When my father was dying there was a leaflet on the table in the little hospice house in the woods that I avoided for at least a week before sheer boredom led me to open it.
If memory serves there was a simple line drawing of a boat on the front, not too unlike images of The Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis, or Drakes’ Golden Hind if you’re familiar with California history, with a title to the effect of “How to know when your loved one is journeying to the other side.”
As a newly appointed caregiver, with my hopes and dreams still firmly planted in my Hollywood apartment and my Hollywood dreams, maybe you can understand my hesitation. I didn’t want my father to die. I didn’t want to think about him journeying anywhere. I didn’t want him on any other side but this side. Our side. The life side.
In between a steady stream of SF Giants’ playoff games, laundry, and setting and re-setting mice traps, eventually I caved.
I opened the book one October evening, dad fast asleep in one of the bedrooms, and a Sierra Nevada Ale 2/3 gone. The leaflet began predictably with “how to notice” type signs of a person’s body and mind getting closer to some kind of an end, and implying, I thought, that it was this tiny leaflets’ role to assist me to come to grips with all of this.
Talk about lofty goals.
These signs of a looming end were included in a list that spanned facing pages of the leaflet. First there were as I said, predictable items, like a lack of desire for food or drink. At the time, this being my first foray into end-of-life conditions, I balked. “What’s the big deal about missing a meal or two?” I thought.
Until I saw it happen.
It’s weird, but it’s real. It’s not every meal at first, it’s just less concern for food in general. Meals are still eaten but there’s less conversation about prep or ingredients.
As I said. Weird.
Further down the list things got a little more serious.
“A lack of concern for things of this world.”
What did that mean? Dad knew every SF Giants’ batter in order with his eyes closed. Hell I wasn’t even paying as much attention as he was. He was fervently trying to get his septic system pumped so we could live in his house instead of the non-profit (but much cleaner) hospice house. He was still talking about some trails conference he needed to get to (and that you can see him speak at in the documentary My Father Who Art in Nature).
Still concerned? Check.
Then one of dad’s land conspirators showed up and the simple leaflet began to bear truth. This stalwart of land stewardship, on a random afternoon in mid-October of 2010, someone who had made a career of infamous last-minute fundraising miracles, donated the final piece of land he’d saved while lying horizontally in a hospice cabin located in a town with one stop sign and the gas station also being the grocery store. He handed his final concern of preservation over to Bob.
The hills north of Clear Lake and West of Stonyford, CA have since become a National Monument thanks to Bob and Tuleyome but it was the first step of letting go of earthly concerns for one John Devaux Olmsted.
So what do my father’s waning concerns for conservation have to do with facial stubble and dark nights?
I wish I could say there was no correlation.
But these past six months that little leaflet has come back to haunt me —
Relax I’m not dying. I’m not on a bed at a hospice house in Camptonville (thank God) and I’ve never had a problem of ambition. There’s always been five or ten more things on the list when one is checked off. At a baser level I’ve always had an endless reservoir of curiosity. I’ve told friends (if they were listening) that the moment I stop being curious is the moment they can put me in the ground.
I just didn’t think they’d need to start digging at 50.
(If you’ve been a reader for any length of time the honesty won’t surely shock you. The truth just sounds better doesn’t it?)
Wait — are you saying you don’t care?
That’s what I’m saying.
You can’t mean it.
I mean it.
Like don’t care about anything?
Well I guess I care about people still.
Maybe I just don’t care about myself. My place in this world. My goals.
I mean aside of not getting married I’ve done everything I’ve wanted right?
Yeah but there’s still more to do.
I’ve had good jobs and bad jobs. I’ve made money and spent money. I’ve owned amazing cars and made amazing memories. I’ve made movies and then made better movies. Heck I’ve made bikes! My own brand! Then I did it again —
I’ve traveled — ok there’s places I’d still like to see but I haven’t hesitated to leave my burrough or state. I’ve swam in the Mediterannean with topless Australian girls and seen Stonehenge and the castle at Edinborough. I even found my family roots from the 11th century on a farm outside of Cambridge.
I made peace with my father before he died. I have a good relationship with my mom despite our tumultuous teenage years. I’ve said challenging things to those closest to me, some well received, some not. I’ve stood my ground for what’s right. I’ve put time into other people’s lives and seen the rewards of my efforts. I’ve lost friends and gained new ones.
A legitimate career has been elusive* but I think that can at least partly be chalked up to the sins of the father. Or let’s say “the example” of the father.
