New Year, Some Words
It has been a year since I wrote my most-read website post ever: So This is the New Year.
Every time we look back on a memorable moment from a different era, we are given a whooshing, tunnel-vision recap of our lives since.
Here is how 2017 started for me: with my left arm in a cast from the second bad bike crash I got into in 2016, physically battered and mentally beat down. I had just quit my job and started severing ties to most everything that wasn’t working about my life at the time. And then, the Austin Animal Center’s office re-opened and I got to sign the paperwork to make adopting Hank official.
And here is how 2017 ended: laying on the floor in front of a fireplace, buried underneath a pile of dogs, scrolling through pictures of things I did this year and things people were doing to celebrate New Year’s Eve, feeling a little bit sorry for myself and a lot nostalgic, letting my desire for material things creep in amidst the triumphant knowledge that experiences and possessions exist in a more or less inverse relationship.
I do not have a garage full of classic cars or a fiancée with my ring on her finger. I do not have a job that impresses people or even a permanent mailing address. I do not have the incredible race bike that I had when I was hit eighteen months ago, nor do I have an iota of the endurance fitness that I did then.
Instead, I have a brain full of vivid memories and a body with several fresh scars. I have a year’s worth of new stories and people to share them with and couches to stay on should I ever pass through Tofino or Laramie or Coeur d’Alene. I have a profound understanding of solitude and an even deeper appreciation of meaningful relationships. I have stronger opinions and a more open mind, which is a maddening combination which will help me sell either way more or way fewer books.
We spend a lot of time trying to be “happier.” But precious little time trying to reconcile the reality that feeling more happiness requires feeling more. That means more sadness, too. More vulnerability. More meaning behind everything. Over time, I decided that I could live with the tradeoff of less artistic inclinations if it meant a happier existence. After all, artists are depressed, moody people who sulk and create masterpieces and hack off their ears and swallow shotgun shells. And I thought that I would rather be “happy” than to write from the piece of my soul that has things to say.
Suppressing my true thoughts only reduced my ability to feel the spectrum of emotions. That meant less art and less happiness, even if it also meant less acute sadness. Somewhere in the middle of five days of nonstop driving through the woods of northern British Columbia, I realized that I needed to see the sad irony behind things that had happened to me and to the world. If you cannot identify the twisted truth that acting is often better received than candor, then you are doomed to fall for acting, or worse—become an actor yourself.
And so, with the crunch of dry pine needles beneath my feet and the visceral fear of invisible grizzlies around every blind turn in the hiking trail, I felt every emotion come back to me in fullness. I was terrified of wildlife, ecstatic to be where I was, sad about things that happened that year, and sure of my choices that led me to the Cassiar Highway.
As I have made more decisions that trade comfort and the illusion of control for discomfort and an explicit lack of guarantees, I feel closer to the parts of me that we call the soul. I enjoy fighting for the good times and feeling the fullness of the bad. When I look at Hank, I feel overwhelming love and the preemptive devastation of time without him. The two conspire to make me appreciate him more fully than a tight-fisted struggle with reality. And it teaches me much about how to show him love; to let him run without a leash and chase ducks and be just as alive as he’s taught me to be. I may feel more “in control” if I never let him out of my sight or out of my grip, but would either of us really be better for it?
I rarely make New Year’s resolutions, because I believe that change can be enacted any time, so long as you decide to make it so and find it within yourself to see it through. But I do like to set some general goals for a given year, because we must operate within the systems we’re given. Twelve months is a decent chunk of time, and it is good to measure and recognize that time passes whether we let ourselves feel it or try to deny it. You can numb yourself to the seasons by living in Florida or Southern California; you can ignore the weeks becoming months in an endless repetition of workweeks and weekends; you can even deny that years are piling onto your age as you covet youth and attempt to live out your life in a way that ignores the daily degradation of your cells.
But, ultimately your front wheel will get stuck in a rut and you’ll flip face-first off your mountain bike and realize that it hurts way more now than it used to. You will feel the mounting pressures of home ownership or marriage or retirement as it all rushes in around you. You will climb the ladder to clean the gutter and feel your knees creak. You will try to replace feelings with the trappings of success: true gladness with a prepackaged vacation, intense sorrow with a shiny new watch, boredom with an unnecessary upgrade.
If there is one thing I have learned in more or less the last calendar year, it is that we are at our best when we can hold our own worst thoughts and fears in our hands at arm’s length and stare at them until they look less ugly and less daunting; less like shackles and more like spurs. My first response to being T-boned by a car on my bicycle was vague gratitude at being alive and not dead. Then it devolved into hysteria stemming from brain injury and general trauma. Then it spiraled into post-concussive, post-traumatic malaise which dragged me deep into the victim mentality. Even as I jogged through vomit-inducing broken-rib pain, I felt dizzy and sorry for myself. Long after I bought a cool car instead of an average house, I was profoundly depressed about the fleetingness of life and the ease with which we can piss away every good thing. In a way, even in embracing this reality and choosing the trip of a lifetime over a very average checkmark on the list of successful adulthood, I felt as though I was cauterizing a wound with a toy instead of staring at it and watching the blood dry and the scar slowly form.
But then, I made friends who lasted far longer than my car experience and I was privileged to impact their lives positively. In the midst of my profound personal struggle, I convinced at least one person to quit their job and find a better one and I met people because of the things I wrote and the way I decided to be a mess in public instead of in private. My commitment to living life as a writer and an open book became self-perpetuating—the more I wrote about and did, the more I found to write about and to do. It’s yet to lead to sustainable employment or enough pages to sell as a book, but we are inching closer every day, and no matter how many copies are sold, it is already a resounding success.
There is nothing better than becoming confident in your convictions and capable of telling your story clearly and completely. Whether abandoning stable income and a consistent roof over your head sounds like a dream come true or your worst nightmare, I am grateful beyond measure for living out that experience and wrestling with the nature of life while being way out in nature or in the heart of major cities. I find that the specifics of our given dreams matter a lot less than the shared reality that we all have them. Some people are forced to bury their dreams beneath layers of sensation-dulling comfort, while others are far quicker learners than me and chose to be mechanics or fishing guides or nurses or Bitcoin investors early on.
I spent a lot of time being crippled by how fickle it was that I survived an accident that could have killed me with a millimeter or millisecond’s difference, though I’ve now learned to love the odds that lead us to where we are. The odds that I might meet the people who I now count as dear friends, from Colorado to Connecticut, Washington to Wasilla, are probably even slimmer than the odds that I would be hurt but not killed by that Nissan. And yet, I now have those friends and know their stories. And I have fallen deeply in love with the way the world works and the people who are willing to talk about that with me, or even who will share a coffee or a bike ride so we can both be brought to life by the simple and the sublime.
We met you on grand Mesa. Thank you for your writing and the respect you showed my son and his friend. You are our hero. We love following your adventures and reading your thought provoking words.
Great post! Very courageous to bare your soul so deeply. Thanks for the inspiration.
“When I look at Hank, I feel overwhelming love and the preemptive devastation of time without him.” This happens to me when I look at the two fluffballs and it makes me feel like there’s something a little wrong with me for thinking of the melancholy inevitable instead of just enjoying the now. I’m glad I’m not the only one!
Keep writing. I will as always keep reading.
Happy New Year John! All the best to you this year. I hope you’re able to tie up all the loose ends and to find the clear expression that satisfies that enormous aesthetic and cerebral challenge. I’ll be anticipating the adventure and I look forward to reading the book. Thanks!
Happy New Year John! I can’t wait to continue reading your blog and seeing the adventures you and Hank go on.