September 6, 2016
I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.
— George Fairman, 1881-1962
American composer of popular songs
Scrolling through Facebook this morning, I stopped at a large image, a meme posted without comment by a friend. It showed a night sky brimming with a watercolor wash of blues and greens and purples, and a figure, possibly a child, in silhouette, walking toward a light area in the center of the colors. The caption: “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way. — Carl Sagan.”
It was the colors that drew me to the picture. It was the caption that made me stop, frown, and fall down the morning’s rabbit hole of research and remembering.
Carl Sagan? That does not sound like Carl Sagan, I thought. I Googled it. There, in pages and pages of returns, I found the thought attributed (without being connected to a source) to both Carl Sagan and Carl Sandburg (didn’t sound like him either, to me), and given, sometimes as a fragment, in songs made popular by Paul Simon and Dionne Warwick. Nope, I thought. Nope, nope, nope.
I first heard the line from a woman named Alice who was a resident of the nursing home where I worked the summer of 1968. I was 21, headed into my senior year of college. I was grieving Martin Luther King’s death, and Robert Kennedy’s, and watching the rise of a young Georgia state representative, Julian Bond, who saw his name placed into nomination for the vice-presidency at the Democratic National Convention, but who had to decline because “I have not yet reached the age.” The nursing home, within walking distance of my parents’ house, had hired me as an aide. My training consisted entirely of being shown where the clean linens were kept and being told what time the meal trays arrived.
Alice was ambulatory. That is, she could walk, and care for herself in basic ways, although she was sometimes not precisely oriented in place and time. Her room was in the north wing of the floor I worked on. She had a sister, whose name I have forgotten (if I ever knew it), whose room was in the south wing. The sister was confined to bed, unaware of her situation and unable to use language to communicate.
Alice spent most days walking up and down the hall, grasping the handrail, and stopping in at her sister’s room from time to time to greet her and have a one-sided conversation. During her ramblings, Alice would chant repeatedly, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.”
I never forgot Alice. I filed her away with the other people I met that summer: the resident for whom I had to dial the phone because she could not remember a sequence of numbers nor where she was in it; the one who asked what the commotion was in the hallway one June morning, and when I told her it was because Robert Kennedy had died, she said she didn’t think she knew him; and the man who wouldn’t let any of us twenty-something aides except Connie help him in the bathroom, because Connie, though only 19, was married, and thus immune from being surprised or shocked by men’s toileting needs. I didn’t know then that they could become characters (Connie included), that I was headed, after some delay, to a life of writing, and that all the bits and pieces of my lived experience would be available when I was ready, and able, to use them.
Not satisfied with my initial Google search, I kept at it, tweaking the terms, until finally, a multimedia site dedicated to examining World War I led me to the answer. According to firstworldwar.com, “I Don’t Know Where I’m Going But I’m On My Way” was a popular marching song of the era, first published in 1917. It was written by George Fairman, who wrote many such songs. In it, the speaker is a 25-year-old patriot (“I was born on July the Fourth in ninety-two”) who is proud to offer his services to wherever Uncle Sammy sends him to fight the foe. (The link above has the lyrics and also an audio of a contemporary quartet performing the song. Don’t miss it!)
Suddenly, Alice’s mantra made sense. Let’s imagine she was 80 in 1968. That means she was born in 1888. She’d have been in her late twenties during the time the song was popular. It had lodged in her memory, surfaced on her treks through the limited landscape of the long hall in her nursing home. There could be few variations in her destination, and only one more place for her to go.
I still live by the academic calendar, which starts fresh with Labor Day. As I write this, I am on my way, into a new year. The enthusiasm I brought to this moment in 2015 got transformed by circumstance. As I said on Facebook:
“Some of you have noticed that I have been checking in from various medical facilities for the past month. I have not been the patient, but the companion, driver, and quest manager for my husband. Ron has been diagnosed with Stage 2 primary lung cancer. He will undergo six weeks of chemotherapy (once a week) and radiation therapy (five times a week), then have a four-week hiatus, followed by eight weeks of radiation alone (or so the plan is now). We begin this process as Advent, the season of hope and anticipation, begins. We have a great deal of hope. We have everything we need in order to address this illness and undertake the course of treatment. We ask the continued spiritual/intangible support of our friends in whatever form you generally use: prayer both traditional and idiosyncratic, light-filled thoughts, periodic awareness of our place in your lives and yours in ours. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, ‘You know our love goes with you, as your love stays with us.’”
We’ve emerged on the other side, all of us the better for it. Ron’s treatment was successful, even with a severe setback caused by an attack of pneumonia. He continues to improve, and is today out for lunch with a friend, his first time in many months. On June 14, our daughter, Lynn, gave birth to Joseph Angelo April, whose very existence lights our lives and inspires us. She goes back to work today. I was away from serious writing work most of the time, yet I managed to put together a manuscript that got me another seat at the study tables at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
I know where I want to go in terms of reading, revising, and creating new material in both fiction and nonfiction. In truth, like all of us, I don’t know where I’m going.
But I’m on my way.