Big New Day. May of 2014, summer stretching herself sleepily across the Midwest. I’m pacing my apartment, pulling things down from the walls and bundling them in boxes. Two years rose and fell, graduate school already blurring at my fingertips, a Polaroid shaken perhaps too emphatically. Now I’m here, hands shaking, heartbeat a steady thrum, learning again to breathe.
Against the wall, my CD player occupies the bookshelf alone, pouring music like sunlight into the cluttered apartment. The playlist is hopeful, heart first, a series of anthems about the magic that just might come if we’re brave enough to be seen. Brave by Sara Bareilles, Luck by the American Authors, Pumpin Blood by NONONO, Something I Need by OneRepublic, Invisible by Hunter Hayes, This is the New Year by A Great Big World. I tiptoe around a maze of my own creation, bobbing my head all the while, every last lyric like a love letter to this, the age of learning to want out loud.
On the coffee table are letters, one for Mom and one for Dad, comprised of words I’d years ago stitched on the inside of my sternum, certain they’d never know the light of day. Occasionally, in the midst of my bustling, I glance at them, lungs momentarily unfamiliar with the art of borrowing air. Soon, I know, I’ll be carving a line into my story, etching a clear divide between the ‘before’ and the ‘after.’
I can be brave, I know, trust people to see me –– my honest, shaking self –– and stay. I can survive resistance, have gathered the strength to stand in this story. But here, in this apartment, just days away from breaking myself free from that glass jar of my own creation, I long for a world where everything can stay the same. I yearn for a pair of arms to wrap around me, knowing, promising. I know, I see you, I know.
Stubborn in my hope, I draw in a long breath, exhaling with closed eyes against a rising chorus. Training a self to breathe honest air, hands not to reach for the doorknob the moment they begin shaking.
The Brave Unknown. November of 2014, and I find myself staring down trees, envious of their ability to let dead things free. All around me, it seems, are graveyards of my own creation, and I am a wraith wandering among them, searching and searching for a semblance of confident direction.
These are the days of discovering my earliest formulas had been far too simple, naive conviction of an unwounded heart. Brave living, I’ve learned, does not etch a straight line in the pavement to happiness. At home, among family, I feel suddenly like a stranger, and work finds me stretching to adapt and rise.
Walking across campus, feet gripping the familiarity of the red brick sidewalks, my headphones deliver me music doused in gray. The Wolves & the Ravens, by Rogue Valley, I Wanna Get Better by Bleachers, Be Still by The Killers, Belong by Cary Brothers, Be Calm by fun. I close my eyes, acoustic strums reverberating against a bruised skeleton, and continue swimming in the blind hope of finding air.
In my hands, clenched tight, are the sharp-edged fragments of the things I’ve crumbled recently. Held tightest, of course, is my first love, stubbornly carving new lines into my palms. Were a psychic to study them, I know, she would immediately whisper his name.
Weeks later, the playlist will expand, songs suddenly tinged by passionate rebirth. The early stirrings of golden fire amongst the ashes. Falling in love will be a reckless endeavor, there in the age of broken breathing, but I’ll get up and run nonetheless. Lay Me Down by Sam Smith, Like Real People Do by Hozier, Heartbeats by José González.
On untrained legs, I will run. No direction in mind, no plan to return. Only wild, limbs-to-the-wind running, eyes wide, lips pulling slowly to a grin.
On the Eve of Everything. September of 2017, and a friend says to me, over coffee, “You’re starting to seem your old self again.” Her eyes are smiling when she says it, and she doesn’t offer any further explanation. I don’t need one; the words brush against me, and my spirit nods in response. Somewhere, in the wrecking and learning to refashion a self, I’ve found home in my being again.
I stay in the coffee shop after she leaves, grabbing a second coffee and pulling open my laptop. I glance up, bask –– for a moment –– in my surroundings. Muncie, Indiana. City of chain restaurants, high school baseball fields, and rust-covered train tracks, and, for the last three years, my home. In the last thirty-seven months, I’ve survived the crumbling of two relationships, laughed and sobbed with the most honest friends I’d ever known, fallen in love and nursed hangovers and ran miles and miles beneath all shades of sky.
Had I known all this would come beforehand, I think to myself with a grin, I might not have come at all.
In a year, I marvel to myself, life is going to look quite different. Quietly, I’ve made the decision to chase down a long-held dream after all: I’ll be moving to New York City. It will be hard, I know –– not just finding a job, but learning to make a life in a place so starkly different from the soils that nurtured my roots. If the last three years have taught me anything, it’s that that magic has a habit of showing up when we’re brave enough to risk crumbling. (If it’s taught me something else, it’s how to survive the falling apart.)
I Can Do Better Than That from The Last Five Years, All I Want is Love by A Great Big World, State of Grace by Taylor Swift, Wild Heart by Bleachers and Sara Bareilles, Hold On by the Alabama Shakes, For Forever from Dear Evan Hansen. All over the place, perhaps, but every one of them a bit fearless in their wanting.
It’s the age, I realize, of not knowing the shape of what’s coming but trusting in the shape of myself. I’ve run my hands over the old calendar pages, discovered self-doubt and compromise sprawled across too many of those boxes.
Here, now, on the eve of everything, I write, unapologetic living-out-loud splashing its way through my eardrums. I take a sip, size up the blank page, and let my fingertips begin.
WWGFH (Where We Go From Here), February of 2019, and I’m spending Valentine’s Day weekend back in Muncie with my best friend. We’re sitting, now, in the coffee shop where we decided to be friends. I remember that day, the way my voice broke telling him about how I was carrying my grief, the way he bared something heavy he was carrying. His friendship is home to me; I don’t have to think about how to move here.
This summer, I’ll turn 30, and my life story will turn a page unto a new decade. My twenties have been nothing like I imagined them, though –– in retrospect –– they’ve brought exactly the kind of story I’d hoped for: I’ve fallen in love, more than once, figured out how to be myself without apology, gathered the most spectacular array of friends (people who show up for me in capital letters), rediscovered the joy of family, found my way back to myself. I moved to New York City, something that would have made a 19-year-old me drop his jaw, and I’ve begun carving out a story there. I imagine my thirties will play out much the same way, the broad strokes making sense but all the smaller details a wild surprise.
What do you chase after once you’ve scaled your big mountain? For me, that’s been the riddle tugging at my heart these days. What is it I want, really, and am I willing to run after it?
As I’m sitting here, Another Sad Love Song by Khalid is playing through my headphones. Next will be Delicate by Taylor Swift, then Work Out by Chance the Rapper, then perhaps Adore by Amy Shark and Rainbow by Kacey Musgraves. No clear through thread, save for the unrepentant commitment to feeling it all.
In a few years, this playlist will bring me right back here, and I’ll have a clearer idea of what this chapter gave me for the road. For now, I’m listening, eyes and heart open, and I’m typing my best guesses onto every blank and waiting page.