A Story on Not Being Alone

I usually make a CD mix for long trips that attempt to capture the “theme” for the particular vacation. On a road trip through Arizona and Mexico, the mix featured “South of the Border,” “Rosalita,” with some Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers thrown in; the “Big Apple” mix for the 2006 weekend in New York was loaded with Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel, and George Gershwin. So as last year’s Spring Break trip to Berkeley, California approached, the iTunes was fired up and yet another digital heirloom was created.

Because this vacation was partially an exercise in nostalgia, the songs selected leaned heavily on music I was listening to during my Lenten apostolate two years ago. Near the top of the list was “Beautiful World” by Colin Hay, a song that had been played over the airplane speakers during my first flight to Berkeley. It’s a fairly obscure number, but I had been listening to it a lot during my first year in seminary and hearing it over the cabin speakers at that particular moment served as one of the many reminders that year that I was not as alone as I had been fearing.

The original intent for this trip, in addition to visiting old friends, was to drive down the Pacific Coastal Highway. I had made a similar trip two years ago but because of scheduled meetings and community gatherings, a turnaround had to be made upon reaching Big Sur. On this particular trip, time constraints were not a factor; weather on the other hand was—seven days of stormy clouds appearing at the top of the weather.com page essentially washed away all ideas of a “Fast and Furious” adventure.

Fortunately, there was a Plan B.  Before leaving for vacation, a visitor to the Washington house told me that if I was going to Northern California I just had to drive up north to get a mud bath. Because it wasn’t part of the original plan (and because “mud bath” never quite made any personal “bucket list”), I didn’t give much thought. However one advantage that mud spas had going for them is that they are indoors, so I hopped in the Dodge Charger and began the trek up north to Calistoga, California. When life gives you mud, go and make… mud-ade.

Get it??? “MUD-ade” instead of “LEMON-ade”??? Okay… I’ll stop.

According to the menu of the Sarafornia Diner, the name Calistoga came from Samuel Brannan in the 1840s. Originally from The Empire State, he came upon the natural springs of this place while exploring Northern California and it reminded him of the hot springs of upstate New York. Samuel determined that he would make this place the Saratoga of California… except he was a bit of a drinker, so what came out of his mouth was the “Calistoga of Sarafornia.”

Jon Stewart once commented on doing long, solitary car rides. At first, it can be really good because it gives you the opportunity to do some self-examination; “HHmmmm, maybe I really should drop a few pounds before the holidays.” But as the hours and the miles tick by, ideas for self-improvement eventually drift into “I’ve failed everyone who’s ever loved me!!!”

For better and for worse, I have always been able to spend long periods of time by myself. In fact one of the aspects of religious life I have come to relish is the presence of alone time… and one of the aspects of religious life that I sometimes dread is the presence of alone time. Even with my “advanced abilities” in living the solitary life, after a while my brain can start behaving like a three-year old that’s just discovered the pots and pans in the kitchen, with thoughts increasingly banging against my cranium (and each other) with the ferocity of a proton accelerator. It’s around those moments that Dame Loneliness secretly slips into the car… not immediately calling attention to herself but also not able to keep herself hidden forever; Dame Loneliness has a lot of junk in her trunk.

On this particular trip, the unwanted stowaway made herself known when I walked into the local Italian restaurant… and asked for a table for one. Nine times out of ten this does not bother me but for some reason this night was different. And it was over goat cheese ravioli that I reflected on the being I was over that one of my ongoing beefs with the Lord God Almighty—the same Lord God Almighty to whom I am currently in the process of committing my life—is that His presence requires frequent REMINDERS.  That God’s presence is not usually obvious… and in fact the majority of evidence seems—more often that not—to point to His absence rather to His existence. This condition is simultaneously the prerequisite and the bitch of faith.

I get back to the motel and flip on The Office. They were celebrating the Valentine’s Day Party at the Scranton branch of Dunder-Mifflin and Michael Scott was lonely, engaged in his usual desperate search for a significant other. While I am canonically barred from following his example, I found myself in a place in life where I never thought I would be: identifying with the emotions of Michael Scott. Add that to the list of unexpected experiences from religious life. After The Office I started flipping the channels some more and landed on Scrubs; I figured that since I was going to be working as a hospital chaplain this summer, I might as well get some pointers.

After a few minutes, Colin Hay’s “Beautiful World” played in the background as Zac Braf’s problems came to some resolution, at least for that half-hour. And I remembered the moment two years ago that I heard the same song on the tarmac of Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. I reflected that this too was an obscure moment to be hearing this song. And I was reminded that God does show care, but usually not in the ways I would prefer… the ways that fall within the limited sense of my own needs.

The weather had cleared when I woke up the next morning, so I decided to drive my Dodge Charger even further north into the mountains rather than head back to Berkeley right away. I was on vacation and there was no particular place that I had to be.