Note: This review appeared in my monthly newsletter (September 2005). Apologies to those who have already read it.
Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road by Neil Peart
Nonfiction - Travel Essay/Grief
Rating: A (5/5 Excellent!)
Top Ten List for 2005
In less than a year, Neil Peart lost both his 19-year-old daughter, Selena, and his wife, Jackie. Faced with overwhelming sadness and isolated from the world in his home on the lake, Peart was left without direction. This memoir tells of the sense of loss and directionlessness that led him on a 55,000-mile journey by motorcycle across much of North America, down through Mexico to Belize, and back again. He had needed to get away, but had not really needed a destination. His travel adventures chronicle his personal odyssey and include stories of reuniting with friends and family, grieving, thinking, and reminiscing as he rode until he encountered the miracle that allowed him to find peace.
Interesting story (at least to me) about the timing of this read. A friend loaned it to Rod early in the year (2005) and he told me I might be interested as well. Rod said it was very good (but sad) and I decided to add it to my pile of books, hoping to eventually get to it. And there it sat, month after month. I finally decided I'd better return it to our friend and took it downstairs to add to the others we'd borrowed, knowing I'd see Steve that weekend since we had a gig and he'd have to come back to the house later to help unload the band's equipment. Well, that was May 28th and the gig was cancelled. The band did return to our house that morning, but only to circle around me on the front porch while Rod sat in stunned silence on the back deck, mourning Rachel. Obviously returning the book was the furthest thing from my mind. But after we came home from Rachel's funeral, I came upon it again and took it back upstairs with a firmer resolve to read it soon. The timing couldn't have been better. After working my way through a half dozen grief books, I pulled it from my stack and dove in. I couldn't put it down. I knew right away that I had to get my own copy. There was so much to relate to (Peart lost his 19-year-old daughter in a single car accident and then his wife died of cancer the following year) -- my hand kept reaching for that yellow highlighter. Peart (a Canadian drummer and lyricist for RUSH) is very articulate and quite well-read. In addition to jotting down several authors & titles he referred to, I dog-eared a few pages with travel recommendations in Canada and the northwest. Now if only Rod could convince me to climb on a motorcyle and take a trip of our own...
After reading the last page of Peart's book, I felt compelled to sit down and send him a fan letter. Is this the highest tribute a reader can pay an author? Peart writes (in reference to a friend's book), "The highest tribute is the way it 'hooked' me, and here's a perfect illustration: On my way back from dinner with my friends one night, I was thinking, 'good, now I can get back to my book.' That's the greatest spell a writer can cast..." Peart cast his spell on me and I plan to tell him so.
Some favorite passages:
Because of some strength (or flaw) of character, I never seemed to question why I should survive, but only how -- though that was certainly a big enough question to deal with at the time.
I remember thinking, 'How does anyone survive something like this? And if they do, what kind of person comes out the other end?' I didn't know, but throughout that dark time of grief, sorrow, desolation, and complete despair, something in me seemed determined to carry on. Something would come up.
If I wasn't exactly finding joy in that scenic splendor the way I used to, I was at least resonating again, feeling the beauty around me, and curious about what the next line in the map might look like.
Through those days and nights I wasn't always feeling better, as the process of grieving oscillated, even through each day, from a little better to a little worse, from total existential despair to those occasional rays of hope and interest, which was definitely a spark of healing.
In the wake of my devastating losses it was hard for me to accept that fate could be so unjust, that other people's lives should remain unscarred by the kind of evil that had been visited upon me. The big question, why? was ceaseless torment, as my brain struggled for meaning (Is this punishment? A judgement? A curse?), and when I saw other people with their children, or with their lovers and mates, or even just apparently enjoying life, it wasn't so much ill will that moved me, as it was jealousy, resentment, and a sense of cruel injustice.
Thinking today as I rode that my survival remains an act of pure will. Holding myself together like a soldier wounded in battle, and feel that I could collapse from within at any time. No peace anywhere, no redemption imaginable. Just sense of waiting, killing time. Waiting for what? For time to pass, I guess. Can there be healing? Don't think so. Only strive to minimize scars. Not get too twisted, too crippled inside.
The proper way to look at these observations is that they are necessarily adaptations. I have found that it's meaningless to talk in terms of 'dealing with it,' or of 'working through it.' No. This particular It simply changes everything, and there's no coming to terms with it. No deal to be made, no compromise. (I think Ayn Rand once wrote, 'You can't compromise with evil.')
I couldn't help thinking 'bummer thoughts.' Like what a drag it is for other people to have to hang around with me. Throughout this long nightmare, all of my friends have come through for me in such a righteous and big-time way, but after all, at this point it can't be much fun to be around me: thinking of what to say, worried about a flagging conversation, a tactless remark, feeling awkward and sad and helpless to do anything for 'poor old me.' I don't know. All I can say is, I wouldn't want to be my friend.