I woke this morning thinking of that response, of his struggle, and regretting my flippancy.
How to know when you're on the right path, or off of it? How to know which glows with the promise of satisfaction, and which sparkles with fairy-lights and fool's gold? And, god, the urgency of it. The feeling of your life unreeling, a river passing inexorably by while you who should be master and conductor flail about, muddying the water. The feeling of your power lurking, waiting, knowing that if only you could find the right goal at which to aim yourself, you would be unstoppable. The feeling of that power being wasted.
Yesterday I finished reading The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. It is a re-telling of the Biblical story of Dinah, whose father was Jacob and whose brothers murdered a whole city in its sleep. The story focuses on Dinah, on women, on giving them the voices that the Bible gives only to men. We follow Dinah and her mother and aunts through the daily movements of their lives: gardening, weaving, baking bread and brewing beer. Giving birth and raising children.
Perhaps because I have found that I love the tasks of a country housewife - gardening, baking, packing crocks of vegetables to preserve, darning socks and hanging laundry on the line - something of that life appealed to me. I do not think that I could be happy in a world where I may not speak if a man is in the room, a world bounded by my hearth and my husband's goodwill, no. Not now. But if I was raised to it?
Years ago I worked for a few long days with a pair of Hopi elders. In the frosted sunrise they told us a story about the place of men and women in the world. Though not the same as a Caananite's as imagined by Anita Diamant, a traditional Hopi woman's life has similar boundaries, and those boundaries are similarly clear. Each task in the running of a life has its proscribed author: Men do the farming, women the cooking. Always. At the time, and before I'd learned my country-housewife ways, I felt a dim yearning towards the structure they described.
What would it be to know your place in the world? To know it from birth, to be taught its mastery by your mother and your mother's mother, to have a clear passage from girlhood to womanhood marked by corn pollen and a revelation of secrets, or by scented oil and the earthen figure of a goddess? To spend your life in one place that you know, in the company of a tribe of family and friends. To have no one ask you, ever, what you "do" or what you want to be when you grow up.
We have gained in exploration and freedom, there is no doubt. I love science, calculus, and mechanics, in addition to the darning of socks; do not mistake me. My husband has the stated wish of being a stay-at-home dad when that time comes, and he loves baking and the tending of soil as well as I do. When we argue we are on equal terms. Nor do I wish to disrespect those men and women constrained to lives that do not suit them, lives that may even crush them, whether that constraint be by veil or poverty, ignorance, tradition, or force.
But The Red Tent was wildly popular amongst women friends I had in college, and I still do not know my place in the world.
But this is about my brother. My brother who recently awoke to the infinite possibilties of this life and was, I think, utterly overwhelmed. And of course; it is impossible to be sure that you are choosing your toothpaste correctly with so many choices. How is a person supposed to choose a life? And not just any life, but a life of spiritual significance, of generosity, of uprightness and passion. How? How do you know which choice is the right one, how do you know which path to take? How do you cope with the crushing feeling that you are wasting time, precious time, that you should be doing something amazing by now, that you should be doing something by now that is more than working this crappy job, but what? But what and how? And oh, what if you make a mistake? What if you should have gone to Europe?
From the great height of my twenty-five years, some of that sense of urgency has waned. I have found the right path, for now, and I no longer worry that it must be the only path I ever tread. I have lost my terror of choosing wrongly, though perhaps that has something to do with the incredible relief at having chosen. I have a goal. I am unstoppable.
My mother and father and I tried to guide my brother's searching. He wanted to be independent of my parents and their finances; he wanted to renounce; he wanted to travel, to follow the tug of spirit that had been calling him; he wanted to stay home, save money, and work hard; he wanted I am sure more than he told any of us and perhaps more than he understood himself.
Here is something I have learned: There is a sense amongst at least some people in this culture that when the "right" path is found, it will lay itself at your feet with all hinderences removed. You will glide down it with effortless happiness and this is how you will know that you have chosen rightly.
Perhaps this is so; I do not believe it. My goal has made me unstoppable because I will work until I achieve it, and I know I have chosen rightly because the work - right now I have a job on-call at the bottling plant, moving cardboard boxes from one conveyer belt to another for nine hours a day - because the work is hard and stupid and worth it.
I suggested that my brother get a job with the National Parks or something similar, get out of the house and into the wilds where lives the only spirit my family has ever acknowledged; and make some damn money while he's at it, rather than stay suckling at my parents' financial teat. (Full disclosure: my parents still pay my health insurance and phone bill; my self-righteousness is unearned.)
I don't know what they suggested to him. I don't know what conversations he had with friends or my sister or God (by all accounts he's been talking often lately with God). I don't know if any of what I've written here actually applies to how he feels or felt. But he has chosen something.
Yesterday my brother disappeared. Left a note - written with an old family code so that there could be no mistaking his hand - and all his belongings save a backpack and some clothes. He's on a journey. I am proud of him and afraid for him, glad that he has found a direction and sad that he did it in such a way as to scare my poor parents half to death. There is a long tradition of young men taking a walkabout, a vision quest, or a road trip to seek out the lives they want to lead. I am curious to see what he finds. I think there is a crucial difference between comfort and safety, and I think even that safety is mostly an illusion we prop up with fear. Still, I hope he is safe. And I hope he finds something.