Biographical Non-Fiction posted August 21, 2017


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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

Chained Rock

by Mark Valentine













I was seven once
not one molecule remains
and yet it’s still me
 

That 5-7-5 was one of the first things I posted on Fanstory about three years ago. I thought about it recently as I looked out the window of my office in downtown Chicago. I’m on the twenty-fourth floor and thus my office sits roughly Twenty-four hundred feet above the streets below. I’ve worked here for years and take the view for granted. The other day though, I stopped for a moment to take in the scene below, and a younger version of myself tapped me on the shoulder.

I started my work career a long time ago as a VISTA volunteer in central Appalachia. Being a volunteer, I stayed wherever there was free housing to be had. For a while, that meant living in a tent, and, for a while, my home was a very nice house at the base of Pine Mountain. Its owner had died and bequeathed the house to the Presbyterian Church. The pastor didn’t have to twist my arm to get me to stay there, rent free, for a few months while they looked for a buyer.

My duties as a VISTA volunteer required me to travel across central Appalachia, but there were also days when I stayed home and did paperwork or other mundane tasks. On those days, I would often put my work and a lunch in a backpack, head out the door and up the mountain to Chained Rock, a point on Pine Mountain that overlooked the town of Pineville, Kentucky. It was approximately the same elevation above Pineville as I currently sit above downtown Chicago.

That’s where the similarities end.

What occurs to me now is that I am as different from my twenty-two year old self as Pineville is from Chicago. So different, in fact, it’s hard to believe that Pineville ever happened. I was capable of wonder then: awed by the beauty of the mountain, humbled by the smallness of the town where I lived when seen from above. Twenty-five hundred people lived and loved and worked and died in Pineville and you could see it all from Chained Rock. When I sat there, I often wondered if this is how God saw us.

There were fewer intermediaries between me and God back then. Later, I would study theology. Then, I didn’t need to travel tortured intellectual paths in search of the divine, it showed up on my doorstep every day. Had Jesus called me then to give up all my worldly possessions (a guitar and the aforementioned tent) to follow Him, I’m pretty sure I’d have done it. Now I’d try to pencil him in for lunch sometime next week to go over the pros and cons.

So different. And yet, there has to be some sense in which I’m still the same person, right? The same subject who experienced the view from Pine Mountain then is looking down at the corner of Dearborn and Monroe now. They’re not two different people, are they? If so, I think I liked the other guy better.

The other guy wasn’t cynical or jaded. He lived life in moments and not in fiscal years. He lived simply. He didn’t compromise. I, on the other hand, do not live simply. I take my cell phone into the bathroom with me. And, while I still have values, I can bend them a bit if the stakes are high enough (and the fact that Chick-Fil-A sandwiches taste good constitutes “high stakes” for me, so don’t ask me to boycott.)

Idealism isn’t even a speck on my horizon. While I used to believe that the long arc of history bent toward justice, I now see it nosediving to hell. In my younger, searching-for-meaning days, I remember being drawn to the Baha’i teaching on the oneness of humanity. Somewhere between then and now, I’ve decided that I don’t want to be one with them. Humanity are morons. They’re on their seventh or eighth “Fast and Furious” movie. They’ve started putting pineapple on pizza. And, oh, by the way, did you see whom they voted for? Screw humanity.

Sorry. That’s what happens now when I give free rein to my thoughts. Good thing no-one’s asking me to give commencement addresses. I’d tell the new graduates that the key to their futures is to get the premium cable package and to drink heavily. Yup, current me vs. younger me would be a slam dunk, except…

… younger me wasn’t a dad. Being a dad fills in a lot of the holes. I traded in attending protests and rallies for Little League games and band recitals. It was a good trade. I left the seminary to get married. That was a great trade. In terms of receiving validation that you’re on the right track, there’s not much that can top creating and nurturing new life.

But once you create and nurture them, they go to college. Then you’re left with the person you’ve become. You’re still a dad in theory, but, on a day-to-day basis, fatherly duties are not occupying a lot of your time. Maybe there are some people who can shed the mantle of fatherhood without missing a beat, but, in my case, it would be like Deney Terrio taking Dance Fever off of his resume -- what else is there?

The girls went back to school this week. I think that fact, more than noticing the similar altitude between my office and Chained Rock, is responsible for the visit from my younger self, the ghost of my Christmases Past. It’s a well-intentioned ghost. I’m not exactly Ebenezer Scrooge yet, but I can see him down the road a bit. My younger self is reminding me that I’ve taken my eyes off the horizon and, as a result, I’ve drifted a bit.

I think there is a person we are supposed to be, and we experience inner peace, or its lack, to the extent that we live in harmony with that person. Maybe it’s that person -- the real us -- the best version of ourselves, that is the thread that runs through our lives and makes us, somehow, the same subject at age eighty that we were at age eight.

I’m not eighty yet, but, God willing, one day I will be. Who will I be then? Will my child self still exist? My college self? What about Pineville? Will any part of me still be chained to that rock?

For better or worse, the self that I am now spends a lot of time at work. Nose to the grindstone, eyes on the papers in front of me. It’s been a while since I’ve taken a vacation. I still have the tent. It might be time for a trip to Chained Rock to see if I can summon some ghosts. They can’t all be gone.



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© Copyright 2017. Mark Valentine All rights reserved.
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