Tag Archives: existential musing

A Cycle Renewed

13 Mar

I’ve been slacking in my writing of late, which will happen when one is fairly busy and also coming off a rush of hockey-related activity that reached new heights this past month. I’m backlogged beyond belief on interesting articles that I’ve read and would like to comment on, though I’ll knock two out of the way in this post. I also have yet to opine on Donald Trump, which I’m told any self-respecting blogger must do or forever forfeit his credentials, as if everything there is to say has not been said already. (Worry not, I’ll let myself get sucked in at some point.)

Now that hockey is over this should conceivably be easier, though I’m afraid this alleged “spring break” I am now on will offer few such opportunities. With one last graduation looming, I have a lot on my mind, and a lot people with whom I want to spend time before venturing out into the world again. And in some of my rare free moments, I may opt for sloth instead of patient cycling, as was the case yesterday, when a 70-degree March afternoon found me beached on a towel in Loring Park. It was a dreamy escape. This freedom is only momentary, though, and it had my mind wandering back to a Roger Cohen article from a couple months ago on “ways to be free.”

In the article, Cohen describes the “ferocious ambivalence” that drives people in pursuit of freedom, with references to his own road trip through central Asia in his youth and the sublime surfing writing of William Finnegan. (I’ve never surfed in my life, but an excerpt in the New Yorker last year left me transfixed.) Cohen’s son seems skeptical that such freedom is possible in this day in age, but Cohen disagrees, and I think he’s right: for all our attempts to impose control on the world, vast swaths of it remain unconquered from the well-ordered Western mind. It will forever be this way, and we owe our sanity to it: the moments when we tap into that freedom beyond are some of the most formative moments imaginable.

Careful climber that I am, these moments aren’t always easy to find; as much as I may yearn for them and seek them out at times, they tend to be fleeting. My semester in Mexico certainly had some stretches that approximated it, but my self-discovery journey, such as it was, proved a far more inward affair that dug deep instead of roaming broadly. And, now that I am on the brink of a move to the 9-to-5 life, that hunger for adventure roars up again. It wants me on the road, or at the very least to wander through a few more Minnesota state parks to drink in the little details. For all my cynicism about journeys of self-discovery and the self-centered direction that inward turns can (though do not always) take, their power is genuine. We always seem to value things most when we’re about to lose them.

Perhaps, then, it’s helpful to read about a different sort of journey. Take the case of a Washington Post writer Christopher Ingraham, who used some Department of Agriculture data to rank all of the counties in the U.S., and declared that Red Lake County, Minnesota, was the country’s worst. The other states with counties near the bottom of the list ignored it, but Minnesotans, being Minnesotans, lashed out in polite but scathing anger. Ingraham visited, came away absolutely charmed, and now, several months later, is packing up his family and moving to Red Lake County. These moments are effective because they are so spontaneous or serendipitous, and they are life-altering in large part because they are so unplanned.

Ingraham’s story will no doubt cue its share of Minnesota smugness. Still, it’s a refreshing tale for someone who’s been dwelling on questions of status lately, and who’s trying to remember what’s worth valuing as he starts a career. It does run the risk of lapsing into complacency, a contented niceness that will forever leave me a bit restless in this state. We still need outlets for that roaring daimonic desire that every now and then surges up and reminds us what it means to be free. But in the meantime, a Minnesota spring is on its way, and it’s to renew belief in what we hold closest, no matter how small or mundane those things may seem. For that, northern Minnesota remains the perfect reminder.

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Standing Before Lincoln

3 Nov

Election Day, 2008. I was a freshman in college in America’s capital, absorbed by the prospect of a career in politics. Unlike some, I had no grand vision of a radically transformed society under Barack Obama, but I certainly had an appreciation for symbolic power. It is easy to forget just how much we were all swept up in the moment; on election night, everyone at Georgetown ran to the White House, regardless of politics. The political consciousness of this generation knew no great achievement: the bungled 2000 election, the tragedy of 9/11, a failed mission to democratize the Middle East, and a sudden financial crisis. Finally, it seemed, something had happened that could make us feel good about ourselves.

