my tendency to stifle emotional excess has been failing me these last few days, and I wonder if I'm approaching things unwisely. I like the tree analogy of Zen, which holds that emotions, will, desire, everything from pain to elation, are all leaves and branches of the tree. They will blow around in the storm, they will get damaged, they will sometimes break off, they will cycle throught the seasons. But the roots and the trunk of the tree, well that's your dharma, your spiritual practice. Make them strong, make them last, and then you can cope with what happens to the twigs and leaves surrounding them. Using that analogy, I think maybe my mistake in life isn't so much that my root and trunk aren't catered to adequately – I'm a pretty even keel, generally speaking, with a few blips – but rather that I attempt to control too much the branches and leaves. It's probably healthy to let them do what they will do, to let them blow around, to let them wither and die from time to time. I need to laugh more, cry more, yell more. I need to be OK with wanting things, and OK with trying to get them, and OK with failing to get them. I need to be OK about being sad about missing people from home. The branches and leaves are transient, yes, but they are also important. They're also the parts that flower.
The last part of our vacation was in St Paul, Minnesota, with my old best friend, Peter Lunney, or as time has led us to know him, Tigger, and his wonderful wife, Aly, and his two kiddos, Kira and Jake. I kinda thought initially that I’d write some sort of homage to Tigger, but that’d be weird and he doesn’t need it. Suffice to say that he’s my best friend and I love him, or rather he’s not my bestie now, in the day to day, because he is thousands of miles away, and despite all the ways that the internet allows us to interact across those miles, being with someone is still about being with their entire physio-spiritual selves, and social media chatting and video calls can’t help with that. This I feel strongly after five days with real, actual, him. But yeah, in a zoomed out, total-life-experience kind of way, total BFF. Wendell Berry said once in The Country of Marriage something extraordinary that has always stuck with me. He said to his wife, Tanya, that he is learning to give her his death. My take on that is that there is a certainty with some people that they will be, in a sense, present for death. That your death, if you go first, will be shared by them, and vice versa. Part of them will go with you, and they will be profoundly changed by it, and will even themselves die in part, though they remain alive. Felt that way when Mom died, for example. My wife, Ashley, my immediate family, and perhaps a small handful of others, including Tigger and his family, pass the Wendell Berry Death Test. Bit depressing to go there, but it is a good way of outlining who really matters.
Anyway. First thing we did was go to Valley Fair, an amusement park/water park in Minnesota. I’m not an amusement park type, if that exists. And I confess to a vague sense of ironic engagement with the whole idea. Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if this arty liberal intellectual typs did real people stuff at an amusement park? Well, I left wanting to do nothing other than live my life riding roller coasters and flying down freak-out terrifying multi-storey waterslides. Largely it comes down to this: when in your life do you get the opportunity to scream as loudly as you possibly can? Try it at work. Or, perhaps at home. I could do it right now. The neighbours would call the police and the cat would move out. Screams! What are they for? Draw a Venn diagram of elation and terror, and there’s a point where they overlap. “Draw a line dividing laugh and scream”, as the TMBG lyric put it. It's the precise sensation I experienced, when, for the first time, I had a go at one of these water slides that actually starts you off in a coffin-like pod, and a trap door drops out from under you, flushing you, as it were, down the tube at a speed I would have thought unsafe. Actually, maybe "safe" is a relative term, as my post-water slide ass bruise will attest. But the main thing is, I haven’t screamed like a terrified child in a long, long time, nor have I laughed as one either. And – I can’t say this enough – I really, really recommend it.
Roller coasters and water slides also give you something to do with your old best friends. And that’s what we did, Tigger and I, Ashley, Aly, Jack, Kira and Jake. We sang songs, told jokes, traded pick-up lines on the long climb up the big coaster, and I thought to myself, this would be so complicated with other people. We hit those fucking rides like giddy, jazzed, hopped-up-on-adrenalin preteens, accompanied by Tigger's and Aly's ACTUAL giddy, jazzed, hopped-up-on-adrenalin preteen daughter, Kira. There is something so amazing about old friends' kids. Here’s this guy I know to be singular, monolithic – those who know Tigger know that this is not an overstatement – but here’s this new person. What?! She’s him, and her mom Aly too! So much of my old friends are there. But she’s herself entirely too. All new. I realise that this is over-the-top deep to the point where I might seem glib, but I gotta say, it’s something beyond joyful, or sad. It’s something more like, just, right. We’re transient, fading, seemingly before we are even finished forming. But our kids are gearing up to do it all again. Fine, whatever, we’ve been here before: sunrise, sunset; to everything, turn, turn, turn, blah blah blah. It’s downright mundane. But you know it’s also beautiful.
So listen. You’re going to die. If you’re lucky, you’re going to get old, demented, smelly and sick before you die. I don’t normally point out these glaring negatives on the human condition, because my method of coping with them usually comes down to seeking out and dwelling on the other side of that coin. But from time to time, when I’m feeling all perspective-y, I’m inclined to go there. What’s the first noble truth? Suffering? Zen is after all a pragmatic view. But there’s a reason why it’s the first, not the last, truth. The other three get hazy, and one could write, and many have written, tomes upon tomes about the other three. I’ll cut to the chase. Things suck, the world is cruel, you suffer, you die, and before that you watch people you love suffer and die. But then on the other hand you also sometimes get to ride roller coasters with Tigger. It’s of utmost importance that you let that happen, that you let go of all the shit, all that you are supposed to be, all that you are supposed to do, and all the ways that you fail, and just let yourself scream and laugh.