*Also the movies mentioned — and especially the latest one available online — would surely not have been made were there a serious career these past twenty years. One can rarely have it both ways.
Women? Ok yes that’s one stone left unturned but it’s not like I’ve been a monk. The four women I’ve dated I don’t regret. It’s not just the person — it’s when you meet them. In my 20’s and 30’s I had goals that were just too dominant to leave room for anyone else. Just like my. . well you know.
But I’ve gone through this before haven’t I? Yes but not after a global pandemic. Not in a new town. And not after saying goodbye to my convertible of 22 years. My longest relationship and let’s be honest — part of my identity.
Normally when I’m in a funk it lasts a few days or maybe two weeks. This time was over six months. And it was despite a steady job and decent apartment in a cool city.
DESPITE those events it STILL happened.
I was wondering if I would ever come out of it when I went to church last week. The church I’ve gone to off and on but haven’t made one friend at — which is pretty weird for me.
But that’s what happens when you don’t care.
Nevertheless I went and yes, the sermon was perfectly suited as it was summarizing a woman’s book (can’t remember the exact name) about the stages of the Christian life. Having been doing it for forty years maybe I needed to hear this one. The first few were fine and predictable, new life, discipleship, service, etc. . but between the fourth and the fifth (of five total) was something called the wall.
Had to admit I could relate.
A wall (or valley or desert) is completely normal over the course of a life — Christian or not. Every life has stages which also applies whether or not one is married and yes with or without kids. Live long enough and you will experience times of fruitfulness, times of planting, times of reaping, and yes even times of nothing.
Then the pastor said the magic words. The words I could relate to. That this wall had a phrase attached to it and it was called (you guessed it):
The Dark Night of the Soul
Even now I feel myself barely caring to explain it — but I do believe more people have heard the term so maybe I don’t have to. Outside of the world of screenplays and story structure it’s featured in this series if you’ve gone through it:
Or seen chapter five on YouTube:
See what I mean? It’s like, everywhere.
St. John of the Cross meet Mikey
It’s most common in Rom-Coms (romantic comedies) but can be seen in other movies too. I call it the facial stubble scene and it happens when the character is at the end of his or her rope. The mail is piled at the door, there are pizza boxes and/ or beer cans strewn about (if they’ve been eating at all) and their best friend often knocks at the door and. . actually I don’t even care to explain let’s let Rob do it for us:
That’s the dark night of the soul. Stuck in your house. Stuck in your thoughts.
You just saw Mikey with stubble so hopefully you believe me but if not here, have a look:
Granted Ryan ‘babyface’ Reynolds and Hugh ‘oh that Brit’ Grant may be light on the stubble (not so Favreau) but you get the point.
The character has reached their limit. They tried things their way (Act I). They tried things the b-characters’ way. (Act II). And still — bupkiss. So they’re done. They get kicked out of a cab (Wedding Singer), walk home after disapointing every woman possible (Definitely, Maybe), have all their lies exposed at a public place (About a Boy), or leave too many voice messages (Swingers).
Before they can enter Act III they must last through the night. The dark night. One can’t go around a night. Over a night, or under a night. One must go through. Stick it out until the dawn.
Or six months in Nashville with a normal job.
Is anything new under the sun? Anything?
This is St. John of the Cross. He wrote a poem and coined the phrase Dark Night of The Soul.
Once again do I have the energy to explain it?
Fortunately the Cliff notes’ version is pretty short:
St. John of the Cross (real name Juan de Yepes y Alvarez, from Avila, Spain) was born in 1542 and was a devout monk and Christian mystic. His father died when he was three, and after following Theresa of Avila and supporting her efforts to reform the Carmelite order he was kidnapped by the opposing Carmelites and imprisoned for disobedience.
He wrote poems in his tiny cell (in between public lashings) and one of those poems was The Dark Night of the Soul, which apparently he had extremely good knowledge of.
His poem begins:
In an obscure night
Fevered with love’s anxiety
(O hapless, happy plight!)
I went, none seeing me
Forth from my house,
where all things quiet be
The crux (pun intended) of the dark night is that it is a natural pathway to enlightenment. It is natural to last the night before seeing the dawn.
It’s natural to pass through a dark forest before reaching the fertile valley. It’s also natural to experience death before new life. What kind of death?
Death to self.
Death to the old ways.
Your old life.
(Ahh it’s starting to click. . .)
If you’re watching a movie and the character is an alcoholic is the movie going to end before the bottles get thrown in the trash? Before the cupboards get scoured in a rage after the character has (most likely) lost everything of meaning — their family — their job — their car — their reason to live?
