Sunday, July 29, 2012

For My Friend, The Ghost Rider

Pack up all those phantoms
Shoulder that invisible load
Keep on riding North and West
Haunting that wilderness road
Like a ghost rider

Carry all those phantoms

Through bitter wind and stormy skies
From the desert to the mountain
From the lowest low to the highest high
Like a ghost rider

Keep on riding North and West

Then circle South and East
Show me beauty but there is no peace
For the ghost rider
For the ghost rider

Shadows on the road behind

Shadows on the road ahead
Nothing can stop you now
Nothing can stop you now

- Rush, "Ghost Rider," Vapor Trails (Anthem/Atlantic, 2002)

Soon after Rush's 1997 tour ended, the 19-year-old daughter of drummer and primary lyricist Neil Peart was killed in a car accident on Highway 401 in Ontario. Only ten months later, his common-law wife of 22 years died of cancer. Overcome by grief, Peart took a long sabbatical in order to mourn and reflect. The end of Rush seemed inevitable. Traveling by motorcycle, Peart journeyed from his home in Canada to Alaska, down through the United States to Mexico and eventually to Belize. Peart wrote of this time in his memoir Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road. Following this healing period, Peart met photographer Carrie Nuttall and the two were married in 2000. The album Vapor Trails was recorded soon after. 

The name "Ghost Rider" came to Peart just outside a drugstore in Fernie, British Columbia. While writing a postcard to Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, Peart

noticed the caption at the top: "Ghost Rider."  Turning it over, I saw a photograph of a lenticular cloud trailing off the peak of Trinity Mountain.  Ghost Rider was apparently the local name for this atmospheric phenomenon.

Now, it must be explained that Alex and I shared a particular mode of writing to each other in "Moronese," and with the pen in my left (wrong) hand I started scrawling, "Eye em thuh gost rydur." Then I stopped, my head jerked back, and I thought, "Whoa, yeah! - I am the ghost rider!" The phantoms I carried with me, the way the world and other people's lives seemed insubstantial and unreal, and the way I myself felt alienated, disintegrated, and unengaged with life around me. "Oh yes," I thought, "that's me all right. I am the ghost rider."[1]

Last summer, my friend Preston had his own demons to deal with. In mid-July, Preston disappeared from his home in Salinas. His family described this as out of character, especially with him missing work as well as the disappearance being on the day of his father's birthday. It was later revealed that Preston had traveled via motorcycle down to Mexico and eventually to Belize. In early August, he was arrested by Mexican customs officials for traveling without a passport. For whatever reason, he provided a false name until later that month. Once he popped up as a missing person, his release soon followed. Preston's father described this episode as a "cleansing process" and "just a time he needed to get away."

I haven't found out why Preston left. I don't know what phantoms he carried with him. I am unsure what was in need of cleansing. I virtually hadn't seen or heard from Preston since he was one of my groomsmen at my wedding. Prior to that, we had served together as missionary companions in Las Vegas. He was one of my favorite companions in one of the most successful areas of my mission. Hilarious beyond belief, analytical in his thinking, and one of the most knowledgeable missionaries in the mission, Preston and I got along quite well. I had searched for him multiple times over the years, unable to find him on Facebook or other social media outlets. However, I kept putting off the extra effort it would take to track him down.

The morning of Friday, July 27, 2012, I received a Facebook message from another former companion which read, "Isn't that crazy, about Preston dying this week. It has hit me pretty hard. I am going to the funeral tomorrow. I just wanted to let you know." This had been sent the night before. My friend had died and I had no idea until the day of the funeral. I have still been unable to find anyone who knows the cause of death. He was only 26 years old.

My friend had obviously been struggling. With what, I do not know. I worry that this struggle may have been related to his premature passing. The guilt for not seeking him out with more diligence has already set in. The realization of this loss did not fully hit until later that day. Knowing that future searches would be futile and that I would never "catch up" with him overwhelmed me. My friend was dead. And that was it.

One could argue that the loss is not severe. I had not seen him in four years. We were obviously not close in the typical sense. The sting is nowhere near the intensity of my sister's death nearly 15 years ago. Yet, it is more painful than the recent passing of my uncle's wife due to cancer. If anything, however, each of these losses is a reminder of the death, decay, and suffering that plagues this planet. It is a reminder of the opportunities we've missed (I found out after her passing that my uncle's wife had a major interest in Mormonism), the reconciliations that can no longer take place, and the futures that will never happen.

Yet, in the midst of this misery, there is joy and solace on the horizon. Next month, my sister-in-law will be sealed to her husband for time and all eternity. What impact can this have on the terrible experiences mentioned above, especially given the potent effects of negative emotions compared to positive ones?[2] It is, in some sense, the conquering of death itself:

The temple cultus became the ritual and theological locus of the Mormon death conquest...Through this cultus Smith armed his followers to fight a caricature of the Calvinist god, a malevolent being who arbitrarily denied sure salvation and the eternity of human society. From precedents in 1830s Ohio to the full-fledged cultus of 1840s Nauvoo, these strands combined into a ritual system that provided both "words against death" and a society against death.[3]

The Mormon temple, in my view, offers one of the most unique perspectives of both the living and the dead. The dead are not removed from us, but occupy the same space. Our friendships and families do not end. They are not even put on hold. They are eternally linked. This result of the atonement in effect redeems the suffering and death we see everyday.

I miss my friend. I wonder what phantoms and invisible loads he carried and what bitter wind and stormy skies he faced.

But more importantly, Preston, I hope you have been relieved of them. Nothing can stop you now. See you soon, bud.

1. Excerpt from the Toronto Star.

2. See Roy F. Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Cartin Finkenauer, Kathleen D. Vohs, "Bad Is Stronger Than Good," Review of General Psychology 5:4 (2001).

3. Samuel Brown, In Heaven As It Is On Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). Kindle edition. Ch. 6 - "The New and Everlasting Covenant."