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The Long, Narrative Driven Approach to 'Taking Life Seriously'

Every so often in life, you wake up to realize that maybe all the renditions of existence that have been taught to you aren't entirely the course you desire. And sometimes its the journey backward and within that makes you realize all of it.

By: Jake & Holly OpenRoadRevival + Save to a List

She had me sit down.

Sunlight shot in angular, matching lines stretched across the carpet.  Seeping through faux wood blinds parted open halfway, elongated parallelograms of a starker white, I stared down and counted them as she paced her own nervously footprinted pattern across the floor.

Quietly and politely she attempted to motion through her hands something not yet conveyed by any orchestrated outpouring of verbal display.  Searching for the correct wording as a hammer reaches out in its quest toward a nail, I patiently awaited the swollen surge of wisdom I was sure would be emitted my way.  

With each passing moment they furthered their assemblage of a fortress upon her tongue, grabbing reinforcements, beckoning to make their vocal display to the outside world known.  Just words. Syllables mashed and run together.  Alphabetic characters lined up alongside one another with the agenda-laden context of communication.  Scratched out lines and clearly formed noises.  Ordinarily just words, the casual outcropping of language used to express the most infantile subjects of the daily world to the most complex, and on this day I knew, could tell, something different lurked on the opposite side of her lips.  An entire way of living laid in approach, ‘the approach’ as to be expected.  And I knew it.

My butt sat unstill, squirming, defenseless; uneasy and awaiting the lecture that was sure to be impending with the clear, childlike intention of immediate dismissal.  Dismissal without the bother of ingestion or pensive thought in regard.  Piping of sofa upholstery imprinting itself onto my legs, a series of delicate lines hidden well below the thinned-out layer of worn-down denim.  Cushions, soft, sinking and trapping; which had begun their supportive disintegration in lieu of the unit’s still sturdy and capable frame.  Inside, the essence of the furniture giving way far before the exterior was ready to suffice with its crumble and fade routine.  This sofa had become the swallowing force, it’s canvas upholstery coarse yet comfortable, steadily inviting you with a washed-out pigment that resembled the color of a lake’s wettened sand after the surf had rolled over top and then made its backward regression.  It had always been the type where sitting down can never be the hasty, temporary event you sometimes look forward to.  Somehow, it incapacitated you, trapped you, secured you, and without the bridled effort of reaching out with prying arms it became nearly impossible to design your escape.

Sun crept in through the gigantic panes of a slider window and showered it lavishly.  The winter months filtered in the heat with sublime exposure.  Outside sat the view of a pair of towering oaks, a birdfeeder supplying the area wildlife, the surreal, quieted tone of tranquility feasting beneath the accelerating heaviness of eyelids.  This sofa was, in fact, the insomniacs dream apparatus.  You hunkered in and bunkered down.  Warm, comfortable and entertained; your guard onto the perils of life dropped at the inspirational sense of simplicity and peacefulness supplied by the scene.

The innate nature of the problem with all of this is that you were bound to wake up sooner or later, and wake up uncomfortably at that.  That the ever-softening nature of the cushions, the ones now acting like quicksand and pulling you lower inside to its depths until the bite of a framing crossbeam ached your back, would eventually wage war against your inner self.  That the position to which you fell asleep would inevitably turn into a vulnerable adaptation on slouching, into something far less orthodox and physically appealing, the kink in your neck begging out for a therapeutic rub, the possibility of a pinched nerve taking home in your shoulder becoming real-world.

And now, outside, it had become dark.  The sun depressed back behind the horizon of shingled roofs and pine trees, the flurry of animals now gone or invisible against the midnight-blackened exterior, the warmth of once shining rays now gave way to the punishing winter wind now sending the message of a howl alongside its bone deep chill.  The once overly enticing invitation now performing its Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine to precision.  The environment now seems hostile.

You try to get up.  The position of this sofa is so close to the ground that any usage of legs is rendered futile.  Rocking ensues, trying to will yourself out of the cracks and crevices of the securely positioned furniture that once felt like such an alluring home, yet the large, squares of molded foam only inch out ever-so-slightly with your struggling movements.  Stuck, the digital display of time reads in those neon green numbers above the microwave to be just 6:45.  The day is far from over, there is plenty yet to be done, yet the imperative measure of removing yourself from the now horrific confines of this sofa seem to be a hopeless endeavor indeed.  You feel that you have simply become a part of it, blended in entirely simply to form a new entity.  Bars quickly rise up around you, the earth becoming infinitely smaller as the flipping numbers on the clock sprint past.  There remains so much to do and with so little time in which to.  The trap has been conducted, executed, sprung, and set off.  There seems to be no method of escape.  All you desired was a short nap.

