When to Write a New Story
I still remember the stop sign, distorted in the waves of heat rising from the asphalt. My grandfather and I sat on his porch, a glass of iced tea in my left hand, condensation sliding down the side.
“There was this clearing.” His voice flowed deep and scratchy in my memory, gravel polished by river water. “Buildings on both sides and a field in the middle. Not really a field, but this grass area with a retaining wall.” His eyes go distant. Somewhere in them he crosses an ocean of space and time. He’s a young man again, a soldier walking north in Italy, approaching an ambush.
“The bullets started flying. We had to take cover behind this wall. They are hitting above me, chips of stone falling. It was all we could do to fire back.” He pauses and takes a drink of his tea.
“He was different,” my aunt had told me, “before he war. He was funny, loud, easy going. When he came back, he was quiet.”
“He never talked about fighting,” my grandmother had said, “you’re the first one he’d tell his stories.”
This is not a story about the past. This is about moving forward. I used to believe our lives were defined by lines of demarcation, moments where tragedy hit us squarely enough to knock down the pedestals we’d built and require us to do something about it. I know now, this is only part of the journey.
We are our losses. We are what we used to believe. We are this until the pressure of it is enough to make us detach. Like bullets pockmarking masonry, we can duck until the wall falls or we can move.
In my almost forty years on this planet, I’ve covered some ground. I graduated Class of 2000 in high school, attended college, married, had children, moved into a home.
I remember the year Facebook became public and not just for college students. That started the race to compare. The questions moved from how are you doing to how are we doing. How do our vacations compare? Our houses? Our children? The hole started to deepen. The race picked up speed. Circumstances from the economy to the pandemic intensified things. Yes we could suffer together, but the conversations didn’t really change. We were all still stressed, still pressured, still burned out and sitting quarantined with our pile of ashes.
I realized, the person I’d known did not have to be the person I am. The definition behind my picture in the dictionary was fluid. The dreams I’d had, the ones that gave me anxiety in the darkest moments of night, they could be changed.
It was not too late to write a first chapter.
And this is not some self improvement mantra, no social media plan to purchase, no advising or diet strategy. This is life built on small victories. The end goal is not as important as the small steps. This is taking a break from the future to not lose moments in the now.
This is dropping the screens (try it for a while and feel the pressure lift).
I’ve decided to free myself from my expectations and restart.
There’s freedom in understanding that parts of your journey were moving in the wrong direction. There’s power in the moment where you know you can’t go back.
I’d read Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club when it was released and, like most young men at the time, it spoke to me.
We must be willing to stop our journey to get things we don’t need to please people we don’t like. We must be willing to burn it down.
This chapter one, this is burning it down. Freedom from expectation. Standing in the moment, feeling the breeze, and starting down a new path once again. For the losses, the anger, the disappointments can live in the past and can die with the old self.
This is not rewriting. It is starting over.
Starting over is freedom. Freedom to explore multiple plot lines, to define your character and the supporting cast, freedom to shape your setting and find your inciting action to get things moving.
There is a picture of my son Aiden standing on the dock behind my father’s house. He’s wearing a grey shirt, shorts and sneakers. He’s holding a fishing line with his first fish on it. The small sunfish is in mid shake on the line. He’s looking at it while my dad stands next to him and smiles.
Multiple currents of history converged to make that moment. If my grandfather hadn’t returned from the war, my father would not have been born in the Baby Boom of 1950.
Maybe the past is not meant to hang over our shoulders and make us into a world of Jacob Marleys, walking with chains and regret we’d missed our chance to shake them off. Maybe it is meant to be a catalyst, to push us forward and let us be free, to confirm that we can change. We can start fresh.
My grandparents are buried together in a cemetery on a rolling hillside in Pennsylvania. Our family has disbursed since then, relatives creating their own family units and starting their own branches of the tree. They live in my memories.
That child, the one from the porch, if I could sit next to him today I’d tell him that I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the mistakes I’ve made. The world has gotten more complicated. People will break your heart. They will betray your trust. You’ll fall in love and meet an amazing woman. You’ll have two children of your own. You’ll try and fail, try and fail again before picking yourself up.
You’ll be facing forty and finally understand what it means to be free. You’ll start a new journey to find the person you were meant to be. You’ll feel the rush of leaving expectation behind and taking what may come in stride.
I’d kneel at his side and tell him that the years will pass. You will change. One day you’ll get it. Your mistakes are not the end of the world. Your story is not over. It is just beginning.
And we’d look out at the stop sign together, waves of heat rising in the summer afternoon.