Samuel J. Tanner 6 minute read


I was driving to campus in Altoona last week. I drove over hills, through valleys, and past farms and farmland. It's been gray and rainy for the last month in Central Pennsylvania. Foggy, low-hanging mist hangs over the mountains in the morning. I'm growing accustomed to the scenery here. Still, I'm oftened stunned by the beauty of my surroundings. How'd I end up here?

Ten years ago I was a high school teacher, living with Katie in Northeast Minneapolis.

Fifteen years ago I was a college student at The University of Minnesota. I was a lonely twenty-something living in Dad's basement in the suburbs.

I was an awkward senior in high school nearly twenty years ago now. Just a baby.

I wasn't only these things. Listing this brief history doesn't capture much. All three of the people mentioned above were so different from each other. Sure, I usually wore a goatee and I've always been short. But I keep drifting into strange new identities. Dr. Tanner is different than Mr. Tanner, for sure. Both of these people are different from Sam or, as my mom used to call me, Sammy. It's strange to drift back to other lives I've lived.

I was listening to Neil Young's Psychedelic Pill album on my drive to Penn State Altoona last week. I have access to Spotify Premium through Happy Valley Improv. One of the few perks of being a co-founder of an improv theatre company, I guess. Anyway, this album opens with a song called Driftin' Back. The track is nearly thirty minutes long. It's an oozing jam that feels more stream-of-consciousness than anything else. Neil croons, over and over, "I'm driftin' back."

Inspired by Neil's voice and the misty mornning, I found myself drifting back during one of Neil's improvised guitar riffs.

I'm 38. I know that's not old. And I still feel young. There's so much more living I want to do. Time enough to do it. Yes, I'm young, but I'm old enough to have lived different lives. The person in the mirror isn't the same. His sideburns are salt and pepper. There are new wrinkles. I hate to admit it, but a bald spot is taking shape on the top of his head.

People often lament aging. We're told that we ought to be young and beautiful. I'm less young, less beautiful. (What is beauty, anyway?) Still, other things are true about me now. I'm more comfortable with who I'm becoming. I'm not so nervous about the way I look or act. I've learned more about how I feel and think. I'm not always able to contain my frenetic emotion or creativity, but it doesn't surprise me as much anymore. I'm growing into myself and less likely to let other people dictate my internal world.

I'm going to share one of my favorite paragraphs with you. It comes from the final pages of Richard Wright's memoir Black Boy. Wright wrote this paragraph when he was a little older than I am now. Reflecting on his experience, he wrote:

"The days of my past, my youth, were receding from me like a rolling tide, leaving me alone upon high, dry ground, leaving me with a quieter and deeper consciousness."

Poetry! Richard Wright is a writer. I'm just a rambling hack. I know this.

Inspired by William Blake's poetry, I taught themes of innocence and experience for years in high school English classes. Wright's description of experience is so beautiful here. More beautiful than a selfie or an Instagram post, for sure. It reflects a quieter, deeper consciousness, a quieter, deeper beauty. Mist over the mountains.

All sorts of things have contributed to the quieting and deepening of my consciousness. Having two boys with my wife Katie has fundamentally changed me. Being a parent forced me to reckon with my selfishness in a way that I thought teaching already had. Leaving my previous life in Minnesota and heading out to Pennsylvania has deepened me too. Traveling has been an act of faith. The anxiety of the journey aside, I'm stronger now. Katie and I have grown closer as we've survived in a strange, new place. The work of our transformation is healthy. Transformation is healthy. Always adapting, always growing. This is living. The opposite of remaining stagnant.

I know this moment is fleeting. 38 is fleeting. But my consciousness is growing. My awareness is expanding. My soul is getting bigger. Nothing momentary about that.

If you haven't read Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut, you should. It's wild. Like Wright, Vonnegut is a real writer. The final chunk of the last chapter in Timequake, before the equally powerful epililogue, got in my head at some point and I'll never get it out. Good writing does that. It becomes a part of you. How wonderful when another's words become a part of our consciousness. Anyway, Vonnegut ends the book with a stunning statement about the infinitely powerful, always growing awareness that human beings share with each other. He describes our souls as the speed of light. The power of the stars. I can't do the book justice here. Go read it.

In my first memoir Shot Across the River Styx, a book that, in terms of quality, shares little in common with the writing I've referenced above, I came up with a sentence that is inspired by Vonnegut's Timequake and is repeated many times in the text: "Once something is conjured, it doesn't go away." I've been conjured. Created and made. The specifics of that process are up for debate, but the result is simple. I'm here. And I don't think I'm going anywhere. My conciousness, what Vonnegut called my awareness or my soul, is alive and expanding. Always and forever, amen. Deepening and quieting. And while I believe this to be true on a cosmic level, I also see it in the nitty-gritty experience of my living. The mist on the mountains. Driving to work. Living in Central Pennsylvania. Hugging Solomon. Kissing Katie. So many ways to tend to my living soul. So many ways to stifle it too, I'm afraid. Beware the soul stiflers. You know who and what I'm talking about even if you think you don't. Beware the dangerous energies that negagte the ways you live, create, and move through the universe. These things can infilitrate our consciousness and cause destruction and harm.