Saturday, June 27, 2015

Searching

I've long been fascinated with railways. Not trains, but railways. They're things that can take you from where you are to places where you could be. 

Abandoned railways take you to times where you can't be. They are corridors back into history, connecting the present to places once relevant but since forgotten. To disappear down one is to vanish into isolation and obscurity.

In my youth, when I backpacked around southern British Columbia and trekked the abandoned Kettle Valley Railway, I hitch-hiked everywhere. On one trip I was picked up by a lady of about forty in a rented car. She was leaving her life behind, resiling from an interminable and rancorous custody battle for her 9-year-old daughter. Her character had been irremediably maligned in court, and she had lost her last appeal. I was shocked to think of what it must take to make a mother leave her child behind. She was philosophical but clearly broken by it.

I was just 23 and coming off the collapse of my own marriage. We were young and it was my first real relationship. We were together four years.

"So what are you looking for?" the mother asked. She was calm and kind. "Why are you out here on the road?"

I liked her. She was very sincere. I considered her question seriously but all I could come up with was a flimsy, "I really don't know." I was a bit unsettled at the impotence of my answer and the absence of my contemplation.

"I've come across a number of young men your age doing the same thing," she said. "Journeying, searching. And they're never really sure what they're searching for. It makes me wonder what it is." She paused with reflection. "I think maybe it becomes clear only later, after it's done." I wonder now if she was looking for her own answers.

I'm now beyond her age then. Looking back, had I been able to at the time I'd have answered this: We have no idea what our lives mean. We just tell our stories and the meaning emerges. It is an emergent property, like consciousness emerging from the physical brain. That's why we tell our stories: we are compelled to find the meaning in our lives.

I'm reminded of this conversation as I return to the abandoned Kettle Valley Railway, twenty years later, after the end of another significant relationship in my life. What am I doing? Am I looking for something? Is this a manifestation of mid-life crisis? In our forties do we regress to our twenties to see where we went wrong?

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