When I was in third grade, I had an inexplicable fascination with the Iditarod Dogsled race held every year in Alaska. The race retraces the journey from Anchorage to Nome, made by a brave dog named Balto to get medicine for children suffering from diphtheria in 1925. While most of the topics covered in third grade Social Studies put me to sleep, I couldn’t get enough reading about the Iditarod, and long after the Iditarod unit was over, I would daydream about being a “musher” when I grew up. Nowadays, I have no desire to be a “musher” and when you get right down to it, if someone actually offered me the chance to race sled dogs, I probably wouldn’t have gone through with it then either. After all, I could barely keep my balance walking through snow, so standing on a sled while being pulled by dogs would have been out of the question. Also, the potential perilous situations that can occur in the Iditarod like thin ice wouldn’t have appealed to me then and don’t appeal to me now. So why I daydreamed about being a “musher” was for a long time a mystery to me.
Then in fourth grade, the combined effects of a vacation to a cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin over Labor Day weekend and a whole curriculum based on pioneers like Laura Ingalls Wilder had me dreaming about being a modernday pioneer, abandoning the modern life of hurried mornings, long days away from home and annoying television programs in the evening and raising kids in the north woods. But as I matured I realized I was making that kind of life sound more glamorous than it really was. Using an outhouse? No thank you! Cooking meals over an open fire? As it is, I am still afraid of burning myself while cooking on an electric stove. And we haven’t even gotten to my fear of bugs and my disdain for rugged trails. I still love the smell of the air when we occasionally make it up to the north woods, and could maybe see myself renting a cabin to retreat to once a year (in early spring or autumn to avoid the bugs of course) when I am older. But to live as a pioneer isn’t my calling after all.
Around the end of fifth grade through seventh grade or so it occurred to me that I really enjoyed writing and so I started dreaming of being an author. Even though I cannot read print books, I have always found beauty in the glossy covers and pages of books. Even now if there is an idle moment, I will sometimes pick up a print book lying on a coffee table and just savor the texture of it. I used to think about how thrilling it might be to be the writer of a real, glossy published book sold in bookstores all over the world, and more importantly about what a peaceful life the life of an author might be, just sitting in a quiet office with no time clock or boss, escaping to a fictional world created by your imagination and writing from the heart. But when I learned that most authors also must still work a day job, that even if a publisher does accept your book, royalties made on the book usually don’t exceed the cost of publishing the book and that authors often have to cave to writing what sells, not necessarily what inspires them, I decided that wasn’t the kind of life I wanted to live either. Believe me. Since I cannot even wrap my head around how J.K. Rowling came up with such an elaborate plot and created such well-developed characters, I don’t think I have the talent to make it in the author business.
Then in eighth grade as a community choir I was involved in prepared to tour Italy, I started romanticising about making my living singing in a choir and touring the world. But again, I discovered that world travel isn’t as glamorous as it is cracked up to be, what with jet lag, fears of pick-pockets, bumpy roads that are very difficult to walk on and the constant fear of my medicine getting lost or stolen since I think Walgreens pharmacies can only be found in the United States. Besides, choirs don’t pay wages, so between choir tours, I would still have to work a day job.
By high school, I was finally starting to grow in to myself and form a more realistic dream. When teachers started praising essays I wrote and I had a wonderful experience in a career exploration program offered by my school that gave me the opportunity to work with the news editor for a local newspaper, it occurred to me that I would enjoy a career in journalism. It would be an exciting career that would take me somewhere different each day. I enjoy participating in discussions on news and politics and was starting to notice and get frustrated about all the injustice in the world which I might be able to expose and change with the “power of the pen.” So I thought interviewing people and writing about news and politics would be a perfect fit for me. I was disappointed when I got to college and learned from professors and guest speakers that reporter positions were hard to come by since the shift toward online sources for news forced some newspapers to fold, and all newspapers, including our local newspapers to cut back. But I chose to stay the course, reasoning that maybe I would be one of the lucky ones who would land a job as a reporter. If not, I could settle for a public relations position with a company as the demand for Public Relations is growing and journalists commonly carry over to public relations positions because there are many parallels between these fields. For example, both fields value high-quality journalistic writing that keeps in mind concepts like the inverted pyramid (most important information first, least important last). The difference is that the goal of the journalist is to be objective whereas the goal of someone writing a press release for a Public Relations position is to spin the story as ethically as possible to favor the company. I wasn’t as passionate about Public Relations as I was about journalism but as I began my senior year of college, my mindset was, “hey, a job is a job. I could take a public relations position to pay the bills and then write freelance articles about politics or something as a hobby.”
