Listening to: “Place to Be” – Nick Drake
So I know I ought to be writing about my Great California Adventure–getting skewered in the foot by a stingray and hobbling on crutches up and down the Pacific Coast, etc.–but instead I’m going to write about what’s on my mind at the moment.
I don’t know where to start on this, or what exactly I’m talking about. But I’m thinking of two people, people who were about my age, who have died in the past twenty years–Christopher McCandless and Rachel Corrie. I’ve talked about Corrie before in this blog. I’ve more recently learned about McCandless, after watching Into the Wild and then doing some research on my own.
There are several reasons I think of Corrie and McCandless on a similar level. First of all, I was introduced to both stories via artistic renderings–Corrie via My Name is Rachel Corrie, McCandless via Sean Penn’s film (I’m going to have to read Krakauer’s book next). Secondly, both stories really haunt me. Both Corrie and McCandless had the nerve to go off and do things on their own, against all advice–things that I myself would love to have the time, the funds, and the bravery to do.
Both, too, died tragic, improbable, and wholly avoidable deaths–Corrie in 2003 at 23 in Gaza, crushed by an Israeli bulldozer, McCandless in 1992 at 24 in the Alaskan wilderness, of starvation. Both have had cults built around them, in equal measure with people who fervently hate them. Both went into their chosen situations half-cocked: Corrie to Gaza with little prior knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, McCandless to Alaska with no prior experience in the far northern wilderness and fewer necessary supplies. Both willfully revolted against their upper-middle-class upbringings. Both loved reading and writing. Both, it seemed, had an undeniable zest for life.
With all these things in common, there’s one thing that makes Corrie and McCandless polar opposites. Corrie saw what was wrong with society and chose to dive in and fix what she could, to surround herself with people, to foster communities. McCandless saw what was wrong with society and chose to abandon it, to forsake friends, family, community and live completely on his own. Both ran–from Washington to Gaza, from Virginia to Alaska–but Corrie ran into new arms and McCandless ran into empty space.
Which is the better path? Both tempt me.
And in the end, both have come to stand for something larger than intended. Neither set out to be martyrs–both had a future in mind, never intended to die. But both ended up that way. They’ve each come to stand for something larger than themselves. They’ve each been lionized and demonized–words like brave, smart, strong, stupid, foolish, inexperienced–it’s all… I mean… what can you say about a person who died pursuing the path he/she chose, other than, it ended? Judgment doesn’t help. It never does. (Sayeth the girl who gets paid to judge other people’s artistic endeavors.)
What I’m saying is: we live in a time when frontiers, so they tell us, are few. Even the abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilds has become a tourist attraction ever since McCandless died there 16 years ago. Even as Kushner’s rabbi says of the dead immigrant woman in the opening scene of Millennium Approaches: “You can never make that crossing she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist.” He even capitalizes “Great Voyages.” That line always makes me want to cry.
But what Corrie and McCandless prove is that yes, you can. You can be brave, you can leave it all behind, you can find something new under the sun. The rules are laid out, the path is well-trod and ready for you to follow, but you don’t have to. You don’t have to. You don’t have to. There might be a lot wrong with America, but we can still choose what we want our lives to be. It’s getting harder, when so much around us is standing at the ready to choose for us. The frontiers may be shrinking on this Earth, but they’re not gone. Not just yet.
And maybe they were naive; maybe people can tell them they didn’t have the right to do what they did. But they did anyway. And they didn’t wait till they were old, till things were settled, till they knew which way was up. They thrust out in the full thick of youth and confusion and unanswered questions. They sought the answers in new places. They dared.
Is it fair to think of Corrie and McCandless in the same discussion? Who knows. Have I oversimplified? Definitely. I just had to get this down.