The End of the Road

Out on the road I read about the end of someone else’s road; life’s journey curtailed, existence expunged.

Journalist and My Cancer blogger Leroy Sievers died today. If you don’t know him, you can learn more about his latter stages of life in his blog here, and if you are curious about the bigger picture — about the entirety of his life — you can read about that in this obituary here. Reading about him, skimming some of the entries that chronicled the final two years of his life, and taking in the comments from his many adherents — the loyal following he amassed, the community that his vision spontaneously formed — who read his daily posts about his final months-turned-into-years, certainly is more than compelling; it gives one pause.

Pondering what life is about, what it is to be on life’s path, to embark on the journey, then come to the end of that road.

Ready or not, because all roads have an end.

Coming to terms (with that verite) before coming to the terminus is important; signal work. Perhaps the most important work on any individual’s agenda. Yet, most of us don’t embark on it.

Most of us take life’s treks for granted — reducing road trips (at the most) to “tasks” or “mini-reprieves” or “truncated, but not fully requited adventures” that flow inexorably, unfailingly, one after another. Or so we blithely (lead ourselves to) believe. Control is a matter that we bracket and place off to the side; it is an unwarranted consideration; a coda for retrospective parlor play; a triviality disconnected from the realities steering our course. Such concerns dispensed with, we confidently regard life as a succession of unending pre-determined sequences: rising, dressing, eating, voiding waste, sleeping. And from these — because of these — other mundane assignments — made necessary by the terms of daily maintenance — also become codified as part of our on-going routine; tasks like shopping, gassing the car, balancing bank books, punching a time clock, trying to be social.

Of their own bulk, due to their own weight, all of these tasks coming to occupy so much of our conscious existence as to overshadow the fact that existence exists, that something larger than simply “getting through” is what this is all about. This approach is akin to living life as if it is an escalator conveying us from Immigration to the gate at the airport.

But when that approach prevails, when that vision predominates, something goes missing: the ultimate reality that (to extend the analogy) there is a vehicle waiting that will swallow us whole. The fact that, once we run our ticket through the scanner at the gate, we will pass down one last corridor, be directed to our seat, receive some final instructions, buckle in, take off; and . . . our journey will soon be complete.

Too late to realize that what we have passed along the way to the gate — all the pubs, and children’s romper rooms, and sushi restaurants, and magazine racks, and neon signs, and art exhibits, and people shooting the shit in the waiting lounges — is actually the stuff of our lives; it is the true (but so often ignored) substance of our journeys — of life itself.

So often — as we alight on the people movers whisking us unrelentingly, with purpose and absent compromise, from start to finish — do we fail to recognize that it is all this side-bar activity — the visual dicta and the social dross that we skirt as we ride the rail — that is the true purpose of this trek; this is actually what life is for. Too often do we substitute the goal for the process, see the end as the end, rather than the fact that the end lies amidst the means, not in some physical finish.

Our fear, it seems, is that in getting ourselves off the track, we may end up without viable means to reach path’s end; we may get stuck in a weigh-station, without means to return to the road, regain the inertia that can carry us forward (we may never make it to the end! And then where would we be?). Our uncertainty in the surety of the process leads to doubt; to crippling ambivalence. An existentialist traveler’s version of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” quandary . . .

. . . to engage in the minutiae of each moment (and risk dying in place), or proceed unimpeded to the end (and risk gaining little or nothing of value).

It is a conundrum, to be sure . . . one without any easy solution.

Many people, confronted with the dilemma, opt to play it safe; recognizing much too late of all that they have forsaken. Too late to get off the people-mover, too late to participate in life, too late to reap the rewards that engagement can bring.

My solution to the conundrum has been peripatacity. To favor process, to embrace the moment, to intercalcate myself into local detail. Thus is it that over the past few years I have traveled to Singapore, Poland, Brazil, Norway, Turkey, Thailand, Egypt, France. Various other elsewheres. And throughout, beyond merely experiencing, I have set myself a task that might circumvent the mundane, fixed, succession of presumed life-tasks. I have assigned myself a designation, a role to play; I have regarded myself as a chronicler, a witness; dubbed myself a recorder, a scribe. Thus is it that, armed with camera and operating through words, I have encountered and sought to capture the behavior of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of people; fellow travelers on life’s road. Not all opting for the same solution to the conundrum detailed above. Some in the moment, perhaps; others locked onto a fixed course to a final destination.

During these encounters, there have been moments, I admit, when I have wondered: “what is the history behind this precise pinprick of time? What are the circumstances, the contingencies, the vectors that have delivered this person into my viewfinder?” And, beyond that: “what future lies before them?”

At its morbid extreme lies the query: “how much longer will this person’s trek continue?” And “where and how will their demise come?”

I hate it when that happens, but with my mind, it is unavoidable. It comes with the thinking license issued me.

Thus is it that in Sweden recently, when I saw this father teaching his young girl how to fish, I regarded not only this present, but wondered, as well, about the past events that led to this moment; the circumstances by which this elder man came into custody of this child; the nature of their relationship, as well as their futures — individual and intertwined — that lay ahead. To what degree — if at all — would this moment on film be a part of their future? To what extend — if at all — was this moment a part of moving these two toward their respective terminals. And my own . . .

Other questions came as well — as they always do; a veritable onslaught of existential queries:

“Is it possible that this cheerful little girl will no longer exist when I review my photo archive, in a year?”

Or . . . “is it possible that our shoulders will brush one against the other in a subway in Madrid in 15 years — and we won’t ever know that we had once encountered one another on a bridge in Stockholm years before?”

Too speculative? Uncertain? Unknowable?

Well therein lies the point. No one can truly say. We speculate about what is behind the mask of every person we encounter along our trek; unsure, often, whether, how, and to what degree these people bear on our journey. If at all. Does the street performer turning his still moments into patron’s coins, or the tourist posing with the life-size moose, or the painter caught inbetween brush strokes in the apartment house foyer have a role to play in our ultimate disposition? Or are they merely foliage in the backgrounds that fill the canvases capturing the many scenes of our lives.

These are questions whose answers can only be known by working with material in our present — as if it belongs in our present. Ignoring it, shrugging it off, derogating it — all of this means that we are embracing the fast-track into a final destination. It means that we are unwilling to accept that any and all of these seemingly trivial details in the spaces and moments along the way might prove determinative; of both immediate and ultimate import.

After all . . . who knows?: might these be the last photos to fill up, define, complete the mural of my life?

Just as Leroy Sievers could not have predicted the onset of cancer at the age of 50, no one knows what lies ahead of them. They can dream of a future, they can plan for it, even anticipate its appearance. Yet, they do so exclusively at their own peril. The peril of losing all that is precious in the moment. For any of us — for all of us, peripatetic or not — the end of the road beckons. How we embrace its inevitable appearance — not whether we do — is paramount. As Sievers final years so well demonstrate.