But then I read In to The Wild by John Krakauer. It was a book assigned for a Creative Nonfiction course I took in the fall semester of my senior year, and it was one of the rare books assigned for school that I didn’t want to put down. It absolutely captivated me!
The book retraces the story of a young man named Christopher McCandless who had a seemingly normal upbringing in an affluent suburb near Washington D.C. But after graduating college, he cut off all contact with his family and hitchhiked all across the country. His ultimate dream was an Alaskan odyssey where he wanted to hike to the remote wilderness of Alaska with minimal supplies and live off the land. In 1992, he embarked on this dream with only a light backpack, set up camp in an abandoned bus used by hunters, hunted game and used a book on Alaskan plants to find edible flora. But the dream did not end well for him. In the summer when he was ready to end his voyage, he discovered that a stream which had been calm and shallow when he first crossed it had turned in to a raging river that he knew he could not swim across, so he returned to the bus where he eventually died from eating damp seeds which had developed toxic mold. I agreed with my classmates that what he did was foolish, even a little selfish. Perhaps he also had some degree of mental illness too that was exacerbated when he found out that his father was living a double life, secretly seeing someone else when Chris was little. But when the rest of my class had probably long forgotten about him and relegated his story to the mental file of “just another book assigned for a class”, something about him stuck with me. It was a feeling on the order of “wow! I wonder what it would be like to do that!”
But why? Was it the fact that it mentioned the beautiful-sounding wilderness of Alaska, re-awakening my silly Iditarod or pioneer fantasies from when I was younger? Was it God’s way of telling me I was meant to have an Alaskan odyssey too, or live as a modernday pioneer after all? “No,” I realized. I am still not fond of wilderness that is too rugged and I have absolutely no desire to break ties with my family, become a hitchhiker or die alone in a bus out in the wilderness! I suppose all children have wild ideas at some point during their childhood. But I was now an educated and thus supposedly mature woman in my twenties. Why, when all my classmates and my parents focused on how foolish Christopher’s actions were, was I still enamored by him?
I didn’t have much time to think about this book as I raced to the finish line of my college career, got caught up in the excitement of graduation and then had to deal with health problems last summer. But around October when I was adjusting well to Celiac Disease and feeling much better, I started to get a restless feeling in my soul and a yearning for a purpose. This was a good sign, my parents said. It meant that I was feeling better now and ready to think about my future. So for one week in Mid October, I dove headlong in to the task of applying for jobs. If I were collecting unemployment benefits, I would need to apply for two jobs a week, but I could do better than that! Every day that week, I woke up determined to apply for at least one job a day. So on Monday, I applied for a social media representative position with a retail store. On Tuesday I applied for a public relations position with a healthcare company, and so on. At the beginning of the week, I was actually a little upset because as luck would have it, the week I was finally motivated to apply for jobs was a short week. On Friday morning of that week, I had promised Mom I would go with her to Indiana for a family reunion and a long weekend at my grandma’s house where I would not have internet access to apply for jobs or check my e-mail for interview offers on the ones I had applied for.
But sitting in the car singing along to the radio with Mom that Friday morning, it occurred to me that I wasn’t as eager to keep applying to jobs as I thought I would be, and rather than feeling a sense of accomplishment over the jobs I had applied for already, something troubled me. A few hours in to the car ride, I felt like reading, but as I scrolled through the list of books I had downloaded on to my braille notetaker and saved in my pleasure reading folder, none of them peaked my interest at that moment. Then I remembered In to The Wild. I still had it saved in my college books folder. Although I loved the book, unfortunately that semester was so demanding due in large part to my senior capstone seminar I had to take that semester that I couldn’t really savor the book. In fact, when it occurred to me that I was spending so much time on this book that I was neglecting my responsibilities for other courses, I had to resort to skimming through the second half of the book. In the car that day, I decided that it didn’t matter that the course was over. A book that captivated me that much was worth finishing and savoring. Over the following week as I savored that book, I still couldn’t put my finger on why this book captivated me so much, but I noticed that particular quotes jumped out at me in both readings. My favorite of these quotes was in a letter McCandless wrote to Ronald Franz, an old man he had befriended in Arizona. Toward the end of the letter, McCandless says, “So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future” (57).