Yet at that age, the symbolic nature of the subject is completely and utterly lost upon you.

“There comes a time that you need to start taking life seriously,” the verbal output battered off my ears, ringing off drums and bouncing around what lies in between before settling into some corner of memory recall in which to call home.  It jars me from any imaginative trance of daydreaming that had been taking place.  It was the summons to the same didactic statements which have blanketed my life abundantly all throughout those fortifying years of inherited development and soul seeking self-discovery.  Years designed specifically for such purpose of emptying the barrel of desires and confiscating one’s personal dreams, to place them on hiatus until the setting in of grey hair couples with battered bones upon one’s mid-sixties.

It’s those guidance driven slices of advice, however, that tend to start changing in appearance themselves, altering their prose as one commences a certain age or period of life when suddenly the personal ideal of being purposely carefree gets the missiles drawn gesture of an inquisitive, judgmental rebuttal.

Oddly enough, the ‘you can be whatever you set your mind to’ or ‘follow your dreams’ come fully equipped with an expiration date stamped and attached.  They become steadily and eagerly replaced with the ‘nobody really likes their job’ or ‘that’s just how life happens to be’ mentality of a world now described to you as an overnighted delivery of the explicitly ‘real’.  Sometime around a certain age these implied subtleties of the non-make-believe world, the one to which you had known, which you had grown up in, start to crop up more fervently, they tend to root and spread, cultivated by a society ready to grab you by whatever shred of passion which has somehow managed to survive, harness any remnants of a youthful presence which has persisted through, and work with arduous ambition to subdue it, to strangle it into submission.

As for my story, this happened to occur around age twenty-three or so, coordinating itself with that flip of the tassel and tossing of the collegiate cap, the world seeming to add about it a weight-filled disposition to cart around in place of the gleam from academic freedom I had been looking forward to.  Now time to fall in line, do as compelled and persist graciously and thankfully through the next series of decades to follow, securing the comfort and security that comes alongside that steady infiltration of numerical digits which begin to accumulate and take over one’s identity.  And so, with the comforting step of conformity by my side, I took heed of the advice postured deliberately underneath my nose and began to take life seriously, or follow the path as it had always been shown to be.

The main problem with telling someone to ‘take life seriously’ is that the definition of such has a finite tendency to be excessively reductive.  It’s a statement that compiles the vast expanses of existence and rolls it up with singular, monologued thought, ignoring the diverse agendas of alternative ways of life, failing to put fingers to the pulse of what a person might like to call success.  From the vantage point of my experience, ‘taking life seriously’ was always proposed about as an inherently economically-centric phrase.

Taking life seriously was built about the platform of the firmly placed-in-position rock I had come to know, the notion of comfort and security firmly gripping one's feet to the ground, establishing your little corner, defining your specific skill sets, the scrutiny of the unknown, the praise of preparation, and the culpability of failure associated with the noted refusal of any of the above.

I had lived my life upon a detailed trajectory, speeding through youth with well-defined goals oriented toward a promising career, a gorgeous photogenic family hanging in portrait above a crackling fireplace, the perfectly presentable suburban landscaped lawn drawing upwards toward a sprawling work-of-art home that offered up more space than I could envision using.  For this to me was the epitome of taking life seriously as had always been presented.  Serious was chasing after and henceforward procuring precisely what my parents had.

And there is absolutely nothing, zero, wrong with that or its pursuit it if that is what particularly moves and fulfills you.

But then, perhaps, I should have never gone to the mountains.

The summer prior to my final year of collegiate courses, graduation lurking and the promise of the professional world catapulting my way, alongside a couple close friends luring ourselves down the uniquely American symbolic nature of darkened highways and a west-pointed compass, I set off to visit a friend who had recently relocated to Portland, Oregon.  Dave lived downtown on what I refer to as the Simpson’s streets, somewhere between Flanders and Lovejoy.  That week we trampled through low tide in Seaside, gawked at Haystack Rock, and pushed ourselves as far up Mount Hood as physical capabilities allowed.  Nicotine sweated through the white t-shirt of my friend J, we turned the video camera toward him for his confessional regarding his promise to quit as I manufactured a late-August snow angel.

