The house blend at the little café you remember is not your grocery coffee. The pond in your office park is not the ocean and neither is the sledding hill in the forest preserve a mountain. Your Sunday prayers are not said in Chartres and Monday is a litany of spreadsheets and calculations rather than spending time as a war correspondent.
Meinl is better than Folgers (you pick your poison) and Ranier is better than that sledding hill (include your high place here.) We know that, but we tread the fact carefully. We cannot always have the little café and the mountain. And if we seek to, what does it say of life and of us?
In July 1997 Raymond and Lela made the news. They drove off together to see a concert 15 miles from their home. About a week later, their car was found in a ravine more than 300 miles from their destination. Raymond was 88 and Lela 83. By all accounts, each was at least in the early onset of Alzheimer’s. Their brief brush with fame was how they died; only the story did not end there.
Aware of only the missing person aspect of the story, Fastball released an account of their travels, in 1998 with a song called “The Way.” In a romanticized account of recapturing lost youth, the health of the couple and the fact that their trip was not to be very far was gone, replaced by the recapture of that summer most of us has that forever beats back the cold and denies age. In Fastball’s account Lela and Raymond are not an aged husband and wife lost in the disorientation of what was to be a brief trip. Instead they are two people imagining themselves to be lovers on the open road lost in the wonder of their vigor. Unlike the mundane reality, the song’s account is the one we often want to live in, even if it is not very real.
You read the books, see the movies, and hear the music. Affairs are better than marriages and spouses cannot compete with lovers. Lovers are always drinking their coffee in cafes and taking long walks together. Marriages produce families that give you little money for cafes and little time for long walks. Lovers never take vacations; they take road trips and go on adventures. They are always standing next to the ocean, climbing mountains, and drinking coffee and eating in charming places. Their lives are never mundane. The married get up in the morning to pour the Folgers into a cup and rush the kids off to school, their only advantage over lovers being that they managed to sleep the night before.
Every summer the married begin their ritual. They have saved their money to escape the mundane. They take the kids to see a mouse and a magic castle, an artificial construct to give relief to very real lives. The lovers also begin their ritual too. There is a road out there somewhere leading to a great geography meant for passion and long walks. They are very real things, but for people who are often artificial.
Raymond and Lela’s story is an interesting one, more so when we realize more than just the fate of their travel. Theirs is a story for our day for this couple had a life and we tell ourselves it must have been a remarkable one given their age. But more precisely Lela and Raymond had lives that were more than a life together. Together they had 93 years of marriage between them before they ever became husband and wife. Knowing this we can hear “The Way” in a different mindset. The reality of the story doesn’t change, but it becomes easier to imagine the two wanting a story that would give full weight to who they are and leave an imprint of being lovers on their marriage. Perhaps what they wished to do was give their relationship those stories worthy of their past.
There was earlier in the summer a barrage of debate in the blogosphere about marriage, specifically if the thing should be done sooner or later. The case for later was the lower rates of divorce and stability that comes from knowing who you are. The case for sooner was more interesting. It is about being there with another person who not only becomes your spouse, but also that person who shares that one café or memories of that one trip had in the blissful summer.
Raymond and Lela, despite their health history and their age, knew the reality. They came of age in a time of sooner rather than later and yet together had to play out just the opposite….being special to one another after having been special to others. At their age, it could not have been such a bold playing out, but they must have wanted stories that were uniquely theirs, even if only going to hear a fiddle concert 15 miles away. They must have wanted what was more than mundane.
All of this brings me to my point. The mundane is not so bad and it may, in our day, be the best story we have. It is certainly the most real. Our lives are beginning to be populated with adventure. It use to be relating to Henry Miller/Anais Nin and Graham Greene/ Catherine Walston was difficult, only certain people had their Paris or Achill Island. Now as I look at my Facebook newsfeed and listen to friends, everyone has these things. Most, eventually, have the other thing too as their lives fill up with mortgages and birth certificates, but the distance between one life and the other grows longer and the stories of adventure take on potency that stability finds it hard to compete with. We are all acquiring a “past,” which was always the case, but now that story grows to the point that everyone is having their Achill and Paris moments. Once had, such things cannot be undone….that was the point of the “marry young” crowd. You have to live with the fact you have loved and you have had your great adventures and you have done so in spite of the mundane world in which you now live.
What can be done? To start, we can learn to love the mundane again. Most of us probably have a plethora of the adventure stories anyway. What we need is a story of the unique and in our day, it is the mundane that is increasingly unique. That story more than likely includes the not so unique adventure story anyway. What we need to do is set that story apart and we do it in the mundane world where the Starbucks was once a charming coffeehouse and the kids running around with their mouse ears were once the miles of open road populated by conversation and longing gazes. Unfortunately if your mundane story did not start that way, too bad for you. Best go out and acquire a few of those moments. When you do you will have that unique story worthy of travelling to again and again, occasionally to the high place of breath taking passion, but most often to the not so very high hill filled with the sleds of children who for the moment have forgotten the magic castle of their own eternal summer. If it helps you can watch them with a mug of coffee. It is likely your little café can ship you their house blend.
Image: Couple at the 1369 Coffeehouse in Cambridge, Tim Pierce, Creative Commons license