The adolescent mind of the high achiever, conditioned by continued progress from one successful stage in life to another, saw reason to believe the wider world could act in the same way.  I needed a story that fit my belief in political action. In the absence of any other higher faith, any other guiding point with which to orient the lofty goals I had in mind, the gospel of progress was all I had. The next night, I made a more personal journey, a walk down to the Lincoln Memorial alone. The inscription above Lincoln’s head makes it abundantly clear: this is a temple, a monument to a holy figure in a national myth. If there was a road to an earthly Jerusalem, it surely went through here. Everything made sense, and I was a part of a movement to make things better.

Two years later I was in a very different capital, watching from afar as all that hype about progress crumbled. How far I’d wandered from my Duluth roots: an election party in a penthouse apartment in Mexico City, with a whole bunch of liberal expats and upper-crust Mexicans shaking their heads at what was becoming of the world. (The best of them was the Porfirio Díaz look-alike stumping around the place with a cane.) It was delightful. And yet, what of this challenge to my democratic faith? What to make of this world in which the “overwhelming force of unreason,” in the words of George Packer, had trumped the story of progress? I needed answers.

And so I went and stood before Lincoln again. This time, there was no temple, no reverent surroundings: just the man standing atop a pedestal in a dark park in Polanco, staring across a street at Martin Luther King. It was a crisis of faith, as I came to appreciate one of those nagging possibilities I’d known since a childhood brush with unreason, but never fully grasped: history may not make sense. But it was more than that. In that moment, I realized the liberating truth: it really didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if the political world all went wrong. I could still be a contented person. And I would be.

It took a while to understand exactly what had happened in the Parque Lincoln. One swing in congressional power isn’t enough to re-orient a worldview, nor should it be. Many events over the course of the next year—the Arab Spring, the death of Osama bin Laden—suggested that there was yet cause for optimism. For a time, I clung to my liberal dream before it all came into clearer resolution: good things happen here, bad things happen there, murky things happen everywhere, and there’s no good narrative to fit it all. I needed some help to find a new story. Mexico had already armed me with the Octavio Paz interview, while Georgetown gave me a Catholic sort of critique, and in time there was The Answer to Everything. And, of course, I still had my roots, lurking there amid everything. I wrote relentlessly; old stories died, and frustration begat inward retreat before things started to take shape again.

Four years after that night in Polanco, I certainly haven’t forsaken the political realm. Parts of my old political philosophy remain, though not all, and I am ashamed of some earlier strident cries, and some refusal to see political opponents as friends or colleagues. Instead, I try to walk a tightrope, often playing the neutral role; I can see far from here, but I’m well aware of the risks of neutrality for neutrality’s sake, and the meekness of indecision. I still sympathize with stories many of my old liberal travelers tell themselves, and a fair number of their aims; I also now sympathize with those more guided by religious faith or nostalgia or a number of other stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it all. None of those are mine, though I have my own stories, just as partial in their truth. It can be a lonely place, here before Lincoln; I must be on constant guard to avoid pretension or extreme distance. But I make no apologies, and it would be a shame not to share the view.

On Tuesday night, I’ll watch the election results, just as I did in DC and Mexico—and in Duluth two years ago, when I was definitively on the road to this approach. I may even celebrate or express my disappointment at times. But that will be all, and on Wednesday morning I’ll go back about my business with little regard for what happened the night before. I’ve found the freedom to cease being consumed by grand sweeps of progress, focusing instead on little niches where I really can make things right. (And make them right I will.) There is no right or wrong side of history; there are only more questions, questions that press endlessly against those presuppositions and neat little stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it all.

I don’t have answers to many of them, and I’m fine with that. That’s no excuse for stopping the search, though. These past six years have been an exercise in learning the value of limits, but in one realm, the pursuit is relentless. The questions never end.