On the return route home, I conned my mates into a pitstop in Eugene.  I wanted to visit campus.  It was late August and the streets were beginning to take life, a vibrant energy exuded out dormitory windows as I purchased a hoodie bearing the state and school’s name, green lettering overtop bright yellow fabric, from a university bookstore.  I was all but certain that one year later I’d be back here, enrolled in grad school, gallivanting weekends in the mountains to the east and the shoreline west, football games on Saturday afternoons in the fall, and working towards my MBA in Sports Management and subsequently spending my life doing something I loved.

The remainder of that return route pushed us back east across the darkest sky I’d ever witnessed hovering just above highway 20 in the less than densely populated Oregon wilderness.  The visual spectacle of stars illuminating over my head and off in every angle swiveled my head, a near 180-degree sprawl took off in every direction but beneath our tires.  My cranked neck fixated through the wide open moonroof of a speeding, navy Audi in utter awe of their abundance, mysteries of the universe becoming unavoidable in such a habitat.  Sweeping piles of volcanic rock littered the landscape with the return of a rising sun, eyes glued at everything exterior, every inch being a uniquely new terrain blistering past slightly cracked windows sucking out the smoke of Marlboro Lights with a heavy foot glued to the accelerator.

We spent the early morning hours sleeping at a rest stop just outside Boise, filled up a cooler with booze and hot dogs in Idaho Falls, made our way through the gates into Yellowstone in early afternoon, and finally set up camp at Madison Junction before setting off to explore.  Jaunting off toward and climbing up waterfalls, the vision of bison and elk turning commonplace, the air of Norris geyser basin stinging our nostrils, it all felt a bit like an existential version of what home should be.

And then, all of us with a heavy heart in tow, we summoned ourselves on our trek towards what was actually home, packed up and left seemingly as quickly as we came.  Miles disappeared beneath the diminishing tread of Coopers, well before smartphones and mobile devices were a carried about thing, a time when conversation was yet king and CD shuffling was still a skill, we pointed east with persistence, the ‘real’, ‘serious’ world waiting with its shaking finger next to the “Welcome to Michigan” sign that signaled our final leg.   Despair had never seemed so imminent.

Life was never quite the same for me after we made that final pull onto the cracked-up, faded asphalt of my driveway.

I remember my first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains the way romantics recall the primary optical appearance of their wives.  I reminiscence over my original traverse through that rugged terrain of the layered Badlands with the same detailed recognition to which my friends recall that hospital room of their first born.  Sixteen years after that initial expedition nearly every moment of our escapades play on with vivid memory, slowly taking on the flipping, grainy projector-esque black spotted residue and skipping slides that work themselves into our stories as they gain in years.

A fall semester of three courses awaited me.  I took them.  I excelled in them.  My parents, and oh how I love them dearly and without exception, have never been the outwardly supportive type when it came to the matter of relocation, and particularly not back then.  It’s not surprising I suppose, to have a hard time stomaching the idea of your eldest child being hundreds, if not thousands of miles away.  The debt incurred furthered the impractical sense of moving to Eugene in their eyes.  Experience and a year or two under my belt, financially and professionally speaking, might be a better suit for me to wear.  And like the child I allowed myself to be, the blame only and squarely upon my own shoulders, risk defeating reward once again, and I listened.  I sent out resumes and stayed put, surviving three rounds of intense interviews with a local, Michigan lakeshore company and received an exciting offer as a Marketing Associate.  This had always been precisely the plan.  The plan lasted less than six months.

My lunch hour became the regular occurrence of a drive out to Lake Michigan to watch the waves crash upon the shore as if they were the embodiment of all my collective dreams.  Reaching forward for a split second, then washing back away over smoothed out sand until they rejoined the crowded body of water from which they had orchestrated their short-lived escape.  This was the real world as it had always been proposed to me, the vivid display of the expectation in full force, to be a droplet of water amidst the mass.  An office chair to uncomfortable to stand nine hours a day trapped inside waited for my diligent return.  Tasks oriented to simply keep me busy enough, and which took up way too little of a full day hung up on cubicle walls.  I missed waiting tables.  I missed officiating hockey games.  I missed not having to make an art of wasting time as I watched everyone do, as they gathered around the kitchen or leaned against walls pretending.  I had consistent hallucinations of Bill Lumbergh out of my peripheral.  This was an entirely new world to me and I did not care for it in the least.  But then again, you do what you have to do to survive, to build your life, you grit your teeth and bide your time even if it feels like it is systematically causing your death.  You build your cage, day by day and piece by piece, with every day at work and each material purchase.  And with time, with every punch of the clock it becomes a bit more normal, and it just simply ends of becoming you and your life.  This has always been my single greatest, most overwhelming fear.

