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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Sunday, September 11, 2005

stuck in the middle passage

Again this morning I spent coffee-time keying an entry in my journal rather than keying project notes. The entry was about the time I spent awake last night--between about 2:30 and 4:30--thinking, as usual, about my life. The specific thoughts were again too personal for this blog, but they partly ranged along issues of mortality, perhaps sparked by attending Fred's memorial.

It's not that death is usually far from my thoughts; I think about it often. But I have felt myself over the midlife crisis since, probably, 2002, when I came home from Gampo Abbey. I had entered it in my late 30s, which is to say the late 1990s. The psychologist James Hollis, in his excellent little book The Middle Passage, defines midlife crisis briefly as the crisis in life when we become aware that our previous methods of coping with self-doubt (tactics such as getting another promotion at work, having another child, buying a bigger house) aren't working, and will never work again. It has no specific time of onset: some people might start encountering it in their late 20s, others won't feel it until they're 60 (or maybe not at all). It's the crisis of mortality: first sensing, then consciously recognizing that death is personal--it will happen to me personally. Typically, one is dogged by feelings of failure and inadequacy: one's youthful dreams and projects, the great confidence that one won't make the same mistakes as one's parents, are mostly dashed. The successes are tinged with an ironic awareness of their hollowness.

What I got out of Hollis's book was that the successful navigation of the "middle passage", as he prefers to call it, means arriving at one's own true self. From childhood on through adolescence and early adulthood we adopt ideas, goals, and behaviors that are not truly our own; we absorb them from others because we haven't fully found our own identity. The sense of fleeting time that accompanies the middle passage is due, in part, to the recognition that we have been wasting time, in so far as we have been doing things that are not of ourselves, but that merely reflect our various roles as children, spouses, employees, parents, and so on. Time is wasted that is not spent being our own genuine selves.

Well. Feelings of failure and self-questioning, self-doubt had haunted me for several years up to 2002. In a sense it was midlife crisis that drove me to the abbey: I did not want to live any longer without taking the most decisive step I could to engage with the teachings that had meant so much to me over the previous 15 years. And my premature departure therefrom was joyous: I felt I was stepping into my true self, fully and at last.

Now, in the dark of night, ruled by the moon, I'm not sure. My mind races between familiar stations, wondering how I've become shackled to a project that may in the end drag me to Davy Jones's locker and oblivion. Was it for this that you were born?

There are other things, personal things. Plenty to chew on over a stiffish glass of whisky by a 46-year-old sitting naked on his mattress in near-total darkness. (Some sodium-colored light feathers in around the felt blackout on the window.) Yes, plenty to chew on.

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