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Note: This is the last of a nine-part series of personal vignettes that explore the challenges of the human journey from cradle to grave. Start at the beginning here.
As I loaded up my car with clothes, shoes, books, and dog food, my midlife crisis showed no sign of abating. While I still had no clue what my life or career would look like when I returned to Chicago, I had been hired to work for the next four months as a visiting scholar at an interfaith center based at a small university in Virginia. The school, Eastern Mennonite University, was in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, a rural area of great beauty that had once served as the breadbasket of the Confederacy. I looked forward to the change of scenery. On good days, I felt as if my life was in a state of limbo that never quite seemed to lift. On bad days, I felt like I'd hit a dead end.
I gave myself two days to make the 700-mile road trip to Bridgewater, Virginia, where I'd be staying. I packed enough items to carry me through the semester, and when I'd finished, I led Jake, my Border Collie-German Shepherd mix, into the back seat. It was freezing; I was leaving in early January, just a couple of days after New Year's, and Chicago was in the grip of another cold spell. The roads were icy, and I didn't have much confidence in my fourteen-year-old vehicle. But we pushed off after breakfast.
There's not much to say about the interstates in Indiana and Ohio, except that they are fast. With little of interest to look at during my drive, I occupied my mind with thoughts about my life. Here I was, in my late forties, divorced and childless. Sure, I'd written a bunch of books and helped to found a synagogue, but when I compared myself to other men my age, I felt like a failure. Most of my friends had homes in the suburbs, wives they'd been married to for many years, and kids getting ready for college. They had stable, well-paying jobs and health insurance. They took regular vacations with their families. And they seemed reasonably happy with their lot in life.
I wasn't. My old behavioral patterns were not leading me toward healthy, intimate relationships. My search for a new career had stalled. If I'd ever had a center, it was not holding. I was on the road, cold and alone, with only a dog for companionship. This limbo had lasted well over three years now, and it was very difficult for me to see light at the end of the tunnel. I beat up on myself and lamented my existential condition for hours, and when we pulled into a pet-friendly motel in Chillicothe, Ohio, I was exhausted. It was a Friday night, the start of the Jewish Sabbath, but I did nothing to celebrate it. I ordered a pizza, walked Jake around town, and went to bed.
The next morning, as I drove through southern Ohio and crossed into West Virginia, the landscape became much more interesting. The hills, while small, broke up the drive's monotony. Tiny, often dilapidated towns squeezed themselves into tight hollows. There was something beautiful, but also faintly menacing, about West Virginia. Maybe it was the haunting appearance of some of the old buildings. Or the way the shadows snaked through the hollows and around the homes. Whatever it was, it was exhilarating. I felt alive. And I began to enjoy the adventure of my journey.
The past few years had given me some gifts as well as many challenges. I was about to embark on a semester-long job in academia, one that would allow me to teach an elective I'd always wanted to offer (on spiritual writers and spiritual writing) and that would team me with an Iranian and a Mennonite scholar for a comparative religion course. Prior to that, I had worked as a senior writer at a large public relations firm in Chicago, an experience that gave me a taste of corporate America and the PR/marketing/advertising world about which I knew very little. It was an experience that was mostly vapid, but I learned a great deal about myself as a result. I had adopted a dog I loved, and who was now accompanying me to my rural destination. And, best of all, I'd gotten to spend unexpected quality time with my mother and father, both in their late seventies. More than providing me with a glimpse of alternative career paths, that time with my parents had been a profound experience of reconnection and healing.