If there is a silver-lining to staying put, to letting Eugene linger, it lies in the fact that I met my future wife because of it.  That the past fourteen years have rarely detoured from exceptional between the two of us, and I have gotten the opportunity to share my passion for blacktop skipping under rotating tires pointed out toward snow-capped jagged horizons with her.  That I got to be the bearer of introductions to the same landscapes that encapsulated me, and that she just so happened to find them as entrancing and dream-laden as I had.  And that ultimately, she agreed to marry me not just in principle but to say ‘I do’ on the graveled banks of the Gardiner River inside Yellowstone National Park, the storied place of my first trip west and the destination of our original adventure together.  There is much in there to be thankful for, enough to drown out any regrets that might surface, plenty to admit I’d do it all over again, but still not enough to stop me from thinking about it.

Since then I’ve held two positions solely built around the stability and security of paying bills, the purpose driven life of buying a house and working down a mortgage, placing vehicles in the driveway, dinners, decoration and the occasional escape to the somewhere else.  I have never had the fortunate pleasure of being passionate about my work.  I’ve always settled for something to do that ‘pays’, always been focused only on the financial aspect of the coin of self-preservation and the sanity of feeling secure.  Oddly, I’ve never even done what I had initially excelled at, never took the time or risk to find that position which served my natural abilities.  I refrained completely from writing, the one discipline to which each and every high school teacher and college professor exuded lavish amounts of praise toward me.  ‘Writing doesn’t really pay the bills’ or ‘that’s a hard way to make a living’ sounded a lot different than the advice I had received as a child.

Instead, I looked to shed the stationary environment of an office.  I took on a stint as a builder while containing barely even the know-how of swinging a hammer.  A few years later, my future wife and I completely gutted and renovated a late-1800’s farmhouse, our talent a surprise and delight to friends and family whom we greatly enjoyed showing off our spectacle.  Next, I took on a sales, service and mechanic role without a credible ability in any of those disciplines.  Electrical diagrams baffled me, and I had never played an exceptional role in what seemed like the forced, casual conversation that sales require.  Fast forward a few years and I find myself chatting up folks at the grocery store and at campgrounds, talking shop or just about the nature of life with regularity.  It’s incredible what the mind can adapt to if it sinks it time into something, even if the passion for such a thing never really has a home for it.

During this span, however, I have developed some detrimental habits and responses to the stresses which accompany such terms of sequestering your own soul.  For a series of years, I completely neglected my physical wellbeing, enabling my body to drift outward, towards becoming misshaped and barely functional.  Hockey, one of the remaining passions and pleasures that existed, a mainstay of my life, had begun to be a physical chore and less enjoyable.  I delegated the slip in ability to age, as we all do, but knew damn well that it was a lack of effort on my end.  I had become okay with becoming not just comfortable in my monetary seeking ventures, but also with deserting the physical wellbeing of myself.

I began drinking far too much, the consumption of unhealthy amounts becoming a steadfast routine.  I drank to cure not unhappiness but dissatisfaction, too completely different states of being.  At times, I drank simply for the consistent purpose of washing the day’s previous hours off of me and drowning my inner monologue.

I swallowed words with regularity and abundance at work with the fear of losing my job which is a resident position of ninety-plus percent of the population I presume.  I harbored resentment to an unprecedented depth because I felt it impossible to even present my opinion, and I then allowed myself to be so thoroughly underappreciated that it simply became the status quo, the natural state of being.  I gave permission to myself to become disrespected with intense regularity, to have myself not matter, to the point that all the mirror shot back in my direction was the lack of respect I had for myself.  All of this done for the purpose of a paycheck, to live a life that neither my wife nor I were that crazy living in the first place.

None of these are societal abnormalities I realize, an exceedingly presented problem in itself.  The ways of the world to which we live, and how it has all been accordingly presented to us, are built securely upon this very foundation of self-sacrifice of a personal desire for anything outside the norm.  And then with a jolt so sudden, of ground-rattling and earth-shaking proportion, my wife’s grandfather, a pillar in both of our lives, became ill and was taken from us in a short series of weeks.  We then each lost a grandmother in the coming months, more expected but still a designation to the drum-beating lack of immortality that gets louder with each passing event of magnitude.  And then with the emphatic exclamation point of tears pouring so hard they skip over your cheeks, our beloved Abby, family member and Doberman Pinscher eight-days-shy of eleven years, fell and broke her femur chasing a bird in the front yard we had worked so hard to pay for.