Of course not.
And (for the millionth time) It ain’t just me
In June of 2020 a major study found that Americans were the least happy they’d been in 50 years. And who could blame them following arbitrary and politicized virus mitigations, the uncertainty of a novel virus, and ongoing division stoked by those in charge. Fast forward two and a half years of being at each others’ throats for things like useless masks and extremely personal decisions like vaccines and no wonder it’s only gotten worse.
This summer a University of Chicago study unearthed a shocking if predictable fact: Americans of both political stripes are thinking more selfishly than ever: It’s not me, it’s them.
The poll also found a similarity many (imo) don’t want to admit — that both 51% of liberals AND 73% of Republicans say the system is corrupt and is “rigged against them,” — 2/3 of independent voters as well (like me).
If Americans continue to view the system as rigged and the folks on the other side (ie. . neighbors, family members, and co-workers) as “bullies” it’ll lead to good times I’m sure.
Even Monty Python alum John Cleese weighed in recently, noting the difference today from the America he first visited:
“America is in crisis, and I’m extraordinarily frightened about what’s going to happen to it. Because when I came here, I thought this was such a smart country, it was so much more intelligent than Britain in the 60’s and 70’s. It was friendlier and well-organized. And now, nothing works very well and everyone hates everyone.”
So like I said — it’s not just me.
Whew that’s a relief.
Or is it?
Maybe not. Around the world it’s pressure not relief that’s cooking — and how. The political coup in Sri Lanka, the farmer protests in the Netherlands, the trucker convoys and occupation in Canada, heck even frequently facile France pushed back against vaccine passports despite their left-leaning population:
Governments appear to be testing control, lowering the thumb if you will, and the people by and large — at least the working people — ain’t having it.
Where does institutional mistrust lead?
According to Mental Health America, the pandemic caused reports of depression and thoughts of self-harm to skyrocket.
The report found that people screening at risk for mental health conditions are struggling most with loneliness or isolation.
Which sadly our efforts to stop this novel virus only exacerbated.
“Stay healthy, stay home”
Given that the average pandemic weight gain was 23 lbs. and alcohol companies and Door Dash made a killing — yeah that directive was in fact a bald-faced lie.
Maybe the biggest lie since this one:
I know what you’re thinking — we’ve lied to our populace before, and we’ll probably do it again.
And you’re right.
But it doesn’t make it ok.
The point is we already HAD a mental health problem and we went and made it worse. Now we’ve got a malaise problem and a journalism problem and a health problem and yes a truth problem.
The 12-step program still has it right though — the first step is admitting there’s a problem.
So basically my naturally ordered mid-life crisis combined with a dark night of the soul malaise and a historical societal unrest based on a virus we may or may not have created to unleash on me the perfect storm, emotionally speaking. Have I got that right?
Yes. (and ok fine — I miss my convertible)
But my six-month night of darkness seems pretty tame when it’s put in context.
Except. . .
Except that for the first time in my life I don’t know if America pulls out of this.
And I don’t know that I care.
I’m just not sure.
What I am sure of is that if we are entering a new normal where 2 + 2 = 5 and anyone who says it’s actually 4 is silenced, I’m sure I will not be one of those complying quietly.
Regular readers are nodding their heads.
As I was
considering the dawn after my dark night and considering sharing thoughts again (which I haven’t been in the mood to do for months), a breakthrough at my new (ish) job that has been two years in the making came to fruition in just three days. Was God or the universe waiting for me to be ready for a little success? Waiting to open the doors of plenty? Maybe.
Or maybe this type of business deal just takes two years.
In the world of film and story the following would happen after the Dark Night of The Soul:
- Formulate the plan:
Princess Leia will provide us with the plans to the Death Star, showing one important flaw.
- Assemble the team:
This R2 unit looks a little beat up would you like another one Captain Skywalker? Not on your life — that R2 unit and I have been through a lot.
- Storm the Castle:
So now that I’m awaking into the dawn post-dark night what’s my plan?
Well I don’t have one just yet. I don’t have a battle strategy or the perfect pill to place on your tongue.
And maybe there isn’t a pill for this one.
No silver bullet. No perfect statement or nice sounding cliché to frame and put on the wall. Maybe my dark night is something I had to go through just like the countries of the world need to go through some shaking up once in awhile.
I’m here and I know that being me is who I’m supposed to be and I’m ready for the next chapter. And I’m better for the dark night I just lasted through.
That’s probably a bigger deal than I realize.
How about you?