When I turned 31 and the weight of life hit me, this seminal 1972 ballad showed me the path.
As the story goes, Neil Young bought California?s Broken Arrow Ranch in 1970. While moving in, he took a jeep ride with the caretaker, Louis Avila, and the two got to talking. Perhaps overlooking some scenic valley, or bathed in a picturesque sunset, these dichotomous gentlemen ? Young is 24 and rich beyond his dreams, Avila has been working his entire life ? find some common ground.
And then Young went home and wrote ?Old Man? for his new friend, and the rest is folk music history.
I?ve loved the song since I was younger than either of these fellas. There is a bond between men ? people really ? that Young highlights with such nuance and beauty. The desire to be loved, struggling with feelings of disconnect, and a need for home and truth; these are the threads that bind us. Toss in a little mournful banjo courtesy of James Taylor, and it?s the perfect music for a solemn walk through city streets or country back-roads.
Only, since I turned 31 a few months back, I?ve begun to hear the song in a whole new light. It?s not just those wants and needs bridging the gap between Young and Avila. With every subsequent listen, I feel as if Young is recognizing a more profound connection between himself and the elderly foreman. That the two exist at the same point in time, and have trudged through so much of life. There is a lingua franca between the pair, a tongue people only learn after years spent churning on this rock. Some people hear optimism, but when Young croons about being ?24 and there?s still so much more,? I think he means the sheer emotional weight of his life. As if he has some Sisyphus-ian realization about the mound of existence he?s got to haul around.
It?s an intense sensation I?ve experienced either right as I awake or just before I lay my head down for the evening. It?s not some early midlife crisis, because I don?t feel desperate to reclaim something by way of a Corvette. Despite the minimal rings around my own tree of life, I can?t help but recognize those feelings of absolute heaviness. It starts in my brain and branches out slowly downward, shifting my shoulders into a perpetual slump. It moves down across my body and rests in my hips before sliding down my legs. And just when I feel like it?s going to leave me, it settles in my feet. And, yes, I?ve already checked, and it?s not some bone deficiency, either.
It?s everything I?ve done in my life to this point, sitting directly atop my not-so-meager frame. The fun times and the romance and the wonderful meals and fleeting smiles are all in the mix, but they?re so lightweight that it?s hard to recognize that they take up any space. What hangs the heaviest are those sad and depressing bits I?ve collected over the years like so many Pogs. My romantic shortcomings. Frustrations with my career path. Issues with friends and families. My feelings on isolation and ineptitude. The rage and fury I feel when I look out onto the world. It all just weighs so heavily on me that I fear I can?t sit up sometimes.
I suppose what I?ve described thus far might be some form of depression. But it feels different from anything else I?ve encountered in my own experiences with RBD. Those episodes feel wholly singular, almost pure in their scope. This heightened awareness of the world has never pulled away my entire focus. Instead, it?s been like death through a 1,000 little nicks. Every missed opportunity with a girl is another befuddling reminder of my issues with commitment or lack of romantic follow-through. The less my name isn?t on the byline in some important magazine, the more readily I recognize my own inability to put myself out there. It?s all the same ephemera I?ve dealt with for years, each little sentiment tugging away at me simultaneously. It?s like I can see every string from my head darting out into the world, latching on whatever object makes me mad or sentimental or frustrated.
What surprises me most is everyday life under this emo boulder. As a small child, I thought about what it might like to be older, and two images always came to mind: Me in a suit and me with a grizzled beard. The former meant life had turned out brilliantly, and I?d be dashing about town with a pep in my step, counting all my many successes. The latter, meanwhile, was a feeble-minded representation of being old and unaccomplished, the very definition of a sad sack who?d been chewed up and spit out by life. I?m closer to the beard example in more ways than one, but somehow this life doesn?t seem as depressive or grey-colored as once imagined. I wouldn?t say it?s a walk in the park, but I?m less afraid to be in this place than I ever thought I?d be.
The pounds and ounces of everyday life hold physical weight, but I?ve yet to succumb to the crushing granite of it all. Which leads me to a number of conclusions, each with varying levels of farfetched-ness:
- I?ve grown numb to the endless deluge of disappointment that accompanies mere existence.
- Things aren?t as bad as they seem, and there is a kind of joy to the work of simply living one?s life.
- The worst, my dear boy, is yet to come.
Regardless of the answer, I can?t help but turn back to ?Old Man? in discerning value to my predicament. When it comes to processing all of these feelings and finding a way toward something that resembles comfort, Mr. Young ain?t much help. When the last chord fades into the ether, he?s no closer to finding love, unearthing any meaning for his actions, or locating his own little paradise. Which I suppose is the point of the song: Life?s a trip, man, and it never ends until we get to the Great Farmhouse in the Sky. We?re all just on the road trying to carve out some meager little patch of happiness.
So, perhaps, all of this heaviness I?ve been experiencing, finding myself thinking about life as an older, more grizzled person, might be a most subtle sign. Not from the Universe or another mystic force, but a little voice in my head violently screaming one message ad infinitum:
Get it together.
If I have any disappointments ? if I see myself as more beaten down than I might be ? it?s because I?ve forgotten that powerful little message Young crooned about so brilliantly. Rather than put in the work of finding love and whatever else makes me happy, I?ve settled on the weight of this life. The burdens that hang over the heads of young and old ? working to build up valuable relationships, make sacrifices and putting yourself out there, and realizing the smallest steps toward prosperity still hold value. You may be the foreman of a broken down ranch, or the millionaire rock god who owns it, but nobody gets to where they are without making certain decisions ? or letting others decide for you. In that sense, Young?s got priorities in mind so that he finds what he?s looking for and doesn?t spend his days wandering aimlessly.
It might do me some good to talk a walk down a country mile and learn a thing or two from the Neilster. There?s this tendency I?ve seen across all parts of my life ? from work to romance to building IKEA furniture ? that if doesn?t work out the way I want right away, I give up. I let the forces of the Universe win and here I sit, to paraphrase Gilbert O?Sullivan, alone again in every sense of the word. But maybe it?s just enough to recognize those tendencies.
?Old Man? has several references to rolling home. Which, not to nitpick individual word choice, is an important distinction. Because it?s not travel or run or race or journey or sojourn; it?s roll, and that has a certain connotation of being slow-moving and mildly ungraceful. Yet even as the slightest force threatens to stymie that gentle movement, and at some point the world certainly will, Young and the song roll onward. It?s about keeping your head down while trying to push through the machinations of the Universe. It?s only when you stop that the forces of gravity push down on you with enough power to crumble your atoms. Young seemed to understand that, and ?Old Man? is perhaps a mere observation. As if he meant to take a breather with Mr. Avila, take note o the connective energy bubbling between us all, and move on before it all become simply too much to bear.
The world will crush you with equal parts pain and beauty, power and helplessness; if you ever want to get to whatever home might be, you?ve got to tumble with everything you?ve got. In my case, I can?t quite see the rustic ranch just yet, but every step suddenly feels that much lighter.