Bone cancer had taken hold, it persisted throughout her body in an unsolvable way and left only one humane course of action in the matter.  My wife and I wailed out almost uncontrollably for days if not weeks.  We left town behind us to get away immediately.  When away, we only wished to be back home amongst her things, surrounded by her memory, her smell still drifting through the dusty presence of our rooms.  We slept with her blanket.  We cuddled with her stuffed bear with a clinging presence, the one that she had begun to carry around ever so gingerly in her old age in place of the previous immediate disembowelments that had been the regular occurrence of her youth.

Finally, we laid together, her orthopedic dog bed below our sobbing embrace where we had spent those final hours feeding to her her favorite foods, a McDonald’s spread of double cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets and an ice cream cone.  Space where we huddled in as close as atoms physically allow you, and then even closer to feel and hear, and be always beside her as she reached down to take her final breath.

We attempted to process.  It was now time to start taking life seriously. Now.

‘Seriously’ has begun to take on a new definition in our household.  Serious is no longer the pursuit of the norm, the rush to purchase the material, the wasting of days in the speed of the pursuit.  Serious is now demonstrated about by the resounding thud of the experience, of inner peace, clarity, sanity, and self-respect.  Too little time exists in everyone’s lifetime to waste it, to spend it doing something that fails to persuade you into a passion on some level, whatever that might be.  The past has seemed a sort of mild, methodical asphyxiation in retrospect, a blatant attempt to classify ourselves as participants amongst the congregation.

This past summer my wife and I sold our house; our pride, joy, and workmanship included in all the detail of its renovation.  We had come to the conclusion that the memories of our time there, all the hard work involved in its transformation were plenty enough to hold on to.  Our memories will never fully seep from those walls, it will never forget us, but the remainder of our story need not be played out in the same steady location to maintain importance.  Effectively and in the end, the past will inevitably win out, it will place that tap upon your shoulder as in ‘it’s now your time’ and memories will be all the world is left with.

The phrase ‘take the money and run’ has developed a decreased emphasis on money and an increased tone upon the run portion.  Money is only as operative as the personal sanity and happiness it can provide.  We ushered ourselves out west once again this summer, spending three weeks amongst the towering Tetons, basking in the desert sun of Moab, backpacking through the San Juans, taking in the pristine reflection of the Maroon Bells, drinks in Aspen, the display of moose in Rocky Mountain, and traversing the streets of Boulder and Denver with the enthusiastic thirst for exploration which had been once firmly a backburner operation.  It was the dream life we’ve always envisioned in far too short of form, but yet ultimately to us it was serious living.

Taking life seriously has become a torrid affair to us.  One of the most soulful adventures and depth-oriented levels of exploration that we have allowed ourselves to now experience.  To not settle and take our shots at what we might truly wish to be and achieve as people.

Our lives had become the circular cycles of work and education since we grew old enough to enter into adult life.  We have performed the countless tasks asked of us and performed the act of expectation with a smile on our face as if we enjoyed it.  And it now seems like the final presentation of a perfect and legitimate shot at taking our opportunity, our stab at our definition of what ‘serious’ has evolved into.

Last week, I lost my job and a long-running friendship that was attached to it.  A situation that would normally be a horrifically bitter affair felt more like an overwhelming sigh of relief in many ways.  The words that finally got to arrange their escape from my mind were replaced by the self-respect and an increased measure of sanity which had spent well over a year feeling depressingly stifled.

To be concise about it, I was simply done being disrespected.  Not just as an employee, but mostly as a person and friend.  Done being marginalized to the point my opinion could not even be as much as vocalized, let alone valued, without being met with a tantrum if not dealt with the tenderness of detail to which you handle a child.  Done swallowing words because I knew it just simply did not matter the way I felt, one way or another.  I was done hiking the trail paved with egg shells and the scapegoated blame which consistently fell on the backs of anyone and everyone else around.

I needed to begin to start taking life seriously.

The mountains still sit too far to the west, but my wife and I are currently taking the steps to void ourselves of the particular shackles which have come to consume and cement us where we stand.  We are amidst transformation, preparation peaking in an alternate direction, a road of unknown direction and destination forthcoming.  The goal has become that of the unidentified, the shedding of the once normal comforts, constructs and securities to where we once rested our heads with pleasure in favor of crisscrossing backroads and the exciting rendition of exploration playing forth in our minds.

Currently, we are living in three hundred square feet of a renovated shed, fixed up with every ounce of care as we supplied our previous home, waiting on finding the perfect van in which to convert and call our next dwelling.  Holly, our pup Charley, and I, well, we are now entering a world to which we will assign the definition to 'real’.

This has become the new version of us ‘taking life seriously’.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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