Long story short: I was supposed to go to Austria to work in an eight-hundred-year-old castle. I lived in Massachusetts at the time and met a friend, Diane, who already had contacted an Austrian, Peter Trimbacher, who owned the place. I wrote him and we started a correspondence which culminated in him asking if I wanted to tend bar at the castle and help him write his story. I bought a plane ticket and everything. We were to leave in May, so to save money, in February I moved down to Pennsylvania to live with my college roommate, Brian, and I got a job at the famous Hotel Hershey.
The next thing I knew, I had decided to not go to Austria. And if I had that moment back, that day I stood on the porch on East Chocolate Avenue, downwind from the Chocolate Kiss plant feeling sick to my stomach, thinking about my choices, I would still not go to Austria. No doubt at all. Not because everything worked out the way I had hoped it would—it didn’t—but because my decision was based upon what I felt to the bone instead of what I figured to the brain. Wow, reread that. Idealism at its best, no?
Yes. I loved those days when I could afford idealism.
This happens in nature as well.
When I hike, I move from one trail to another almost always without forethought or contemplation. I try and stay aware of where I’m going in the grander sense, of course, so I don’t end up carving off my arm in a cave somewhere or falling off a cliff, but in the more immediate, I look down several paths a la Frost and just head one way, usually because of where it might lead but just as likely because my foot slipped and I caught my balance headed down to the left instead of the right. Whatever. Trying to predict which way to go in nature is better than another is like deciding which part of the river is best to watch run by when the currents are strong.
I have always done better without maps, without guides, when I was able to just instinctively move along, or when someone I’m with suddenly says, “Hey, let’s go this way now.” Yes. This worked when I hiked the deserts around Tucson, wandered streets in Russia, or walked aimlessly throughout Prague. In fact, Prague is an excellent example since I’ve more than a few times been lost for hours in the labyrinth they call Old Town Prague. Yet, those unanticipated hours when I thought I knew I’d be back at my apartment in the Mala Strana and drinking tea while eating strudel ended up directing me to sections of the city I never would have sought out. The Jewish Quarter with its disturbing graveyard and piles of headstones; the convent of St Agnes where a curator gave me some original stones from the foundation then a private tour of the Museum of Medieval Art; and the endless bends in the river I thought would take me home but instead led me to a group of artists sitting near what they told me was “the Hunger Wall,” and I explored the reach for hours until I came upon a small building where I sought refreshments, only to discover a cavern, now a restaurant, dating back to the fourteenth century when they stored wine there.
That’s how I travel. That’s how I make decisions when in nature, even when—sometimes especially when—I’m nowhere near nature to begin with.
But life? Oh my, well, it can be dangerous, I suppose, living on a whim, tossing everything to the breeze should the “sudden decision to make a right” turn out to be wrong. Fundamentalists will tell us there is no such thing as a “wrong” decision. But watch the Mets play—it’s not true. Many of my friends insist it is all chance. An intelligent romantic will say a solid combination of both is necessary—live life freely but have some sort of plan.
And that’s where I get into trouble. One cause of depression, at least for me, is seeing too far down the road. A few times in my life I made detailed plans only to have them crash around me, and people can get lost that way, even with the finest maps and the most detailed preparations.
Yet I agree—the whim thing can be childish. But the one thing I have actually learned from all the changes in my life these last, well, decades, is that I was not built to follow another’s lead. I have tried and it simply leaves me mentally exhausted and very confused.
Every single moment that we are alive we are in a struggle to balance our responsibilities with the urge to live fully before we die. I’m entering the fourth quarter here for God’s sake—and I just spent three years trying to find second gear again. And the truth is, after serious contemplation and a little bit of self-analysis, maybe the fundamentalists are onto something. Perhaps there is a reason I’ve been having trouble shifting gears and finding my forward motion.
In fact, you know what? I think I’ll walk from here on out. It turns out everything worked out just as it should. Always has.
Or maybe I’ll just go back to Spain. If the Camino taught me anything it was to follow my heart even if it means completely changing everything I thought was going to happen.
Oh, God! This is some shape I’m in. Thanks Jackson for the line.
Okay, now this:
I wrote everything above this line some time ago; a simple journal entry. Jotting my thoughts down, thinking it might be a blog or an essay or, most likely, kindling on the next chilly night. But tonight I was listening to some music, trying to figure out a few things which need my immediate attention, and I worried I’d be able to handle it all, worried if I made the wrong decision—again—and the anxiety grew in direct proportion to the length of list of things I must take care of, now.
And I thought of Spain and the lessons of “simplicity” I thought I’d never forget but often do, and my heart slowed, my anxiety eased. I thought of a few friends out in the ether who know I’m here and always let me know they’re there. That’s what love is—letting others know we are here and that we know they are there.
Sometimes I get scared when I realize I’m sixty years old and still trying to figure things out as if I’m a teenager, and other times I gain my energy from that exact thought. I no longer worry about change, about gains and losses. All I have now, all we ever have now, is our ability to follow our hearts, which we know well and understand well what they want.
So I didn’t go to Austria. So what? Instead, I gained so much more.
Besides, Diane told me Trimbacher turned out to be an asshole anyway.