Years ago, I read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. It was the historical account of Christopher McCandless, a young man who graduated to great promise from Emory University in the early 1990s only to abandon any semblance of identity (he literally burned all forms of identification) and left his home and family behind to hit the road on a cross-country trip. Chris ultimately ended up living out of an abandoned bus through a snowy Alaskan winter north of Denali National Park and, while incredibly resourceful, he ended up making one tactical mistake–he ate poisonous berries–and ended up perishing shortly before the spring thaw. His journey, both physically and psychologically, was introspective and meditative.
I saw Krakauer read at a bookstore in Denver in 2009 and he explained that he received mail from some readers who thought that McCandless’ story was one of tragedy and other, less sympathetic readers, who thought the kid just needed to get his head screwed on straight and get on with adulthood.
After graduating from the State University of New York – Binghamton in 1994, I ended up working at Wal-mart for a year. Then I headed to Alaska where I landed in a fish processing center, working 16-hour shifts cutting up sockeye salmon in Naknek. I almost stayed following the summer season, but I had gotten an acceptance letter to graduate school in the Bronx so I headed back to the Lower 48. Not long after graduate school started, I decided to join the Peace Corps so it was off to Sri Lanka. After getting back to the States a year later, I quickly finished my Master’s degree then decided I didn’t want to become an English professor. So, with about two weeks’ advance notice of a job opportunity as an editor, I packed most of what I owned into two bags and took a bus down to Washington, DC.
No Rites of Passage: A Confused Introduction to Adulthood
All of which is, to say, that after I graduated from college and faced a future of adulthood, I found myself so mixed up and without direction that I was willing to try (and pretty much did) anything! Eventually, I settled down and found a path. I was fortunate to catch a professional work break from a mentor at the Peace Corps and that first step helped me figure out which way to go.
But for myself and McCandless and, no doubt, for thousands of other Americans, the journey into adulthood can be a challenging one. This is a core theme of Green Bay Outsiders. Carl Daniels, the protagonist, realizes shortly after graduating from the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, that the cookie cutter promise he’d been living with doesn’t quite settle the churn inside him. He wants to see more. He wants to experience more. And this is a guy who studied business!
Years ago, too, I read a book called Grand Canyon Celebration, which is the autobiographical account of Michael Quinn Patton who took his son traveling through the Grand Canyon following the boy’s graduation from high school. Recognizing the lack of rituals and rites of passage in the United States, Patton introduces his son to a wealth of history and tradition in one of nature’s most astonishing creations.
His son, Brandon, is one lucky guy. Most young American adults are either bred by the university system or bypass it all together, rudderless, unsure, wondering what’s expected of them now that the time for them to be cared for by adults is at an end and it’s up to them to find their own way. The United States is not the most community-oriented country in the world and it’s not even close. We are descendants of Pilgrims who fought a hard-won existence based on self-subsistence and grit. While many other nations take a decidedly more holistic and less linear approach to life’s stages, and both adults and communities in those countries get involved in the lives of their youths who are passing into adulthood–making the experience, I should add, a whole less lonely–the United States offers little more than economic training. Learn a skill. Get a job. Settle down.
Life Gets in the Way – How to Find the Path
That works for some people. Some people are really good at it. But as with McCandless, as with me through my early and mid-20s and so too for Carl in Green Bay Outsiders, that sensitivity to the phenomenon known as life can be at least a distraction and, at most, a genuine threat to existence. What does it mean to have a non-economic identity? What is it to feel the depth of personal experience in a journey, to release the trappings of civilization and attachment, and to go forth with nothing but the eyes in our heads, the breath in our mouths and the hearts in our chests?
Whether for good or worse, the lack of rites of passage into adulthood can be a sore test to many young adults. The draw of the open road, which promises a freedom of unknown possibilities, can be an addictive draw and one which many cannot resist. Ultimately we learn to support ourselves and our families, to be responsible and settle down, and to find a path on which to walk.
But finding that path is an effort of patience, fear and of occasional exasperation. And man, oh man, wouldn’t it be nice if someone could just be there and help us understand what it is we’re going through?
Leave a comment below the subscription form about your first years of adulthood, whether you consider that your late teens or early 20s. Was it an easy time? Or did you face a lot of difficulties? If the latter, what were they?
Mike Sahno says
Great post, Jay. I, too, felt directionless (ironically, after also graduating from SUNY-Binghamton – must have been something in the water). I thought I’d go into academia, but the jobs were few and far between for someone who “only” had an M.A., but not a PhD. I ended up keeping my part-time market research job when they fired my boss and asked me to take over the position!
The lack of clear rites of passage for men, in particular, has been of interest to me since the days of Robert Bly and the drum circle…something I also never got into especially. I think in some ways it must be even harder today than it was for us: too many people graduating and looking for work with no experience, for one. More importantly, more tech and less real communication makes many of them feel increasingly isolated, I would imagine.
I’m interested in seeing how this all plays out for the Maddox Men characters, having found them through the very fine Billy Maddox Takes His Shot – a good entrance point, I think, for readers who are new to your work!
Jay Lemming says
Thanks, Mike, for your comment as well as for your kind words about Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. I agree the encroaching role of technology has probably created even greater hardships or complications for younger people these days. I wouldn’t even know how to cope. Back in the day, it was all about looking in the New York Times classifieds for job listings and hoping that something worked out.
One of my friends at Binghamton was pretty big into Robert Bly but I never really got much of a chance to read him. We’ll see how Green Bay Outsiders turns out. Most of my second draft is completed, and things should only accelerate from there. The theme I write about in this post only emerged with much clarity as I was writing this second draft. We’ll see. Can’t wait to release it to the world!
angie leblanc says
I had no idea of what to do after leaving high school. I graduated in ’78, I had a dream of becoming an artist. I had no real experience just decided to takes an entrance exam close to home, at that time I had no idea what to expect, no one in my family thought I would be accepted. I had no idea how long the process would take so after a few months of waiting, I gave up on the dream. I decided to get married and. Was soon found out I was expecting a child, which stopped my hope of college. A few months later I received the acceptance letter, including a minimal scholarship. I let that slip away and later wish I hadn’t. I often look back and wished I had waited a little bit longer, Had I a chance to to go back and change my path I would have been the artist I had drempt I would someday be.
Jay Lemming says
Thanks, Angie, for sharing your story. Yeah, I can see how that scholarship and acceptance letter might have stayed with you all these years. Life happens, gets in the way, interferes, etc. I mentioned Binghamton in my blog post. I did an internship there at a public television station; at the end of the internship, the staff invited me to come back the following year and learn how to be a cameraman. It had nothing to do with the internship – they just liked working with me and invited me back. The following year – my senior year of college – I ended up screwing around with my friends and never made it back to the television station. Although nothing in life ever brought me close to taking such a path again, it definitely was a road I could have taken but didn’t. They say we have many selves out there who took paths we didn’t take in our own lives. It can be crazy thinking about it. I hope you feel the path you took into family life was a good one. I am divorced but have a seven-year-old son who I love beyond words. No regrets on my part for anything that happened! Jay