Making it Count

On a night in late March I mummified myself in every garment I had. Ice pellets pelted my tent, whose central pole was held up only by an elaborate pile of rocks nervously heaped along its base. I was miles from the nearest human, and a cruel wind ripped across the exposed ridgetop where I’d made my home. My sleeping bag liner was in the trunk of a car some twelve miles off, and any extra water would have to come from melted snow. I was exhilarated, never more alive and yet still able to settle into some just-warm-enough restfulness that would carry me through the night. At dawn, a glittering golden light burst over the mountains of southern Utah. I had reached Zion.

That night, and the reflections that built upon it over the remainder of that trip, have often been on my mind since. It was the culmination of a journey, or so I believed, that began in pandemic grit and then burst outward on a series of great adventures in 2021, from St. John to Montana, from New York to Tucson and various stops in between. My return to Zion was to be a final step up a Grand Staircase, a surge into a new layer of time in my life, to borrow my metaphor at the time. No more need for ventures like this, I proclaimed: I’d done what I’d set out to do, and now I could go all in back home, building the life I imagined.

On the surface, the next nine months went well enough. Yes, my work life was at times all-consuming and stressful, but I learned and I grew and I knew where I was going with it. I still went on some worthwhile ventures, from a college reunion to the peaks of Colorado. Perhaps most gratifyingly, out of loss, I found new pride in one half of my family history, and the joy with the other half continues. My Duluth networks, from politics to hockey and beyond, grew deeper, richer. And yet if you were to ask me how I was doing at nearly any point during this stretch, I would have almost never responded with joy or even self-satisfaction. I was drained, yearning for things I did not have, turning a Joan Didion quote from “Goodbye to All That” over and over in my mind: “It was in that year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and procrastination, every mistake, all of it.”

Perhaps I was lapsing into melodrama. My audiobook choice for my most recent drives across northeast Minnesota might provide some evidence here: Finding Everett Ruess details the story of a 1930s-era Into the Wild figure, a teenage boy who completed epic traverses of the American Southwest before he disappeared into the Escalante canyon country, never to be seen again. I have in me some of that romantic, wandering soul on some solitary transcendent quest, and while I count myself fortunate to be free of Ruess’s melancholy and any yearning for eternal escape, I can identify with those impulses to place oneself amid a grand narrative of destiny, driven by powerful feeling.

To make sense of that narrative I have tended to lean on classics and a web of metaphor. My loose outlook on the world, and perhaps my staid reserve that keeps me from any emotional overdrive, comes from Aristotle, who observed the world as it was and understood what was good in it in light of that reality. But a duality has always hovered, and it was no coincidence that, upon my decent from that ridge in Zion, I quoted Plato’s Symposium on true beauty, a true form of unsustainable yet ever-alluring perfection. I leaned deeper into that pursuit this year, as did several people around me, often with mixed results. I cannot regret it: paths were there to take, and we must nurture both Athens and Jerusalem, reason and faith twinned, and find them both. Living in the shadow of a modern-day Roman empire this can at times be hard to do, and it is in fiction (all tagged ‘Rome’ on this blog), that I have tried to sort it out. And as I do so I feel compelled to extend my metaphor: at the end of a murky middle age, it is now time for a Renaissance.

My artistic output this year has been less than I hoped for, a common writer’s lament. This blog has far fewer posts than in any year since its launch, and my fiction on the side is stillborn. And yet I am almost universally happy with what I did put out, a rare feat indeed, and am lately enjoying the mere act of writing as much as I ever have. I’ve supplemented this progress with a new toy: this post was written almost entirely on a reMarkable, a writing-only, paper-like tablet that has already proven an ally in a quest for focus. When there is focus I can write, and when I can write I can shape my fate, and from there I can thrive.

Nine months after Zion, as an even more vicious storm battered my home in Duluth, I was just as solitary, burrowing into my blankets with equal purpose, and rather less excited about the looming shoveling than I had been about the hike down out of the clouds. But the triumph of that night hovered in my mind, a warm glow that carried me to sleep as the wind howled around me and toppled a neighbor’s tree. Zion, it seemed, had not marked a firm layer in time—that will yet come—but it was very much a moment that did count, and I was proud it had.

So, as I begin my thirty-third year, I will look for more moments that count. Many of the old excuses no longer hold, and the opportunities to flourish through a Renaissance are all right there, perhaps as literally as can be, with Venice and Rome and Florence all on the calendar for this coming summer. As I complete another pause before tacking all my Duluth winter activities I find myself liberated from chic doomsaying, filed with gratitude, and ready to live more fully than ever.