Maybe all young people upon college graduation need some sort of retreat to search their souls and adjust to a new chapter of life because when you are really small and life is easy, the idea of soul searching isn’t even on your radar, and when it is, the demands of childhood from homework, to fitting in and participating in after-school activities leave little time for soul searching. Several of my college friends took vacations to Europe after graduation, perhaps to fulfill this need. Maybe given Christopher McCandless’s troubled mind, he just took it to the extreme. Was it possible that maybe all I yearned for was a smaller-scale version of a retreat? What if I invited one member of the family (Mom or Dad) to accompany me, and we rented a little cabin way out in the middle of nowhere for a month, bringing with us nothing but food from the nearest grocery store and books from home? When I thought about it, I pretty much went right from the joy of graduation to the worry and uncertainty of addressing my health problems. After my health improved, maybe I jumped in to the next step in the sequence of life that society expects of a college graduate who elects not to go to graduate school, at least not right away–looking for a job–too quickly without really stopping to honestly contemplate what I want the rest of my life to look like. Maybe a retreat in which I couldn’t log on to Facebook to compare my job searching progress with that of my friends, in which the peace and serenity wasn’t constantly being interrupted by the telephone, where I could cut myself off from the world and its commercialism and negativity, would give me the space I needed to think. Mom wasn’t too keen on this idea. She liked the vacation to nature part, but not the part about leaving all phones at home. It is important to be there if people need us, and these days, it is foolish to be without a phone in the event of an emergency. At first I was frustrated and about to give her the same lecture Christopher McCandless gave Ronald Franz about being too attached to security and conservatism. But after settling down for a few hours and thinking about it more carefully, I realized she was right, especially given my medical issues. And when I got really honest, I like my security too. In fact, I had no idea why I even suggested a retreat because I hate the uncertainty that comes with traveling. What if we found a wonderful cabin, only to discover that the grocery store in town only carried cheap processed stuff full of gluten and I was stuck eating nothing but raw wilted lettuce for a month or something? In fact, I have had moments in the past where I longed for serenity and had no problem finding it on our patio in the summer or in the peaceful sanctuary of my bedroom. If I needed a break from the social pressure of Facebook, I could find the willpower not to log on. Realizing that I really had no idea what I was looking for and was doing nothing more than frantically grasping at straws, I resolved to just clear my mind for a few days, read other books and trust that life would work out.
Then the following Sunday, Mom and I went to church which holds an event every year called Harvest Fest, an event in which some of the missionaries the church supports come home and speak to the congregation about the work they are doing all over the world. Monday through Thursday of the previous week, the missionaries spoke at evening events, but since we didn’t return home from Indiana until Tuesday evening and were actually leaving on another trip the following Monday, we were unable to attend these events, but a couple of the missionaries spoke to the congregation that Sunday. I couldn’t see the rest of the congregation but I was on the edge of my seat. They were so inspiring! And, again I felt that same “Wow! I wish I could do that!” feeling. But as usual, on closer examination, I realized I wouldn’t really want to live in the rough conditions they described, and given my medical conditions, serving in a third world country would be foolish. As admirable as their work was, it wasn’t the life for me.
But maybe these long hours in the car was God’s way of giving me the retreat I wanted earlier because on the second trip, I started doing some analyzing. It was during this trip that I thought about everything mentioned in this entry, all my dreams I fantasized about as a child from being a musher in the Iditarod, to a journalist, as well as Christopher McCandless and the missionaries and realized that all these ideas, as unrelated as they may seem on the surface had one thing in common. They all indicated that as far back as I can remember and still to this day, I admire people who dare to be different.
I admire people who have found something that they are passionate about, and weren’t afraid to pursue it. I admire people whose demeanor seems to suggests they will never be one of those people who look back on their life with regret and say “I always wanted to…” because they are doing what they have always wanted to do. I admire people who don’t feel like they have to be good little soldiers, resigning themselves to a job they don’t find passion in but pays well. I admire people who appear to have jobs where they aren’t spending their lives counting the hours until the work day is over, the days until the weekend when they can take a vacation or something and the years until they can retire, because their job brings them such a sense of joy and fulfillment that they look forward to their job every day. And, in the case of the missionaries and Christopher McCandless especially, I admire people who truly believe and practice a life that has a higher purpose than accumulating wealth and saving for retirement. I still haven’t figured out how this revelation can be translated in to a path that is suitable for me. I have some ideas which I will elaborate on in the next entry, but what I did figure out was the answer to my troubled thoughts after my week of applying for traditional public relations jobs. I was troubled because I realized that I was falling in to line with society’s expectations like a good little soldier. After completing each application, I was full of excitement and hope at the time, but realized on the trip/retreat that I was not excited about the jobs themselves. I was actually dreading the thought of having to put on a happy face and spend my days announcing doorbuster clothing sales on social media or write about the features of heating and cooling systems for buildings if I got one of these jobs. So meaningless in the grand scheme of things! That was how it came to me that the reason I was troubled was because I was letting myself become someone who was only excited about the paycheck, and all of my childhood dreams and the kind of people I admire prove this is not the kind of person I was meant to be, so I pray every day that I won’t cave in to synicism and let myself become someone I wasn’t meant to be.
One thought on “Soul Searching”