When I was child, my dad planned and saved all year, working for decades at a job he often hated, to take my brother, sister, and me on family vacations. It began with a little travel trailer pulled by his brown Oldsmobile, trips that got longer and more ambitious over the years. We began by exploring the nearby Midwest, but eventually my father lugged us all the way to California. Our stopover at the Grand Canyon looms in my memory, not only because of the sheer awesomeness of that abyss, but for the brevity of our visit. Although the Grand Canyon had been presented to us as a highlight of our long journey, once we’d all taken a gander, peering out over the railing from the crowded viewing platform, we were herded back into the sweaty backseat to continue pressing westward.
I’ve long been grateful for the sacrifices my father made to give his kids a better childhood than he’d had, including these jaunts around the country. But, as an adult looking back, I have also recalled with amusement his tendency to fast forward through the pinnacle experiences, sometimes literally so. (I’m looking at you, Pike’s Peak.) It was, as I would come to describe to friends, as if my father thought of vacation as a competition, or imagined that we were completing an assignment of some sort. For the longest time, I could not comprehend why he would put so much advance effort into facilitating experiences that were then to be treated mainly as tasks to be crossed off a list.
From my middle-aged adult perch, it is much clearer to me that, when my father was a young man with young children, travel-trailer vacations were one part of a momentous assignment he had given to himself, a critical facet of his commitment to be a “good dad.” And it’s not as if this was the only aspect of life that he seemed to regard as a long, repeating list of actions to be dutifully performed. He was, as I am, attracted to rote regularity and routine. Without a doubt, I think my father deserves to be celebrated for his discipline and determination, for how well he realized his vision of success. But it’s also true that this orientation to life — one focused overwhelmingly on preparation, problem-solving and completion of task — left little room for the in-between experience of simply existing. To put a bumper sticker phrase on it, it is a philosophy of life better suited to a “human doing” than to a human being.
I ruminate on such things now not to find flaws in my father, but to make sense of the fact that, for as far back as I can remember, much of my life too has felt primarily like a long test, an obstacle course, a series of puzzles and trials to be confronted and efficiently worked through. Although it’s an approach to life that’s incredibly common — maybe more common than not— it comes at a very high price. Unsurprisingly, for example, it is often accompanied by chronic anxiety, for how could one possibly relax with the next “test” or assignment always just around the corner? Not only is there little opportunity for true, deep rest when one is obsessively focused on the next item on the list, but there is also little possibility of truly stopping and simply being present in the moment.
It is also unsurprising, then, that, when I was child and young adult, I related to life primarily in terms of whether I was “smart,” “clever,” and “good” enough, especially in the ways celebrated by teachers and professors. Even now, after decades of being a more or less “successful” professor, I do not know if my work has been motivated out of intrinsic love for intellectual exploration or from a need to check the appropriate achievements off of my list. In video-game terms, I saw it as my assignment to make my way through the dark woods, dispatching whatever bombs, booby traps, and marauding orcs I encountered, while simultaneously collecting gold coins and power-ups. To be clear, I do not write this now because I imagine I am unique in seeing life in such terms. To the contrary, from what I can tell, most people are racing through their lives proudly crossing off the stops on their itinerary.
As he got older, and with the loving companionship of my stepmother, my father got better at putting his feet up and enjoying the view. The two of them would hop in their RV and drive down to the gulf coast from Missouri just to enjoy the salty air and expansive blue vista, my stepmother tells me. “Sometimes we just wanted a change of scenery.” This too has become a part of my father’s legacy that I’m happy now to embrace. For while it is true that I sometimes think of my dad when I’m racing down the freeway, responsibly rushing from point A to point B, I can feel his presence too, when I am flat on my back on a rest stop picnic table with the sun warming my face. I don’t think I ever entirely forget that I am on my way to somewhere, but there are also these luscious in-between moments when I manage to be no place other than where I actually am.
2 thoughts on “A pit stop at the Grand Canyon: Life as an assignment to be completed”
Wow, you’ve put this not only into words, you’ve painted the scenery so beautifully. I will hear those words, and and visualize the moments, as I take the time to reflect on my own life.
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Well said. It was only in his later years was he able to stop and smell the roses. We have a picture of him atop the picnic table gazing at the sky.
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