How to walk in the dark
“You don’t need to know a whole book in order to write the first page. You need only the desire to create something that will say what you feel needs to be said, however vague its form at the beginning. You need a willingness to discover the wealth and wisdom of your own subconscious, and to trust that it will tell you what to do and how to do it—not all at once, but as needed, step by step. You have to take a deep breath, let go of your usual control, and then begin walking in the dark.” — Elizabeth Berg
I came across that quote in the memoir of Donald Murray who wrote a weekly column about aging called “Over Sixty” in the Boston Globe from 2001 to 2007. As a young man of only 54 when the column debuted, I wasn’t a regular reader. I was more like the kid who opens the closet door, catches a glimpse of the resident monster and slams it shut, peeking every now and then just to see what it was up to.
Now, more than 20 years after that first peek, I am scanning the three large bookcases at the town recycling center when my eyes come to rest on the slim volume of Murray’s life story, “My Twice-Lived Life: A Memoir.”
I can’t resist and so I immerse myself in his story where I find the quote from Elizabeth Berg that he used with his writing students at the University of New Hampshire.
Now, in my “over sixty” years, looking into the eyes of another man’s closet monster isn’t nearly so scary as it was before I met my own. The aches and pains of our senior years, some merely annoying, others more serious, are our common lot. They lead us down same path strewn with the loss of friends and family and the recognition of our own mortality. Now when I read Elizabeth Berg’s quote, I pause to reflect on what it has to say about life’s journey.
“You don’t need to know a whole book in order to write the first page.” How many of us lived out our childhood answer to the question of what we want to be when we grow up? My generation answered that question with firefighters, nurses, and doctors, but I doubt that we produced as many of those careers as our answers would have predicted. We might know in our five-year-old minds what we want to be at the time, but as we grow and learn about ourselves, our opportunities and the way the world works, our answers change.
Some would-be firefighters become poets, some aspiring young medics become lumberjacks, but as kids the poets wear the red hats and the lumberjacks carry the plastic doctors’ bags. We may think we know the whole book, but we are living the story page by page.
Life, I believe, is a matter of chance and choice. By chance or fortune, I was born in 20th century America and not in16th century France. I had no say in the matter nor did anyone ask me who I wanted for parents, if I wanted brothers or sisters or if I preferred to be an only child.
The world is full of stories of chance meetings of people who become dearest friends, cherished mentors or life partners. Movies are made about the sliding door phenomena, reminding us how our lives might have been different had we not been caught on the wrong side of the sliding door when the train pulled out of the station.
Whether these things happen through the laws of probability, through what Jung called synchronicity, or through the loving hand of divine providence, we experience them as happening outside of our agency. We are, as Martin Heidegger put it, “thrown” into a world not of our own making or choice, but once there, we can choose how to live our lives.
Beyond our quotidian choices of what to wear, what to have for breakfast, or whether we should drive, walk or take the bus, we face major turning points at every stage of development. The would-be firefighter at age five will have to decide what to do after high school, firefighting academy or college, and if college, then what to study.
Selection of a major is only the beginning. It might not even lead to a career in that area if a good opportunity to do something more appealing presents itself. Big choices continue to mark our path through life as we consider questions of whether and whom to marry, where to live, what jobs to take and how to raise our children if choice and chance give us the opportunity to become parents in the first place.
Robert Frost gave us the image of two paths diverging in the woods and his decision to take the one less traveled by making all the difference. He didn’t tell us that both paths would lead to still more forks in the road and that at every intersection, we would have to make still another choice that matters, ad infinitum. So here we stand wondering what to do.
Elizabeth Berg tells the aspiring writer, “You need only the desire to create something that will say what you feel needs to be said, however vague its form at the beginning.” For most people, it is not a matter of writing, but it is always a matter of story. Life is our story to create within the bounds of our talents and opportunities, and even with only a vague sense of what we want to do, we move forward, discovering with every step we take a new piece of who we will become when the puzzle is complete.
As Ms. Berg puts it, “You need a willingness to discover the wealth and wisdom of your own subconscious, and to trust that it will tell you what to do and how to do it—not all at once, but as needed, step by step. You have to take a deep breath, let go of your usual control, and then begin walking in the dark.”
Sometimes the wealth and wisdom of the subconscious bubbles up into our minds as a vague inclination, an attraction to something other than our familiar discontents. We can probe its origin and meaning with the introspection of the psychologist, the discernment of the monk or the techniques of meditation that are so readily available to us all. On other occasions, that valuable cache is right there, shining through our doubt and uncertainty. Perhaps it grows as we do, increasing with everything we learn on the journey, lighting our way through the darkness and giving us courage for the road ahead.